King of Comedy
Playing a hyperactive knucklehead, Jerry Lewis was half of the hottest comedy duo in America and went on to become a renowned (in France, anyway) filmmaker, not to mention host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Labor Day telethon for 44 years. Here, to mark his 91st birthday, are 20 things you may not know about the showbiz legend.
He Got a Very Early Start
Born Joseph Levitch in 1926, Jerry Lewis began performing at the age of five in the Catskills, where he shared the stage with his father, a vaudeville entertainer who went by the name Danny Lewis. As Jerry recalls, the first song he sang before an audience was the Depression-era anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."
Photo by Fred Sabine
He Met Einstein
Before he teamed up with Dean Martin, Jerry made his TV debut on a local variety show broadcast in New Jersey. Afterward, he and two other performers were taken to Princeton to meet Professor Albert Einstein, who told the high school dropout, "You did a good job, young man."
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Martin & Lewis Were Nearly Fired
Jerry and Dean became fast friends while performing separately at a New York nightclub and then, on July 24, 1946, debuted as a duo in Atlantic City. They bombed. Told they'd be fired if the act didn't improve by the second show, the pair decided to wing it. Their wild combination of music, ad-lib and slapstick killed—and they went on to become the hottest act in America. Martin & Lewis' secret: Ignore the audience and play to each other.
Photo by Elmer Holloway
Jerry Hooked Up With Marilyn
Or so he claims. In 2011, Jerry Lewis told GQ that, contrary to popular belief, John F. Kennedy never had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. "I'm telling you what I know. Never!" Lewis insisted. "And the only reason I know is because I did."
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The Duo Lasted Exactly 10 Years
Martin & Lewis were guests on the first-ever "Ed Sullivan Show," co-starred in 17 movies and appeared in magazine photo shoots with up-and-comers like Audrey Hepburn. DC Comics even published a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comic book. But there was increasing friction between the two—Dean told Jerry he was "nothing to me but a dollar sign"—and they split up in July 1956, on the 10th anniversary of their first performance.
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Jerry Turned Down "Some Like It Hot"
The role of a jazz musician in the now-beloved comedy would seem like a natural for Lewis, but he didn't want to dress in drag, and the part ended up going to Jack Lemmon. After that, whenever Jerry ran into Billy Wilder, the "Some Like It Hot" director greeted him with a single word: "Schmuck!"
Photo by Ralph Morse
He Was a Top-Speed Multitasker
Unlike Dean Martin, who enjoyed golf and liked to kick back, Jerry Lewis was a workaholic who never slowed down. The first feature film he directed was 1960's "The Bellboy." Casting himself in the title role, he wrote the screenplay in eight days and, as producer, made sure the filming was completed in less than a month.
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Yes, the French Really Love Him
The famously intellectual film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma ranked "The Nutty Professor" No. 7 on its 1963 Top 10 list, placing Lewis' Jekyll-and-Hyde comedy three notches above Fellini's "8 1/2." New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard called Jerry "the only American director who has made progressive films. He is much better than Chaplin and Keaton."
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
And Jerry Loves Them Back
The man known in France as "the King of Crazy"—seen here photographing Catherine Deneuve at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival—often traveled overseas to lift his spirits. When he was awarded the Legion of Honor in 2006, Lewis attended the ceremony in slippers and kept yawning and checking his watch during the culture minister's 20-minute speech. The audience cheered. "The French people are the best in the world," Jerry said afterward.
Photo by Ralph Gatti
Jerry and Patti Were Married for 36 (Not Entirely Happy) Years
She was a singer when they met in 1944. After their 1980 divorce, Patti Lewis wrote the tell-all "I Laffed Till I Cried," which depicted her husband as a wildly moody philanderer and spendthrift who was hooked on Percodan. A decade earlier, Jerry had published his own book, "The Total Film-maker," with the dedication: "To Patti, whose love, patience and wisdom never diminished while waiting for me to grow up."
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
His Son Had a String of Hits
Jerry's oldest son became the front man for Gary Lewis & the Playboys, which released seven Top 10 singles in two years, starting in 1965 with "This Diamond Ring." (The No. 1 hit was written by Al Cooper, better known that year as Dylan's keyboardist on "Like a Rolling Stone.") Cash Box magazine named Gary Lewis Male Vocalist of the Year, favoring him over nominees including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
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The Antics Never Stopped
"I get paid for what most kids get punished for," said Lewis, who compulsively clowned around both on and off camera. His wife Patti recalled him covering his teeth with brownies during a family meal and jumping into the pool outside their 31-room mansion with his clothes on.
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Jerry Has a Thing About Socks
Jerry Lewis never wears the same pair twice. On an extensive promotional tour in the 1960s, according to a 1996 biography, he packed 192 pairs of white and black socks. He's said to change his socks four times a day.
Photo by Herb Ball/NBC
He Got a Hit in the Astrodome
Lewis—seen here in a Dodgers uniform during the filming of "The Geisha Boy"—got a base hit off Detroit Tigers pitcher Mike Strahler in a 1973 exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome. Detroit manager Billy Martin was not amused.
Photo by Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Jerry and Dean Finally Reconciled—Years After This
The estranged partners spoke to each other for the first time in ages when Frank Sinatra arranged a surprise reunion on the Jerry Lewis Telethon in 1976. But they didn't truly reconcile until 1987, after Dean's son Dino Jr. was killed in a plane crash. When he learned that Jerry had discreetly attended the funeral, Dean gave him a call. Says Jerry, "We talked for about an hour. He cried, I cried. I said, "Life's too short, my friend.'"
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Jerry Was Nominated for a Nobel Prize
For his devotion to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Jerry Lewis—seen here breaking down in tears on Labor Day 1977 after contributions passed $26 million—was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Over the years, Lewis hosted 44 annual telethons, raising nearly $2.5 billion. For reasons that remain unclear, the MDA fired him in 2011.
He Taught Spielberg
Jerry taught a class in movie directing at the University of Southern California, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were among the fledgling filmmakers who signed up. Not that Lewis thought Spielberg and Lucas needed his help. "They were in my class, but I doubt that they learned anything from me," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "They were well equipped at the time they came into the class."
Scorcese Took His Advice (Though Not Always)
Jerry Langford, the talk show host played by Jerry Lewis in 1983's "King of Comedy," was originally called Bobby. Lewis suggested the name change so that director Martin Scorsese could use footage of non-actors who recognized him on the street. He also proposed a darker ending in which Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kills Jerry, but Scorsese didn't go for it.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
He Packs an Oscar in His Carry-On
Although he never won a competitive Oscar, the Academy honored Jerry Lewis with an humanitarian award in 2009. A few months later, he showed up at the Cannes Film Festival carrying the Oscar statuette in a duffle bag. "I watch it all day," he told a reporter. "If I'm home, I keep watching it. I keep it on top of the television set."
Photo by Kurt Krieger
"I don't want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them."
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