Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, 16 March 1926. Education: Attended Irvington High School, Irvington, New Jersey. Family: Married 1) the singer Patti Palmer, 1944 (divorced), six children: Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris, Anthony,
Films as Actor:
My Friend Irma (George Marshall) (as Seymour)
At War with the Army (Walker) (as Pfc. Alvin Korwin); My Friend Irma Goes West (Walker) (as Seymour); The Milkman (Barton) (as milkman)
That's My Boy (Walker) (as Junior Jackson); Sailor Beware (Walker) (as Melvin Jones)
Road to Bali (Walker) (cameo); Jumping Jacks (Taurog) (as Hap Smith)
The Stooge (Taurog—produced in 1951) (title role); The Caddy (Taurog) (title role); Money from Home (George Marshall) (as Virgil Yokum); Scared Stiff (George Marshall) (as Myron Myron Mertz)
Living It Up (Taurog) (as Homer Flagg); Three Ring Circus ( Jerrico, the Wonder Clown ) (Pevney) (as Jerry Hotchkiss)
You're Never Too Young (Taurog) (as Wilbur Hoolick); Artists and Models (Tashlin) (as Eugene Fullstack)
Pardners (Taurog) (as Wade Kingsley Jr./Wade Kingsley Sr.); Hollywood or Bust (Tashlin) (as Malcolm Smith)
The Delicate Delinquent (McGuire) (as Sidney Pythias, + pr); The Sad Sack (George Marshall) (as Bixby)
Rock-a-Bye-Baby (Tashlin) (as Clayton Poole, + pr); The Geisha Boy (Tashlin) (title role, + pr)
L'il Abner (Frank) (cameo); Don't Give Up the Ship (Taurog) (as John Paul Steckler)
Visit to a Small Planet (Taurog) (as Kreton); Cinderfella (Tashlin) (title role, + pr)
It'$ Only Money (Tashlin) (as Lester March)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer) (cameo as mad driver); Who's Minding the Store? (Tashlin) (as Raymond Phiffier)
The Disorderly Orderly (Tashlin) (title role)
Boeing, Boeing (Rich) (as Robert Reed)
Way . . . Way Out (Gordon Douglas) (as Peter Mattemore)
Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (Paris) (as George Lester)
Hook, Line and Sinker (George Marshall) (as Peter Ingersoll, + pr)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese) (as Jerry Langford)
Slapstick of Another Kind (Steven Paul); Par out'es Rentre? On t'a pas vue sortir (Philippe Clair); Retenez moi . . . ou je Fais un Malheur! ( To Catch a Cop ) (Michel Gerard) (as Jerry Logan); Jerry Lewis Live (Forrest)
Fight for Life (Silverstein—for TV)
Cookie (Susan Seidelman) (as Arnold Ross)
Mr. Saturday Night (Crystal) (as himself)
Arizona Dream (Kusturica) (as Leo Sweetie)
Funny Bones (Chelsom) (as George Fawkes)
Films as Director and Actor:
The Bellboy (title role, + pr, sc)
The Ladies' Man (as Herbert Herbert Heebert/Heebert's mother, + pr, co-sc); The Errand Boy (title role, + co-sc)
The Nutty Professor (as Professor Julius Kelp/Buddy Love, + co-pr, co-sc)
The Patsy (as Stanley Belt, + co-sc)
The Family Jewels (as Willard Woodward/the Peyton Brothers, + pr, co-sc)
Three on a Couch (as Christopher Pride/Warren/Ringo/Rutherford/Heather, + pr)
The Big Mouth (title role, + pr, co-sc)
Which Way to the Front? (as Brendan Byers III, + pr); One More Time (d only)
The Day the Clown Cried (not completed) (title role, + sc)
Hardly Working (as Bo Hooper, + co-sc)
Cracking Up ( Smorgasbord ) (as Warren Nefron/Dr. Perks, + co-sc)
By LEWIS: books—
The Total Filmmaker , New York, 1971.
Jerry Lewis, in Person , New York, 1982.
By LEWIS: articles—
"Mr. Lewis Is a Pussycat," interview with Peter Bodganovich, in Esquire (New York), November 1962.
"America's Uncle," interview with Axel Madsen, in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), no. 4, 1966.
"Five Happy Moments," in Esquire (New York), December 1970.
"Dialogue on Film: Jerry Lewis," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1977.
Interview with D. Rabourdin, in Cinéma (Paris), April 1980.
Interview with Serge Daney, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1983.
"Thank You Jerry Much," interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview (New York), April 1995.
"Time and Jerry," interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 20 September 1995.
"Not-so-nutty Professor of Laughs," interview with Andrew Duncan, in Radio Times (London), 12 July 1997.
On LEWIS: books—
Gehman, Richard, That Kid: The Story of Jerry Lewis , New York, 1964.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie Comedy Teams , New York, 1970.
Marx, Arthur, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself): The Story of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis , New York, 1974.
Etaix, Pierre, Croquis: Jerry Lewis , Paris, 1983.
Marchesini, Mauro, Jerry Lewis: Un comico a perdere , Verona, Italy, 1983.
Benayoun, Robert, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis: Journal ouvert, 1957–1980 , Paris, 1989.
Lewis, Patti, and Sarah Anne Coleman, I Laffed Till I Cried: Thirty-Six Years of Marriage to Jerry Lewis , Waco, Texas, 1993.
Neibaur, James L., and Ted Okuda, The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1994.
Levy, Shawn, The King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis , New York, 1996.
Saphire, Rick, Jerry Lewis in a Nutshell , Cherry Hill, 1997.
On LEWIS: articles—
Farson, Daniel, "Funny Men: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis," in Sight and Sound (London), July/September 1952.
Kass, Robert, "Jerry Lewis Analyzed," in Films in Review (New York), March 1953.
Hume, Rod, "Martin and Lewis: Are Their Critics Wrong?," in Films and Filming (London), March 1956.
Current Biography 1962 , New York, 1962.
Taylor, John, "Jerry Lewis," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1965.
Sarris, Andrew, "Editor's Eyrie," in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), no. 4, 1966.
Schickel, Richard, "Jerry Lewis Retrieves a Lost Ideal," in Life (New York), 15 July 1966.
Vialle, G., and others, "Jerry Lewis," in Image et Son (Paris), no. 278, 1973.
Coursodon, J.-P., "Jerry Lewis's Films: No Laughing Matter?," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1975.
LeBour, F., and R. DeLaroche, "Which Way to Jerry Lewis?," in Ecran (Paris), July 1976.
Shearer, H., "Telethon," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1979.
McGilligan, P., "Recycling Jerry Lewis," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1979.
Jerry Lewis Section of Casablanca (Madrid), June 1983.
Polan, Dana, "Being and Nuttiness: Jerry Lewis and the French," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1984.
Liebman, R. L., "Rabbis or Rakes, Schlemiels or Supermen? Jewish Identity in Charles Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen," in Literature Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 12, no. 3, July 1984.
"Jerry Lewis," in Film Dope (London), September 1986.
Beynaud, B., "Qui a peur de Jerry Lewis? Pas nous, pas nous," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1989.
Angeli, Michael, "God's Biggest Goof," in Esquire (New York), February 1991.
Hoberman, J., "Before There Was Scarface, There Was Rubberface," in Interview (New York), February 1993.
Rapf, Joanna E., "Comic Theory from Feminist Perspective: A Look at Jerry Lewis," in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Summer 1993.
Krutnik, Frank, "Jerry Lewis: The Deformation of the Comic," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Fall 1994.
Krutnik, Frank, "The Handsome Man and His Monkey: The Comic Bondage of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1995.
Stars (Mariembourg), Autumn 1995.
Seesslen, Georg, "Cinderfella & Big Mouth: Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), April 1996.
Greene, R., "King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis," in Boxoffice (Chicago), November 1996.
* * *
Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.
The reason for this may be that Lewis's style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed "the Kid"—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.
Lewis began his career as a borscht belt comedian and impersonator of well-known singers of the day whose voices and mannerisms he mimicked to the accompaniment of recordings. His career was going nowhere until a chance meeting with a crooner named Dean Martin, whose career was likewise stalled, led to their teaming up. Their mostly improvised act involved Lewis's manic attempts to destroy Martin's numbers by breaking him up on-stage. It was audiences who broke up; within months, Martin & Lewis was the hottest comedy team in show business. Word spread, Hollywood called, and Martin & Lewis made their screen debut low down in the cast list of My Friend Irma , a comedy based on a hit radio show of the time. The team essentially reprised its stage act in the film. Audiences felt they stole the picture, a hit, which was followed by a sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West , in which the duo was top-billed with stars John Lund and Marie Wilson. Signed to a long-term contract by Paramount, Martin & Lewis starred in more than a dozen wildly popular comedies for the studio until their celebrated split in 1956 following the appropriately titled Hollywood or Bust. Many believed their Hollywood careers would go bust without each other, but Martin & Lewis proved them wrong. Martin went on to achieve a successful solo career as a singer, actor, and television star. After The Delicate Delinquent , his first film without Martin (in which Darren McGavin stepped into the Martin straight man role), Lewis decided he no longer needed a straight man for his antics, and went solo himself.
Lewis's disenchantment with the nature of the team's screen persona was among the stated reasons for the break-up. Critic David Thomson has described the persona as that of ". . . two men at odds: Lewis seems hurt by Martin's callousness, just as Martin seems offended by the proximity of a slob." As the team's films progressed, Martin's suave and sophisticated character seemed to become increasingly scornful and unscrupulously manipulative of Lewis's nitwit character, whose antics escalated into an insufferably annoying plague on both their houses. But some critics have voiced another possible reason for the split: Lewis's ambivalent desire to be like Martin and simultaneous hostility toward him. These critics have pointed to Lewis's The Nutty Professor (1963) as a not-so-subtle expression of this inner war. In the film—a comic take on Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Lewis starred in, co-wrote and directed—he plays a nerdy, lovesick chemistry professor in the "Kid" mold and the alter-ego he unleashes with his magic formula: suave singer and lounge lizard Buddy Love, a character viewed as a vicious takeoff on Martin. Later, in Boeing, Boeing , a romantic farce co-starring Tony Curtis, Lewis ironically played the more subdued, straight man role, a role Dean Martin could easily have stepped in himself, so there may be some validity to the critics' assessment.
Lewis's most important collaboration after the break-up with Martin was with Frank Tashlin, a former Warner Brothers cartoon director turned feature filmmaker, whose satiric style and eye for the cartoonlike, belly-laugh sight gag strongly influenced Lewis's subsequent career and own directorial approach. Lewis made two films for Tashlin with Martin ( Artists and Models, Hollywood or Bust ) and six without, arguably the best of which is Rock-a-Bye-Baby (1958), a remake of the Preston Sturges classic The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944).
Lewis turned to directing with The Bellboy (1960), hailed by French critics as Lewis's breakthrough film and funniest movie to date. It was quickly followed by The Ladies' Man and The Errand Boy (both 1961), then The Nutty Professor , which the French named the best picture of the year and Lewis's masterpiece—his intervening films with Tashlin notwithstanding. By 1965, Lewis was being deified by the French as the greatest comic artist since Buster Keaton, an inapt comparison on a number of levels. For one thing, Lewis's increasing penchant for inserting pathos and the occasional "message" into his work was less like Keaton than Chaplin, whose career Lewis seemed bent most in emulating. Unlike Chaplin, however, Lewis's scenes of pathos tend to be more mawkish than tear-jerkingly sentimental.
Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried (1972), a seriocomic look at the Holocaust from the perspective of a Jewish comic imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, remains his most ambitious attempt to emulate Chaplin. Whether he succeeded or not we still do not know as the film has yet to be released due to legal entanglements with its backers. The debacle apparently crushed Lewis's spirits for a time; he did not make another film until 1979's aptly titled Hardly Working , a critically scorned (in America) but commercial hit.
Since then, Lewis has chosen to remain in the public mind primarily as host of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, an annual charitable rite with which he has been associated for years. His film performances have mostly been for other directors, the most notable being Martin Scorsese, in whose 1983 The King of Comedy Lewis undertook his first dramatic role as a late night television talk show entertainer in the vein of Johnny Carson stalked by an ambitious fan. Lewis's performance garnered well-deserved accolades not just in France, but, at last, in the United States as well. In 1995 he made his Broadway debut as the devil in a revival of the musical comedy Damn Yankees and was similarly acclaimed. Perhaps these two atypical roles, and the impressive kudos he received for his performances in them, auger better things to come for the indominatable "Kid" in his native land.