Nationality: American. Born: Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, 16 March 1926. Education: Irvington High School, New Jersey, through tenth grade. Family: Married 1) singer Patti Palmer, 1944 (divorced 1982), five sons; 2) Sandra Pitnick, 1983, one adopted daughter. Career: Stage debut in 1931; developed comic routines and attracted Irving Kaye as manager, 1942; began working with Dean Martin at Atlantic City club, 1946; with Martin, signed by Hal Wallis for Paramount, 1948; acted in first feature, also founded production company to direct series of pastiches of Hollywood films (later Jerry Lewis Productions), 1949; chairman of Muscular Dystrophy Association of America, raising funds from annual telethons, from 1952; started solo career, 1956; signed seven-year contract with Paramount-York, 1959; after abandonment of The Day the Clown Cried , left
Films as Director:
Fairfax Avenue (short pastiche of Sunset Boulevard ); A Spot in the Shade (short pastiche of A Place in the Sun ); Watch on the Lime (pastiche); Come Back, Little Shicksa (pastiche); Son of Lifeboat (pastiche); The Re-Inforcer (pastiche); Son of Spellbound (pastiche); Melvin's Revenge (pastiche); I Should Have Stood in Bedlam (pastiche of From Here to Eternity ); The Whistler (pastiche)
The Bellboy (+ sc, pr, role as Stanley)
The Ladies' Man (+ sc, pr, roles as Herbert H. Heebert and his mother, Mrs. Heebert); The Errand Boy (+ sc, role as Morty S. Tachman)
The Nutty Professor (+ sc, roles as Julius F. Kelp and Buddy Love)
The Patsy (+ sc, role as Stanley Belt)
The Family Jewels (+ pr, sc, roles as Willard Woodward, Uncle James Peyton, Uncle Eddie Peyton, Uncle Julius Peyton, Uncle Shylock Peyton, Uncle Bugs Peyton)
Three on a Couch (+ pr, roles as Christopher Prise, Warren, Ringo Raintree, Rutherford, Heather)
The Big Mouth (+ pr, sc, roles as Gerald Clamson, Sid Valentine)
One More Time ; Which Way to the Front? (+ pr, roles as Brendan Byers III, Kesselring)
The Day the Clown Cried (+ principal role) (not released)
Hardly Working (+ sc, principal role)
Cracking Up ( Smorgasbord ) (+ sc, principal role)
Good Grief (series for TV)
Super Force (series for TV)
My Friend Irma (Marshall) (role as Seymour)
My Friend Irma Goes West (Walker) (role as Seymour)
At War with the Army (Walker) (role as Soldier Korwin); That's My Boy (Walker) (role as "Junior" Jackson)
Sailor Beware (Walker) (role as Melvin Jones); Jumping Jacks (Taurog) (role as Hap Smith)
The Stooge (Taurog) (role as Ted Rogers); Scared Stiff (Marshall) (role as Myron Myron Mertz); The Caddy (Taurog) (role as Harvey Miller)
Money from Home (Marshall) (role as Virgil Yokum); Living It Up (Taurog) (role as Homer Flagg); Three Ring Circus (Pevney) (role as Jerry Hotchkiss)
You're Never Too Young (Taurog) (role as Wilbur Hoolick); Artists and Models (Tashlin) (role as Eugene Fullstack)
Pardners (Taurog) (role as Wade Kingsley Jr.); Hollywood or Bust (Tashlin) (role as Malcolm Smith)
The Delicate Delinquent (McGuire) (pr, role as Sidney Pythias); The Sad Sack (Marshall) (role as Meredith T. Bixby); The Geisha Boy (Tashlin) (pr, role as Gilbert Wooley)
Rock-a-Bye Baby (Tashlin) (pr, role as Clayton Poole)
Don't Give up the Ship (Taurog) (role as John Paul Steckley VII)
Visit to a Small Planet (Taurog) (role as Kreton); Cinderfella (Tashlin) (pr, role as Fella); Li'l Abner (Frank) (brief appearance)
It's Only Money (Tashlin) (role as Lester March)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World (Kramer) (role as man who drives over Culpepper's hat); Who's Minding the Store? (Tashlin) (role as Raymond Phiffier)
The Disorderly Orderly (Tashlin) (role as Jerome Littlefield)
Boeing Boeing (Rich) (role as Robert Reed)
Way Way Out (Douglas) (role as Peter Matamore)
Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (Paris), (role as George Lester)
Hook, Line, and Sinker (Marshall) (pr, role as Peter Ingersoll, alias Dobbs)
Rascal Dazzle (doc) (narration)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese) (role as Jerry Langford); Slapstick (Paul) (role)
Retenex-moi . . . ou je fais un malheur ( To Catch a Cop ) (Gerard) (role as Jerry Logan); Par ou t'est rentre? On t'a pas vu sortir (Clair) (role); Slapstick of Another Kind (Paul) (role)
Cookie (Seidelman) (role)
American Dreamers (role); Mr. Saturday Night (role); Arizona Dream (role as Leo Sweetie)
Funny Bones (Chelsom) (role as George Fawkes)
The Nutty Professor (exec pr)
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (exec pr)
By LEWIS: books—
The Total Film-Maker , New York, 1971.
Jerry Lewis in Person , New York, 1982.
By LEWIS: articles—
"Mr. Lewis Is a Pussycat," interview with Peter Bogdanovich, in Esquire (New York), November 1962.
"America's Uncle: Interview with Jerry Lewis," with Axel Madsen, in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), no. 4, 1966.
Interview in Directors at Work , edited by Bernard Kantor and others, New York, 1970.
"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.
"The King of Comedy," an interview with T. Jousse and V. Ostria, in Cahiers du Cinéma , July/August 1993.
"Thank You Jerry Much," an interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview , April 1995.
"Time and Jerry," an interview with Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 20 September 1995.
"Jerry Lewis on Writing, Directing, and Starring in the Original Version of The Nutty Professor ," with S. Biodrowski, in Cinefantastique (Forest Park), no. 3, 1996.
"Not-so-nutty Professor of Laughs," an 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.
Simsolo, Noel, Le Monde de Jerry Lewis , Paris, 1969.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie Comedy Teams , New York, 1970.
Recasens, Gerard, Jerry Lewis , Paris, 1970.
Marx, Arthur, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself): The Story of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis , New York, 1974.
Cremonini, Giogio, Jerry Lewis , Firenza, 1979.
Marchesini, Mauro, Jerry Lewis: Un comico a perdere , Verona, 1983.
Benayoun, Robert, Bonjour Monsieur Lewis: journal ouvert, 1957–1980 , Paris, 1989.
Lewis, Patti, I Laffed 'til I Cried: Thirty-six Years of Marriage to Jerry Lewis , Waco, Texas, 1993.
Neibaur, James L., The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1995.
Levy, Shawn, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis , New York, 1996.
Krutnik, Frank, Inventing Jerry Lewis , Washington, 2000.
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.
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.
Camper, Fred, "Essays in Visual Style," in Cinéma (London), no. 8, 1971.
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.
Bukatman, S., "Paralysis in Motion: Jerry Lewis's Life as a Man," in Camera Obscura , May 1988.
Reynaud, B., "Qui a peur de Jerry Lewis? Pas nous, pas nous," in Cahiers du Cinéma , February 1989.
Kruger, Barbara, "Remote Control," in Artforum , November 1989.
Bukatman, S., "Session: Jerry Lewis," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies , no. 4, 1989.
Selig, Michael, "The Nutty Professor: A 'Problem' in Film Scholarship," in Velvet Light Trap , Fall 1990.
Angeli, Michael, "God's Biggest Goof," in Esquire , February 1991.
Woodcock, J. M., "The Name Dropper Drops Jerry Lewis, Part I," in American Cinemeditor , no. 3, 1991.
Hoberman, J., "Before There Was 'Scarface' There Was . . . Rubberface," in Interview , February 1993.
Bolte, Bill, "Jerry's Got to Be Kidding," in Utne Reader , March 1993.
Wolff, C., "Highs, Lows, Joy, and Regret, All in a Single Day's Living," in New York Times , 5 August 1993.
Rapf, Joanna E., "Comic Theory from a Feminist Perspective: A Look at Jerry Lewis," in Journal of Popular Culture , Summer 1993.
Bennetts, Leslie, "Letter from Las Vegas: Jerry vs. the Kids" in Vanity Fair , September 1993.
Krutnik, Frank, "Jerry Lewis: The Deformation of the Comic," in Film Quarterly , Fall 1994.
Haller, Beth, "The Misfit and Muscular Dystrophy," in Journal of Popular Film and Television , Winter 1994.
Krutnik, F., "The Handsome Man and His Monkey," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), no. 1, 1995.
Castro, Peter, "Hellza Poppin," in People Weekly , 27 March 1995.
Krutnik, Frank, "The Handsome Man and His Monkey: The Comic Bondage of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis," in Journal of Popular Film and Television , Spring 1995.
Stars (Mariembourg), Autumn 1995.
Seesslen, Georg, "Cinderfella & Big Mouth. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), April 1996.
Mago (Max Goldstein), "Souvenirs d'un film qui n'est jamais sorti," in Positif (Paris), May 1998.
* * *
In France, Jerry Lewis is called "Le Roi de Crazy" and adulated as a genius by filmmakers as respectable as Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. In America, Jerry Lewis is still an embarrassing and unexplained paradox, often ridiculed, awaiting a persuasive critical champion. This incredible gulf can in part be explained by American access, on television talk shows and Lewis's annual muscular dystrophy telethon, to Lewis's contradictory public persona: egotistical yet insecure, insulting yet sentimental, juvenile yet adult, emotionally naked yet defensive. Were not the real Lewis apparently so hard to love, the celluloid Lewis might be loved all the more. And yet a Lewis cult thrives among American cinephiles; and certainly The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor , and Which Way to the Front? appear today to be among the most interesting and ambitious American films of the 1960s.
Lewis's career can be divided into four periods: first, the partnership with singer Dean Martin, which resulted in a successful nightclub act and popular series of comedies, including My Friend Irma and At War with the Army , as well as several highly regarded films directed by former cartoonist and Lewis mentor Frank Tashlin; second (after professional and personal tensions fueled by Lewis's artistic ambitions irrevocably destroyed the partnership), an apprenticeship as a solo comedy star, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent and continuing through Tashlin's Cinderfella ; third, the period as the self-professed "total filmmaker," inaugurated in 1960 with The Bellboy and followed by a decade of Lewis films directed by and starring Lewis, which attracted the attention of auteurist critics in France and overwhelming box-office response in America, culminating with a string of well-publicized financial failures, including Which Way to the Front? and the unreleased, near-mythical The Day the Clown Cried , in which clown Lewis leads Jewish children to Nazi ovens; and finally, the period as valorized, if martyred auteur, exemplified by Lewis's work as an actor in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Lewis's sporadic, unsuccessful attempts to reestablish his own directorial career. Lewis's appeal is significantly rooted in the American silent film tradition of the individual comedian: like Chaplin, Lewis is interested in pathos and sentiment; like Keaton, Lewis is fascinated by the comic gag which could only exist on celluloid; like Harry Langdon, Lewis exhibits, within an adult persona, childish behavior which is often disturbing and embarrassing; like Stan Laurel, whose first name Lewis adopts as an homage in several of his films, Lewis is the lovable innocent often endowed with almost magical qualities. What Lewis brings uniquely to this tradition, however, is his obsession with the concept of the schizophrenic self; his typical cinema character has so many anxieties and tensions that it must take on other personalities in order to survive. Often, the schizophrenia becomes overtly autobiographical, with the innocent, gawky kid escaping his stigmatized existence by literally becoming "Jerry Lewis," beloved and successful comedian (as in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy ) or romantic leading man, perhaps representing the now absent Dean Martin (as in The Nutty Professor ). Jerry Lewis's physical presence on screen in his idiot persona emphasizes movement disorders in a way which relates provocatively to his highly publicized work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Schizophrenia is compounded in The Family Jewels: what Jean-Pierre Coursodon calls Lewis's "yearning for self-obliteration" is manifested in seven distinct personalities. Ultimately, Lewis escapes by turning himself into his cinema, as evidenced by the credits in his failed comeback film, which proudly announce: "Jerry Lewis is . . . Hardly Working. " This element of cinematic escape and schizophrenia is especially valued by the French, who politicize it as a manifestation of the human condition as influenced by American capitalism.
Much must also be said about the strong avant-garde qualities to Lewis's work: his interest in surrealism; his experimentalism and fascination with self-conscious stylistic devices; his movement away from conventional gags toward structures apparently purposely deformed; his interest in plotlessness and ellipsis; the reflexivity of his narrative; his studied use of extended silence and gibberish in a sound cinema; the ambiguous sexual subtext of his work; and finally, his use of film as personal revelation.
The last decade has seen a slight diminution of Lewis's reputation as a director (Lewis having directed television situation comedies, but no features), but an augmentation of his reputation as an actor and icon. His King of Comedy appearance now seems definitely a major performance in the American cinema, as does the Scorsese film a major statement about the American lust for celebrity. Ever since that film, a variety of younger directors have used Lewis as icon and/or as reflexive comment on the Lewis career. Perhaps Lewis's most interesting showcase is his 1995 performance as a Las Vegas comedian in Funny Bones , directed by Peter Chelsom. It is hard not to see Funny Bones as a deadly look at the Las Vegas side of the Lewis persona, complete with the jazzy Sinatra score and the institutional insincerity: Lewis is the funny father who overshadows his psychologically wounded and relatively untalented son, his own celebrity having a dark, depressing underside and a deleterious effect on family life.
Lewis as George Fawkes admits that he was not true to his talent and confesses, "It kills me that I used writers, instead of using me." The film's philosophy—"I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible, that didn't cause pain"—seems a natural segue to other recent events in the Lewis life: his autobiography, written in 1982, chronicled, among other things, his addiction to Percodan and his driven personality. His ex-wife, Patti Lewis, followed with her own autobiography—whose title tells it all: I Laffed 'til I Cried: Thirty-six Years of Marriage to Jerry Lewis. And although Lewis has dedicated his life to raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, he has been virulently attacked by many adults with the disease—particularly in 1992 and 1993—who claim he publicly demonstrates a patronizing, demeaning attitude and exploits them with a pity which makes their lives in society harder, not easier. Lewis responded by attacking his accusers equally virulently, thus creating great pathos and bitterness all around: yet another fold in that seamless garment which is Lewis's life and art. Comic performances in films by younger French directors added little to Lewis's reputation, but a recurring role in the TV series Wiseguy in 1989 and a triumphant Broadway appearance as the devil in Damn Yankees in 1995, which reprised all his "Jerry Lewis" shtick, have been well received. Perhaps only Lewis's death will allow any definitive American evaluation of his substantial career.