Jerry Lewis, Influential Icon

When I started looking for an interview clip with Jerry Lewis, I knew I didn’t want the infamous Hollywood Reporter interview that he made last year. You can watch the whole awkward encounter here. As much as that interview may seem like classic Jerry Lewis (he had a reputation for not being easy to work with), I wanted something a little more substantial. So, here’s a 40-minute interview that Larry King did on CNN in 1996 where the comedian talks about his life and what he’s up to now (then). Here he’s being pleasant and generous.

Jerry Lewis died two days ago at the age of 91. Born in Newark, New Jersey, little Jerry started performing with his showbiz parents at a very early age. He had a talent for physical comedy, which he developed as a teenager. In 1946, he teamed up with Dean Martin and went from nightclub acts to television to movies. Lewis was the zany funny guy next to Martin’s suave straight man. They seemed like the perfect duo to make postwar audiences laugh; none of their movies have become a major classic, but they were very good together. Artists and Models (1955), a movie they made with Shirley MacLaine, is one of their best efforts; the clip above shows a dream that Jerry is having.

Martin and Lewis stopped working together in 1956 and subsequently had very successful solo careers. Jerry continued making comedies, often directed by Frank Tashlin; he was one of the biggest, best paid stars of the 1950s. In 1960, Lewis made his directing debut with The Bellboy. His most ambitious comedy as a filmmaker was The Nutty Professor (1963), a fun, original take on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. In the clip above, the professor’s bad boy alter ego makes his first appearance.

There’s also a film that Lewis made but still hasn’t been released – The Day the Clown Cried. Filmed in 1972, the movie ran into legal problems, but Lewis has reportedly also admitted that a major reason why we haven’t seen this film, a drama that takes place in a Nazi concentration camp, is that he’s not very proud of it.

Lewis’s final few decades as a movie star weren’t terribly prolific. But we’ll certainly always remember him for Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), where the comedian played a Johnny Carson-type late-night host on TV. That role is funny – but it also showed Lewis’s considerable dramatic talents. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of that. Still, we saw plenty. Jerry Lewis was a highly influential, wildly talented comedian and actor, loved by audiences. And not just in France. One can only assume that the lack of awards is due to that simple fact that he seemed to rub people the wrong way too much of the time. Still, he also became a philanthropist and a groundbreaking activist when it came to telethons.

The most memorable television moment involving Jerry Lewis must be the one from 1976, when Frank Sinatra went behind his back, during a telethon, and reunited him with Dean Martin. The couple hadn’t talked for twenty years, their split being not entirely amicable. But this was the beginning of a reconciliation. They appeared on stage together again several times, and when Martin lost his son, Lewis was there to comfort him. Watching the totally unprepared moment in the clip above is fascinating. 

Hollywood is mourning the passing of one of its greats. Sean Hayes posted the following on Twitter:

It is certainly easy to see the comedian’s influence on Hayes, and others. Rest in peace.

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