Tribute: Jerry Lewis

Posted on August 20, 2017 at 7:36 pm

We mourn the loss of one of the great figures of 20th century entertainment, Jerry Lewis, a performer who was at the top in nightclubs, movies, radio, and television. He was a successful and innovative director of film as well.

He was an extraordinarily gifted physical comedian.

He liked to describe his act with Dean Martin as “the handsome man and the monkey.”

After Martin left him, Lewis was devastated. In one of his most successful solo films, “The Nutty Professor,” a sort of reverse Jeckyll and Hyde story, he essentially played both roles.

Lewis became a director who learned every technical aspect of filmmaking, down to loading the camera. He invented the instant video feedback system that is now standard.

He was also a superb dramatic actor, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy,” playing a kidnapped talk show host, opposite Robert de Niro.

He was also a tireless, if sometimes controversial, fundraiser for muscular dystrophy with annual Labor Day telethons.

Shawn Levy’s insightful book, King of Comedy: The Life and Art Of Jerry Lewis, has the best description I’ve seen of the complicated relationship between Lewis and his audience. His talent could be overwhelmed by his voracious need for attention and his barely hidden hostility. He had a rare combination of ferocious commitment to entertaining, putting everything he had into it, but holding a great deal back, never showing us who he really was, as any truly great entertainer should do.
But at his best, with Martin and working with director Frank Tashlin, he was as good as it gets.

May his memory be a blessing.

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