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Comedy Legend Jerry Lewis Dead at 91 - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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American comedy legend Jerry Lewis passed away on Sunday at the age of 91, his family announced.

He died of end-stage heart disease Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg said on Monday.

Lewis parlayed his distinctive style of low-brow comedy into a long-running movie and stage career. He also became a fund-raising powerhouse with his annual Labor Day telethon.

He had been hospitalized for about five weeks beginning in early June for a urinary tract infection, keeping him from traveling to Toronto to appear in a film, his spokeswoman, Candi Cazau, told Reuters by telephone.

Lewis rose to fame as the goofy foil to suave partner Dean Martin. At home, he was both loved and derided, while in France, he became a comic icon.

He once summed up his career by saying “I’ve had great success being a total idiot” and said the key was maintaining a certain child-like quality.

He was the classic funnyman who longed to play “Hamlet.” He cried as hard as he laughed. He sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book “The Total Film-Maker.”

“I believe, in my own way, that I say something on film. I’m getting to those who probably don’t have the mentality to understand what … ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is all about, plus many who did understand it,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”

Jim Carrey, an actor whose style owed a heavy debt to Lewis, paid tribute to the comedian soon after news of his death.

“That fool was no dummy,” Carrey wrote. “Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy’s absolute! I am because he was!”

Lewis was 87 when his last movie, “Max Rose,” came out in 2013, playing a jazz pianist who questions his marriage after learning his wife of 65 years may have been unfaithful.

The son of vaudeville entertainers, Lewis became a star in the early 1950s as Martin’s comic sidekick in nightclubs, on television and in 16 movies. At their height, they set off the kind of fan hysteria that once surrounded Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.

Their decade-long partnership ended with a bitter split and Lewis went on to star in his own film comedies.

Lewis’ movie persona, like the character he created in the act with Martin, varied little from film to film. He was zany and manic, forever squealing, grimacing and flailing his way through situations beyond his control.

He starred in more than 45 films in a career spanning five decades. His cross-eyed antics often drew scorn from critics but he was for a time a box-office hit who commanded one of the biggest salaries in Hollywood.

Long after his celebrity faded at home, Lewis was wildly popular in France, where he was hailed as “le Roi du Crazy” (the king of crazy) and inducted into the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, in 1984. He received a similar honor in 2006.

He explained his popularity in France, by saying: “The French are very visually oriented even though they are cerebral. They enjoy what they see and laugh. Then, later, they ask why.”

Lewis, born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, started on upstate New York’s Borscht Belt comedy circuit as a singer at age 5.

He first teamed with the debonair Martin in 1946 while they were performing in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, nightclub – Martin as a singer and Lewis as a comic.

Their largely improvised act, with Lewis making wild comic forays into the audience, was an immediate hit. Their 1950 movie debut, “My Friend Irma,” was followed by “My Friend Irma Goes West” the next year.

Their relationship soured, however, and by the time they made their last movie together, “Hollywood or Bust,” they reportedly were not speaking. They parted after a 1956 nightclub show, 10 years to the day after they first teamed.

The split reportedly stemmed from personality conflicts and Lewis’ interest in producing and directing movies. Others attributed it to Lewis’ ego and need for control, as well as a desire for approval from the often-remote Martin.

They reunited in 1976 when Sinatra brought Martin onstage during the muscular dystrophy telethon and they remained friends until Martin’s 1995 death.

Since Martin died, “not a day has passed that Jerry did not think of Dean,” Cazau told Reuters.

In 1960, Lewis made his movie directorial debut with “The Bellboy” and starred in the storybook parody “Cinderfella.” Three years later, he starred in his most popular movie, the self-directed “Nutty Professor,” playing a nerdy academic who makes a potion that turns him into the obnoxiously hip Buddy Love.

Lewis became closely associated with his annual Labor Day telethon to benefit children with muscular dystrophy. He first started doing telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1952 before retiring from the job in 2011.

His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honor he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul.”

Cazau said that from their inception in 1966 his Labor Day telethons had raised $2.45 billion over some 45 years.

Lewis had a movie revival in 1982, winning acclaim as an arrogant talk show host kidnapped by an obsessed fan in “The King of Comedy.” He scored another late-career triumph with his 1995 Broadway debut in a revival of “Damn Yankees” and appeared in the film “Funny Bones” that same year.

Lewis was beset for years by numerous ailments, including heart attacks, an inflammatory lung disorder and chronic back pain caused by pratfalls earlier in his career.

Lewis had homes in Las Vegas and San Diego. He had six sons with singer Patti Palmer, including Gary of the rock group Gary Lewis and the Playboys. After a divorce, Lewis married SanDee Pitnick in 1983, with whom he adopted a daughter.

“When the truth comes down to the truth, I am so grateful that I’m on that stage or in front of that camera,” Lewis told The Associated Press in 2016. “To have a career that I had in film, I’m so grateful for it. I don’t take advantage of it. I don’t use it improperly. And I love the fact that there’s nowhere I can go where people don’t know me.”

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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