Legendary entertainer Jerry Lewis returns home to New Jersey to provide a retrospective of his career that features classic film clips, a Q&A session and rarely seen behind-the-scenes home movies taken by Jerry Lewis with Dean Martin.
Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, Rae and Danny Lewis, were professionals in the entertainment world. Jerry's father was the "total entertainer," his mother played piano at New York City radio station WOR, made musical arrangements, and was her husband's musical director.
When only five years old Jerry made his debut in New York's Borscht Circuit singing "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" By the time he was fifteen, he had perfected a comic routine, miming and silently mouthing lyrics of operatic and popular songs to a phonograph located off-stage. This was known as his "Record Act".
Dressed in a drape jacket and pegged pants, Jerry braved the offices of booking agents. When he finally got a booking it was at a burlesque house in Buffalo, but this hardly proved to be his big break... ready to give up in discouragement, he was advised to continue his career by a veteran burlesque comedian, Max Coleman, who had worked with Jerry's father years before. When Lewis tried out his mime act at Brown's Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, New York, the following summer... the audience was so enthusiastic that Irving Kaye, a Borscht Circuit comedian, helped the youth get further bookings. Kaye remains very close to Jerry to this day.
On July 25, 1946, Jerry began a show business partnership with Dean Martin, an association that would soon skyrocket both to fame. It started when Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City and one of the other entertainers quit suddenly. Lewis, who had worked with Martin at the Glass Hat in New York City, suggested Dean as a replacement. At first they worked separately, but then ad-libbed together, improvising insults and jokes, squirting seltzer water, hurling bunches of celery and exuding general zaniness. In less than eighteen weeks their salaries soared from $250.00 a week to $5,000.00.
When the motion picture producer Hal Wallis watched the two perform at the Copacabana in New York City, he offered them a contract with Paramount Pictures. Of their first film, "My Friend Irma" (1949), Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote: "We could go along with the laughs which were fetched by a new mad comedian, Jerry Lewis by name. This freakishly built and acting young man, who has been seen in nightclubs hereabouts with a collar-ad partner, Dean Martin, has a genuine comic quality. The swift eccentricity of his movements, the harrowing features of his face, and the squeak of his vocal protestations... have flair. His idiocy constitutes the burlesque of an idiot, which is something else again. He's the funniest thing in the picture".
For ten years Martin and Lewis sandwiched sixteen money making films between nightclub engagements, personal appearances, recording sessions, radio shows, and television bookings. Their last film together was "Hollywood or Bust" (1956). On July 25th of that year the two made their last nightclub appearance together at the Copacabana, exactly ten years to the day since they became a team.
From then on, Jerry Lewis was constantly on the move. His film career skyrocketed, and he recorded several records and albums; one of them "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody", released by Decca Records, has sold nearly four million copies to date. With increased confidence, Lewis plunged into screen writing, directing, producing as well as acting. In the spring of 1959, a contract between Paramount Pictures and Jerry Lewis Productions was signed specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over a seven year period... at that time the biggest single transaction in film history for the exclusive services of one star.
One of Jerry's lifetime loves is the game of baseball. During the 1950's and 60's Jerry played first base with numerous professional baseball teams and trained every year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gil Hodges especially became one of his very close friends.
In 1965 Jerry moved to Columbia Pictures where he produced, directed and starred in "Three On A Couch"... he then wrote, produced, directed and starred in "The Big Mouth" and "Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River." His next project was to direct Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr. in "One More Time" (a sequel to "Salt and Pepper") in England for United Artists before moving to Warner Bros. to star, produce and direct "Which Way To The Front?".
In 1967 Jerry became a professor at the University of Southern California, where he taught graduate students a course in film direction. "The Total Film-Maker", based on recordings of 480 hours of his classroom lectures, was edited by Jerry and published by Random House in 1971. The USC library also houses an extensive collection of Jerry's original documents relating to motion picture production.
A fact not widely known in the United States is that Jerry has won the Best Director of the Year award eight times in Europe since 1960; three in France, and one each in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. When "Hardly Working" opened in Paris, the marquee on the Champs Elysees simply read "JERRY". No further explanation was necessary for Jerry's French fans. The French film critic, Robert Benayoun, wrote: "I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time. He corresponds to his era both reflecting and criticising our civilization." The French director, Jean-Luc Godard, said: "Jerry Lewis is the only American director who has made progressive films, he is much better than Chaplin and Keaton."
The Times of London stated: "Quite apart from his gifts as a performer, Mr. Lewis is one of the best directors working in America today." Although Lewis is gratified by such esteem, he values the words engraved on a plaque given to him by his friend, President John F. Kennedy, and reads: "There are three things that are real... God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond our comprehension, we must do the best we can with the third."
Over the years Jerry Lewis scored triumphs in stage appearances in Europe, where he has been hailed as one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. When he played at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in the 1970's, tickets were sold out immediately. "Jerry Lewis is more than a great artist, he is a great man," stated L'Aurore.
1977 marked the year that the highest honor ever bestowed upon an entertainer, would recognize the tireless efforts Jerry Lewis has displayed since 1949, in his fight against Muscular Dystrophy. "Jerry Lewis is a man for all seasons, all people, all times. His name has, in the hearts of millions, become synonymous with peace, love and brotherhood." With those words, Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin concluded his nomination of Jerry Lewis for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to his Nobel Peace Prize nomination, Jerry has received many other honors... in 1971 the AFL-CIO presented him with the Murray-Green Award for Community Services, the highest honor the labor organization can bestow upon an American citizen. In September 1976 the United States Senate unanimously adopted a resolution of appreciation to him "For his outstanding contribution in the fight against muscular dystrophy." In June 1978 the communications industry honored him with the NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) Award of the Year for his humanitarian efforts in raising funds to combat neuromuscular disease through his annual Labor Day Telethon.
In June 1978 Lewis received the Jefferson Award for the "Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged" in special ceremonies at the Supreme Court in Washington, D. C.
In January 1980, the Touchdown Club of Washington, D. C. honored him with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Humanitarian Award. This award is given annually to an individual who best exemplifies the ideals and courage of the late Vice President.
Jerry received the Boston University School of Law's prestigious Neal Pike Prize for Service to the Handicapped in November:, 1984. The award, which was presented by Boston University President John B. Silber, "recognizes individuals who have made special contributions that have improved the lives of people with disabilities." In 1984 Jerry was inducted into the French Legion of Honor by presidential decree. Legion membership honors individuals whose accomplishment demonstrate extraordinary public service. Several months before Jerry was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters he was extolled by French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, for his "human qualities and generosity. You are a child's friend and a model for adults."
In June, 1985, the Department of Defense presented him with the highest award it can bestow upon a civilian... the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, recognizing Jerry's work in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy.
In June, 1987, Jerry was further honored when he received a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Mercy College, headquartered in Westchester, New York. Jerry, who gave the commencement address at the graduation ceremony, was described by Mercy College President Wilbur J. LeMelle as a shining example for people everywhere that one person can have an impact on society and change the world."
1988 opened with Jerry receiving the American debut of the "Award of Professionalism and Achievement" from the Eterna Watch Corporation in recognition of "outstanding humanitarian contributions and dedication to the Muscular Dystrophy Association."
One of the most successful performers in show business history, box office gross receipts of his films total about $800 million (The majority of which when movie tickets were between 25 & 50 cents apiece.) Lewis has received worldwide acclaim for his verve, style and personality. He has a fine feel for comic rhythm and possesses the unique qualities of a great clown. Critic Harriet Van Horne has called Lewis' screen image a "sort of witless genius", and Hollywood director Leo McCarey has described Lewis as the "Pied Piper of the business, the heir to the mantle of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd."
Between films, the versatile and dynamic Lewis also found time to put pen to paper and produce his biography, "Jerry Lewis, In Person" a revealing portrait of the on and off-screen man, written in conjunction with Herb Gluck.
In Director Martin Scorcese's "The King of Comedy", Jerry stars as a talk show host with Robert DeNiro as his obsessed fan. "Cracking Up" (AKA "Smorgasbord") released in 1983, employs the comedian's talent as writer, director and actor. He has starred in "To Catch A Cop" and "How Did You Get In?" filmed in Europe... he also starred in the ABC made-for-television movie, "Fight For Life", and in five episodes of the CBS-TV series "Wiseguy."
In 1990 Jerry was asked to write and direct a segment regarding children's rights for UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund). The film "Boy" that he created has become the subject of critical acclaim at film festivals around the world. In 1991, he starred in "Arizona Dream" with co-stars Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway.
In January of 1991, Jerry was surprised by the National Academy of Cable Programming when emcee Whoopi Goldberg presented him with the Comic Life Achievement Award (the "ACE" award). The telecast was seen around the world. In April of 1991, Jerry was inducted into the Broadcast Hall of Fame by the National Association of Broadcasters, at the NAB convention in Las Vegas.
In 1994 Jerry traveled to Blackpool, England to make "Funny Bones" for Hollywood Pictures. The film co-stars Oliver Platt and Leslie Caron, and was directed by Peter Chelsom. The film was applauded internationally by critics and moviegoers alike, as a unique achievement of the cinematic art form..
A dream of Jerry's had always been to play "Broadway." In the 1950's Martin & Lewis did 9 shows a day at the Paramount Theater on Broadway. Between shows they performed and threw a million photographs a week to the crowd of 75,000 fans, from their dressing room window, and were the most popular act in show business... but that was not "Broadway." In February of 1995, Jerry set foot on stage for his first performance as the star of "Damn Yankees" at the Marquis Theater on Broadway. The subsequent 185 performances were the fulfillment of that lifelong dream.
September 1995 was the beginning of the "Damn Yankees" International Tour. During its second year, the tour broke all attendance records of any previous traveling Broadway production.
During November of 1995, while the touring company of "Damn Yankees" was in Louisville, Kentucky, Jerry Lewis and Dr. Clifford Kuhn conducted the first "Laughter and Healing" seminar at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Jerry and Dr. Kuhn have engaged in remarkable dialogue with representatives from every facet of the psychiatric and medical community regarding the value of humor in the every day practice of our human condition.
On February 22, 1998 Jerry received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Comedy Awards. Later that year Jerry made 2 live performance tours of Australia and was so warmly embraced by the fans that he has committed to performing there on a continuing basis for years to come.
In 1999 Jerry dedicated much of his time to the remakes of his 1960's classics, "The Bellboy," "Cinderfella," "The Errand Boy," and "The Nutty Professor II," as well as writing and developing new film and television projects. In September of 1999 Jerry was awarded the "Golden Lion" by the Venice International Film Festival for his lifetime achievements in motion pictures. This was a great honor from the oldest film festival in Europe. Jerry continued his live performance tours, Laughter and Healing seminars and inspirational speaking engagements internationally. Jerry also established a long-term relationship with the newest and hottest comedy channel in Europe. On September 15, 1999 Jerry made his first live appearance on the COMEDIE! channel in Paris, France.
Despite all this hectic activity, Jerry gives the appearance of being ageless. Six feet in height (184cm), around 170 lb. (77kg), hazel eyes and black hair. He has five sons: Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris and Anthony, seven grandchildren, and one great granddaughter, thanks to his granddaughter Sara Jane Spence.
On February 13, 1983, Jerry married SanDee "Sam" Pitnick of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They have one daughter, Danielle Sara... who's the "light of their lives and the air in their lungs"... she was born in March of 1992.
His motion pictures, television shows, stage performances, recordings, radio programs, books, and personal appearances, have brought his unique humor and creativity to every corner of the globe. His status as one of the most recognizable people on earth, is constantly renewed by each new generation of audience who discover the fun and goodness of laughter.
Jerry Lewis has a motto that reflects more than anything else his ongoing love affair with humanity: "I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again!"