This week, Ira Sternberg spoke with Jerry Lewis, PART TWO.
Entertainment legend and Academy Award® winner Jerry Lewis recently performed “An Evening with Jerry Lewis” at the Smith Center. It was a blend of stand-up comedy, gags, trademark vignettes, songs, and big-screen video montages of the Academy Award winner’s most memorable and hilarious feature film moments.
Some highlights of Lewis’ long and successful career:
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”.
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.
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.
Lewis 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.
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.
On February 22, 1998 Jerry received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The American Comedy Awards.
In 1999, Lewis 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 he 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.