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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                      March, 19 1996 V4, #51
All the News the Big Guys Missed

Jerry Lewis: The Boy and the Man

By Chuck Rich (VOA-Washington)

When American movie audiences met Jerry Lewis in the 1949 comedy "My Friend Irma," he was 23 years old... and had already been in show business for 18 years: "I had my first tux on at the age of five, performed with my mom and dad. I was as mischievous then as I am now."

Back then his name was Joseph Levitch. He was born in Newark, NJ, on March 16, 1926. Much of Joseph's childhood was lonely; his parents were traveling entertainers who often left him with relatives. He quit high school to concentrate on performing. One of his early specialties was a "record act," in which he matched his own comic gestures and facial expressions to recordings of other people's songs. Taking the stage name Jerry Lewis, he remained a little-known entertainer until 1946, when he formed a stage act with singer Dean Martin.

The contrast between handsome, charming Dean and awkward and uninhibited Jerry was a hit with audiences. And so was their 1949 movie debut, in "My Friend Irma."

Martin and Lewis were only supporting characters in "My Friend Irma," but, in show business terms, they "stole" the movie. Filmgoers liked them so much that over the next seven years, the team starred in "At War with the Army," "The Caddy," "Artists and Models" and a dozen other pictures.

From 1949 to 1956, Martin and Lewis were everywhere: in movies; as frequent hosts of television's "Colgate Comedy Hour"; and on nightclub and theater stages in New York and other cities.

In October 1956, Jerry Lewis branched out into a direction many of his fans did not expect. He recorded an album as a "straight" or non-comedic singer. There were no jokes, just music, and it was titled, appropriately, "Jerry Lewis Just Sings." A number of its songs had been identified with one of his favorite entertainers: the late Al Jolson.

"Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" went to number 10 on the record charts, and "Jerry Lewis Just Sings" reached number three on the album listings. Jerry Lewis had been accepted as a single performer, with or without comedy.

With his solo projects, Jerry Lewis became increasingly involved behind the camera, often producing his own films and sometimes writing and directing them. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin and other comic filmmakers, he often combined imaginative physical humor with sentiment. Lewis's characters were often variations on a theme: innocent, well-intentioned, clumsy, inarticulate, and, perhaps most of all, silly.

"The Nutty Professor," in 1963, was something of a departure for Lewis. He played two roles, in effect: one of them a shy, socially inept chemist, scolded here by a college dean because of one of his strange experiments.

In France, where Lewis found support among a growing number of critics, "The Nutty Professor" was known as "Doctor Jerry and Mister Love." Even tougher critics in the United States tended to regard it as his best work. After the 1960s, Jerry Lewis's movie output declined. But ever since then, he's kept busy on the stage and television, given lectures on cinema, and continued his longtime efforts as chairman of MDA, the national Muscular Dystrophy Association. Throughout each year, and especially on his Labor Day telethon in early September, Lewis raises tens of millions of dollars to fight muscular dystrophy and other neuromuscular diseases. He's never revealed why he chose MDA; he's indicated that it chose him.

At age 69, Jerry Lewis fulfilled his father's dream for him and became a Broadway star: In 1995, Lewis joined a New York revival of the musical play, "Damn Yankees."

Playing the devil, Lewis gave new life to "Damn Yankees," is now touring the country with it, and plans to take it overseas. Married for the second time and the father of a small child, the perpetual nine-year-old feels as young as ever.

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