Newsletter : 6fax0319.txt
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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
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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