“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Charlie Chaplin wrote that aphorism; Jerry Lewis embodied it.
The comedian, who died Sunday at 91, got his first laughs in the Catskill Mountains—the celebrated Borscht Belt—where his father, Danny Levich, had been a tummler before him. But Jerry had something Danny didn’t: a manic energy and a unique ability to play the comic loser, grabbing the audience with a hapless expression or an ungainly walk. Yiddish defines shlemihl as the man who spills the soup. A schlimazel is the man he spills it on. Jerry became a professional schlimazel.
Barely out of his teens, he linked up with Dean Martin, then the personification of Cool—smooth-singing, good-looking, and relaxed to the point of somnambulism. In contrast, Jerry was nasal, goofy, a Vesuvius of gestures and pratfalls. They rose to prominence almost overnight; no act was bigger in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During that period, Jerry was described as a difficult man who had nonetheless kept his partner, his wife, and his hair. Hair, yes. But by 1955, there was room for only one soundstage ego, and after a 10-year run that made Martin & Lewis millionaires, the pair broke up. Jerry’s marriage to singer Patti Palmer lasted two decades longer but it, too, was destined for Splitsville.
On his own, the comedian explored filmmaking. He had performed with Martin in a series of one-dimensional comedies; now he starred in farces whose titles gave the show away—The Geisha Boy, Rockabye Baby, Cinderfella. These were not enough to gratify his insatiable ambition, and he took over the directorial and often the writing chores in a series of influential movies, including The Nutty Professor, a riff on the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde story with Jerry playing a Martinesque front-runner and a Lewis-like flop. It fared well enough in the states but became a sensation in Paris, where Le Maitre Americain was abruptly lionized and made the centerpiece of cinema retrospectives.
All the while, Jerry had been acting as a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. On its behalf, he emceed TV telethons that wore him to a frazzle but collected some $2 billion in contributions. Why this particular charity? According to Hollywood wiseguys, Jerry was expiating his guilt for making lifelong fun of “spazzes,” caricaturing the disabled in speech and locomotion. They had a point.
Though Jerry Lewis continued to be a recognizable presence on talk shows, few found his later features watchable—one of them, a Holocaust-based film entitled The Day the Clown Cried, was never released. Ironically, he scored his most enduring triumph in Martin Scorcese’s deliberately unfunny King of Comedy, playing an emotionally stunted comedian brimming with rage and resentment.
When I researched a book on the Catskills (A Summer World), I managed to talk with Lewis a few times about the region that gave him his start. He was not the least bit amusing about it. I got the impression that for him, the past was a continual prologue. His Las Vegas home, which he shared with his second wife SanDee, was filled with the tokens of old esteem, including France’s Légion d’honneur and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, dispensed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which never saw fit to give him an Oscar statuette; pictures of his two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, one for movies, one for television; and photographs of his six children.
But there were dark shadows among these peaks, and it was no wonder that Jerry preferred not to look back for long. Joseph, the youngest of Lewis’s five sons, was estranged when he died of a drug overdose at 45 in 2009. Joseph’s brother Gary blamed their father, who was always “more worried about his image than about his family.” This dirty linen was aired in public, as were Lewis’s many ailments, which included prostate cancer, two heart attacks, diabetes, grotesque weight gains, and severe depression triggered by painkillers. Doctors had prescribed them to alleviate pain caused by years of backbreaking physical comedy.
In the end, Jerry achieved all that he had hungered for—recognition, money, applause. But they came at an incalculable cost. Up close, he reveals himself as a melancholy figure—something obvious to anyone watching when his face was in repose. In long shot, however, Jerry Lewis is an American icon whose most famous work—himself—was on full display in two centuries. That remains the best way to regard him. R.I.P.
Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images