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Jerry Lewis, Hollywood survivor, showman, dies at 91

Last Updated Aug 21, 2017 at 8:40 am EDT

FILE - In a March 29, 1951 file photo, actor-comedian Dean Martin, left, and his wife, Jeanne, are shown with actor-comedian Jerry Lewis, far right, and his wife, singer Patti, as they arrive at the Academy Awards presentations at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. Jerry Lewis, the comedian and director whose fundraising telethons became as famous as his hit movies, died Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, in Las Vegas, according to his publicist. He was 91. (AP Photo, File)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Jerry Lewis epitomized what it meant to be a survivor in Hollywood.

Through ups and downs in popularity, health troubles and weight fluctuations and the sorts of seismic shifts that take place over decades in the entertainment industry, Lewis always figured out a way to battle back, to reinvent himself, to stay relevant. It’s what enduring stars know how to do instinctively; perhaps it’s that very drive that makes them stars in the first place.

Through it all, Lewis remained the consummate showman, and his distinctive comic legacy surely will continue to survive for decades to come. The manic, rubber-faced performer who jumped and hollered to fame in a stage, radio, TV and film partnership with Dean Martin, settled to become a self-conscious auteur in movies he wrote, produced and directed, and found new fame as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, died Sunday at home in Las Vegas surrounded by family. He was 91.

Lewis, who had battled the lung disease pulmonary fibrosis, heart issues, a debilitating back problem and addiction to pain killers, died of natural causes, according to his publicist.

His career spanned the history of show business in the 20th century, beginning in his parents’ vaudeville act at the age of 5. He was just 20 when his pairing with Martin made them international stars. After their cold parting in 1956, Lewis made such favourites as “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor,” was featured in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” and appeared as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night.” In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of “Damn Yankees.”

In his 80s, he was still travelling the world, planning to remake some of his earlier movies and working on a stage version of “The Nutty Professor.” He was so active he would sometimes forget the basics, like eating, his associates would recall. In 2012, Lewis missed an awards ceremony thrown by his beloved Friars Club because his blood sugar dropped from lack of food and he had to spend the night in the hospital.

In an interview with The Associated Press from 2016, Lewis, at 90 and promoting the film “Max Rose,” said he still woke up every day at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to write, and he had a handful of standup shows on the schedule.

Although a clear influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, later generations knew Lewis primarily as the ringmaster of the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking and reminiscing and introducing guests, sharing stories about ailing kids and concluding with his personal anthem, the ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” From the 1960s onward, the telethons raised about $1.5 billion. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but he would remain chairman of the association he joined some 60 years ago.

His fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honour he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul.” But the telethon was also criticized for being mawkish and exploitative of children, known as “Jerry’s Kids.” A 1960s muscular dystrophy poster boy, Mike Ervin, later made a documentary called “The Kids Are All Alright,” in which he alleged that Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association had treated him and others as objects of pity rather than real people.

Responded Lewis: “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”

He was the classic funnyman who longed to play “Hamlet.” He cried as hard as he laughed. He sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He pontificated on talk shows, lectured to college students and compiled his thoughts in the 1971 book “The Total Film-Maker.”

“I believe, in my own way, that I say something on film. I’m getting to those who probably don’t have the mentality to understand what … ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is all about, plus many who did understand it,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed or embarrassed at how seemingly trite or saccharine something in my films will sound. I really do make films for my great-great-grandchildren and not for my fellows at the Screen Directors Guild or for the critics.”

In his early movies, he played the kind of fellows who would have had no idea what the elder Lewis was talking about: loose-limbed, buck-toothed, overgrown adolescents, trouble-prone and inclined to wail when beset by enemies. American critics recognized the comedian’s popular appeal but not his pretensions of higher art. Not the French. Writing in Paris’ Le Monde newspaper, Jacques Siclier praised Lewis’ “apish allure, his conduct of a child, his grimaces, his contortions, his maladjustment to the world, his morbid fear of women, his way of disturbing order everywhere he appeared.”

The French government awarded Lewis the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1983 and Commander of Arts and Letters the following year. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed: “The fact that Lewis lacks verbal wit on the screen doesn’t particularly bother the French.”

Lewis had teamed up with Martin after World War II, and their radio and stage antics delighted audiences, although not immediately. Their debut, in 1946 at Atlantic City’s 500 Club, was a bust. Warned by owner “Skinny” D’Amato that they might be fired, Martin and Lewis tossed the script and improvised their way into history. New York columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan raved over the sexy singer and the berserk clown.

Hollywood producer Hal Wallis saw them at New York’s Copacabana and signed them to a film contract. Martin and Lewis first appeared in supporting roles in, then they began a hit series of starring vehicles: “At War With the Army,” ”That’s My Boy,” ”Sailor Beware,” ”Jumping Jacks,” ”The Stooge,” ”The Caddy,” ”Money From Home,” ”Living It Up,” ”Three Ring Circus,” ”You’re Never Too Young,” ”Artists and Models,” ”Pardners,” ”Hollywood or Bust.”

But in the mid-1950s, their partnership began to wear. Lewis longed for more than laughs. Martin had tired of playing straight man and of Lewis’ attempts to inject Chaplinesque pathos into their movies. He also wearied of the pace of films, television, nightclub and theatre appearances, benefits and publicity junkets on which Lewis thrived. The rift became increasingly public as the two camps sparred verbally.

“I knew we were in trouble the day someone gave Jerry a book about Charlie Chaplin,” Martin cracked.

On July 24, 1956, Martin and Lewis closed shop, at the Copa, and remained estranged for years. Martin, who died in 1995, did make a dramatic, surprise appearance on Lewis’ telethon in 1976 (a reunion brokered by mutual pal Frank Sinatra). After Martin’s death, Lewis said the two had again become friendly during his former partner’s final years and he would repeatedly express his admiration for Martin above all others.

Lewis distinguished himself after the break, revealing a serious side as unexpected as Martin’s gift for comedy.

He brought in comedy director Frank Tashlin for “Rock-a-bye Baby,” ”Cinderfella,” ”The Disorderly Orderly,” ”The Geisha Boy” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”

With “The Bellboy,” though, Lewis assumed the posts of producer, director, writer and star, like his idol Chaplin. Among his hits under his own direction was the 1963 “The Nutty Professor,” playing a dual Jekyll and Hyde role, transforming himself from a nerdy college teacher to a sexy (and conceited) lounge singer, Buddy Love, regarded as a spoof of his old partner Martin.

Lewis’ more recent film credits included such low-budget releases as “Arizona Dream,” co-starring Johnny Depp, “Funny Bones,” and “Max Rose,” from 2016. He was seen briefly in Eddie Murphy’s remake of “The Nutty Professor.”

He was born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, on March 16, 1926. His father, billed as Danny Lewis, was a singer on the borscht and burlesque circuits. His mother played piano for Danny’s act. Their only child was often left alone in hotel rooms, or lived in Brooklyn with his paternal grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants, or his aunts in New Jersey.

“All my life I’ve been afraid of being alone,” Lewis once said. In his later years the solitude haunted him, and he surrounded himself with an entourage at work and at home.

Joey Levitch made his professional debut at age 5, singing the Depression tearjerker “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to great applause.

By 16, Jerry Lewis had dropped out of school and was earning as much as $150 a week as a solo performer. Rejected by the Army because of a heart murmur and punctured eardrum, Lewis entertained troops in World War II and toured with his lip-sync act. In 1944 he married Patti Palmer, a band vocalist. The following year he met Martin, on a March day in 1945 in Manhattan.

Fame brought him women and Lewis wrote openly of his many partners. After 36 years of marriage and six sons, Patti Lewis sued her husband for divorce in 1982. She later wrote a book claiming that he was an adulterer and drug addict who abused their children. In his late 50s, Lewis married Sandra Pitnick, 32, a former airline stewardess. They had a daughter, Dani, named for Jerry’s father.

“When the truth comes down to the truth, I am so grateful that I’m on that stage or in front of that camera,” Lewis told The Associated Press in 2016. “To have a career that I had in film, I’m the luckiest Jew that ever lived. I’m so grateful for it. I don’t take advantage of it. I don’t use it improperly. And I love the fact that there’s nowhere I can go where people don’t know me.”

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Lemire is a former Associated Press writer. Associated Press writer Bob Thomas and AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr in Los Angeles and AP National Writer Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.