Joseph Levitch, best known by the stage name, Jerry Lewis, is an American actor, comedian, singer, and screenwriter. His slapstick humor, timing, and quick thinking on stage, made him a star for many decades in the show business. He has won multiple awards in his career, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Venice Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and American Comedy Awards.
He was born on March 16, 1926 to Jewish Russian parents. His father, Daniel Levitch was already a popular entertainer, and his mother, Rachel Levitch (nee Brodsky) played piano. The talented young boy, Jerry, started his career at the early age of 5 years, when he began singing. He would even perform alongside his parents on stage. By the age of 15, he had already perfected his technique and timing. At this point, he chose a professional name, Joey Lewis, but soon changed it to Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with another comedian, Joe E. Lewis, and boxing champion, Joe Louis.
Jerry now began to frequent the offices of booking agents in search of offers. His first booking came from Buffalo, but it was hardly the break that he was looking for. When he was contemplating giving up his career, veteran comedian Max Coleman, his father’s old friend, advised him to stay put. Soon, Jerry got another opportunity at Brown’s Hotel. His mime act was an instant hit, and brought him under the radar of Irving Kaye, a Borscht Circuit comedian, who helped him get a lot of work.
In 1946, Jerry worked with Dean Martin, and this association proved to be the break that the two were looking for. At the time, Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, and had been brought in to replace one of the entertainers who had recently quit. The chemistry between the two was so magical that the audience fell in love with their improvisation, each time. Within weeks, their salaries soared and they started earning by as much as 20 times more. After watching the duo in action, Hal Wallis offered them a contract with Paramount Pictures. This was only the beginning. Over the next 10 years, the duo sandwiched 16 hit movies in their schedules, as they juggled nightclub gigs, radio shows, personal appearances, and so on. After 10 years, they parted ways, and Lewis’ career stayed firmly pointed towards the sky.
Jerry even dabbled with music, and his album, Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, has sold more than 4 million copies. Soon in 1959, he signed a contract for 14 films with Paramount, for which he was paid $10 million plus 60% of the profits. His works at the time include The Nutty Professor, It’s Only Money, The Errand Boy, The Ladies Man, and others. In 1965, he joined Columbia Pictures, and created The Big Mouth, Hook, Line & Sinker, Three On a Couch, and many more.
Not many know that Lewis taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and his students included the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
In 1970, he produced, directed, and starred Which Way to the Front? (1970), which became his last released movie. After that, he went on a hiatus that lasted 11 years. Later, he had small-time roles in movies, but couldn’t revive the glory days of his past.
Although his recent career has not been remarkable, he remains a highly acclaimed entertainer in the Hollywood. Even now, he remains one of the most loved actors in European countries, especially in France, where he was awarded the Légion d’honneur by French Minister of Culture in 2006.
Lewis was married twice, and has six sons and one adopted daughter from them. He has suffered from Muscular Dystrophy his entire life, and has campaigned throughout his life to raise funds for research into the disease. He also suffers from prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, and heart diseases.