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Comedy Legend Jerry Lewis Dies at 91

Lewis Hosted the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon for Over 50 Years

Jerry Lewis, who found early fame teaming with Dean Martin in the 1950s and later was featured solo in comedies like “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy” before launching the Muscular Dystrophy telethon, died yesterday in his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.

Born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis changed his name from Joey Lewis to Jerry Lewis to avoid confusion with comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxing champion Joe Louis. His first live TV appearance with Dean Martin was on the debut of CBS variety series “Toast of the Town” on June 20, 1948 (which was later retitled “The Ed Sullivan Show”). The duo headlined 17 films together including “My Friend Irma” (1949), “That’s My Boy” (1951), “The Caddy” (1953), “The Stooge” (1954) and “Artists and Models” (1955); and they co-hosted NBC’s “The Colgate Comedy Hour” from 1950 to 1955.

After the partnership ended on July 24, 1956, Lewis began performing regularly at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, which led to a special on NBC in 1957, performances in night clubs across the county, appearances on game show “What’s My Line?,” movies like “The Sad Sack” (1957), “The Geisha Boy” (1958) and “Don’t Give Up the Ship” (1959), and a comic book series. Following aforementioned “The Bellboy” in 1960 came theatrical comedies like “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), ‘The Patsy” (1964) and “The Disorderly Orderly” (1964).

Lewis also headlined two self-titled primetime variety series: the first on ABC in 1963 and the second for NBC from 1967 to 1969.

Later films on Lewis’ resume included “The Family Jewels” (1965), which he also directed and co-wrote, “Boeing Being” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966) , “Way…Way Out” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967) and “Hook, Line & Sinker” (1969).

Lewis also taught a film directing class at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for a number of years, and his students included Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

After an on-screen absence of 11 years, Lewis returned to film in “Hardly Working” in 1981, followed by Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” in 1983. He also made a pair of films in France in 1984, “The Defective Detective” and “How Did You Get In? We Didn’t See You Leave,” and he failed at an attempt at a syndicated talk show for Metromedia, also in 1984, which lasted for just five episodes. Later television appearances included five episodes of CBS drama “Wiseguy” and NBC sitcom “Mad About You.”

Lewis made his Broadway debut, as a replacement cast member playing the devil in a revival of “Damn Yankees.”

Lewis also was known for his efforts as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He devoted more than a half-century to fighting the neuromuscular disease, hosting an annual Labor Day telethon — and raising nearly $2.5 billion — from 1955 until he was ousted before the 2011 telecast. Lewis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for his efforts.

He most recently appeared in such films as “Cookie” (1989), “Arizona Dream” (1993), “Funny Bones” (1995) and “Max Rose” (2016), and he played opposite Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood in “The Trust” in 2016. He also performed a cameo as himself in Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” in 1992 and guest-starred on a 2006 episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”

When Lewis was 18, he met singer Patti Palmer, and they wed 10 days later. During their marriage, which lasted from 1944 to 1982, they had five sons and adopted another child. His youngest, Joseph, became a drug addict and committed suicide in 2009 at age 45.

Lewis married his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, in 1983. They adopted a daughter, Danielle.