Comedy icon Jerry Lewis dies at 91

Lewis' career spanned seven decades.

ByABC News
August 20, 2017, 2:20 PM

— -- Iconic comedian and actor Jerry Lewis has died, his publicist confirmed to ABC News. He was 91.

“Sadly I can confirm that today the world lost one of the most significant human beings of the 20th century,” his rep Mark Rozzano said. Another representative, Nancy Kane, added, “Jerry Lewis died peacefully surrounded by friends and family at home.”

Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 19, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey to parents who also loved performing. His father, Daniel Levitch, was a vaudeville entertainer, while his mother, Rachel Levitch, played the piano for a local radio station.

A quadruple threat as a wildly successful actor, writer, producer and director, Lewis' career spanned seven decades. His particular brand of rambunctious clowning was often reviled by critics, but it was also hailed as brilliant by some of the biggest names in filmmaking.

Woody Allen has referred to Lewis as one of his greatest influences. Steve Martin canonized him in "The Jerk." The late Robin Williams referred to him simply as "Maestro." And Eddie Murphy remade his classic, "The Nutty Professor," which became a box office smash in 1996.

    From Borscht Belt to Silver Screen

    Lewis first appeared onstage when he was 5 years old, singing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in the Borscht belt of New York's Catskills. His parents, known as Rae and Danny Lewis onstage, were both in show business. It was his father's lifelong, unattained dream to appear on Broadway, a goal he embedded in his son.

    As a child actor, Lewis developed a lip-synching comedy act. Though he had found moderate success, everything changed on July 25, 1946, when Lewis paired with lounge crooner Dean Martin, then a struggling singer himself.

    A singer quit last minute when Lewis was performing in Atlantic City and Lewis suggested Dean as a replacement. The two eventually merged their acts and were soon improvising insults and jokes, squirting seltzer water and throwing celery.

    The comedian became known for being the funny guy beside straight-laced Martin in their nightclub routine and later a radio program. When the two began to appear on television, such as "Toast of the Town," which was later renamed to "The Ed Sullivan Show," in 1948, they received national prominence.

    This led to a film career for both men, beginning with "My Friend Irma" in 1949 and its sequel, "My Friend Irma Goes West," released a year later.

    Lewis and Martin, who passed away in 1995, starred together in more than a dozen films throughout the 1950s, including "At War with the Army," "The Caddy" and "Pardners."

    Lewis Flies Solo -- and Soars

    After Lewis' career flourished in his duo act with Martin, he began taking on solo projects, from acting and producing, to directing and writing.

    In 1959, after several successful films, he signed an unprecedented contract with Paramount Pictures for $10 million plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over seven years. In 1960, Lewis took six months to write, produce, direct and play two roles in "The Bellboy," a successful and plotless film that consisted of gag after goofy gag.

    Lewis added professor to his list of roles in 1967 when he started teaching film direction at the University of Southern California. His students included George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

    He even made several albums, including "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," which has sold almost 4 million copies to date.

    The 1970s were not a good time for Lewis' career. He made few films, and what he did make floundered.

    In 1983, Lewis appeared in Martin Scorcese's "The King of Comedy," one of the few respected films he made at that time.

    Despite this career lull, a battle with an addiction to Percodan, open heart surgery, diabetes and prostate cancer, Lewis persevered. In 1995, he became the highest-paid performer in Broadway history for his smash comeback role as the Devil in "Damn Yankees."

    While Lewis was always considered a difficult man to work with, he eventually patched up his relationship with Martin, his greatest collaborator. In 1976, 20 years after they broke up their act, Frank Sinatra staged a public reunion, and the two became very close, especially in the years leading up to Martin's death in 1995.

    Lewis also made a name for himself as a humanitarian, namely thanks to his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In fact, he served as chairman of the organization until 2011. He was perhaps best known for hosting an annual telethon to raise money for the association. From 1952 to 2010, the association reported he raised more than $2.6 billion.

    For his charitable work, Lewis earned countless honors. In 1977, he was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And in 2005, he was honored with the prestigious Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his extensive charity work.

    He also received lifetime achievement awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2009 and the American Comedy Awards in 1997, and was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    Lewis leaves behind his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, and six children, including musician Gary Lewis. His son Joseph died in 2009.