Lewis later went on to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons.
Publicist Candi Cazau says Lewis died Sunday morning of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side.
Lewis’ 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. He went on to make 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.
Major influence on slapstick
In the 1990s, he scored a stage comeback as the devil in the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees. And after a 20-year break from making movies, Lewis returned as the star of the independent drama Max Rose, released in 2016.
In his 80s, he was still traveling the world, 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 his 90s, he was still performing standup shows.
A major influence on Jim Carrey and other slapstick performers, Lewis also was known as the ringmaster of the Labour Day Muscular Dystrophy Association, joking, 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 some $1.5 billion US, including more than $60 million in 2009. He announced in 2011 that he would step down as host, but 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.
“He and his telethon symbolize an antiquated and destructive 1950s charity mentality,” Ervin wrote in 2009.
Responded Lewis: “You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house!”
Crying as hard as he laughed
He was the classic funnyman who longed to play Hamlet, crying as hard as he laughed. He sassed and snarled at critics and interviewers who displeased him. He pontificated on talk shows, lectured 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 aspirations to higher art; the French did.
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 Honour 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.”