Jerry Lewis, 81, has made international audiences laugh since his film debut in the 1940's, but his long show business career has also had a more serious purpose. This beloved and complex clown remains devoted to children afflicted with a crippling disease.
This Labor Day weekend, Jerry Lewis once again hosted the Muscular Dystrophy telethon and raised a record $63.8 million. Broadcast live on national television from a stage in Las Vegas, Nevada, the event has been an annual holiday tradition for decades. During 22 hours of continuous programming, Lewis plays the high-energy master of ceremonies for a procession of celebrities and performers, who entertain a studio audience and solicit millons of dollars in donations from television viewers to fund research for a cure for Muscular Dystrophy, or MD.
MD is a hereditary, childhood disease that progressively destroys muscle tissue. During the telethons, dozens of wheelchair-bound children stricken with MD are typically brought onstage or interviewed in the audience. Over the years, these children have come to be called Jerry's kids.
In recent years, some advocates for people with disabilities have criticized the telethon, calling it a mawkish spectacle that parades the victimized children, while promoting the talents of featured entertainers. But there's no denying the program's been a moneymaker for MD research, with tens of millions of dollars raised overnight each year.
Lewis himself, widely admired as a tireless humanitarian, performs during the telethon, alternately serious and silly. He reverts often to the zany, manic comedy that was the signature style of his early film and TV career, which began nearly 60 years ago, performing with Dean Martin as his straight man.
Martin and Lewis made 16 movies in all between 1949 and 1956 before they split up and moved on to separate careers, Martin as a popular singer, Lewis as a movie producer and director of his own film comedies.
Lewis' comic formula for slapstick and silliness paid off at the box office in films like Cinderfella (1960), based on the fairytale Cinderella; The Errand Boy (1961); and The Patsy (1964), in which he played a hotel bellboy.
Perhaps the most widely acclaimed Jerry Lewis film was The Nutty Professor (1963), in which he played shy, socially inept chemist Julius Kelp, who concocts a chemical that transforms him into a debonair lady's man. Ultimately, the character wins the love of his life just by being himself. A musical theater version of The Nutty Professor is scheduled to open this autumn on Broadway, and Lewis reportedly has been hired as a consultant.
Lewis hasn't always played the funnyman. Critics praised his dramatic and dark portrayal of a kidnapped television star in director Martin Scorsese's 1983 movie, The King of Comedy.
Lewis' complex movie characters, like his well-known compassion for disabled children, have no doubt been shaped by the difficulties the actor has faced throughout his life. Biographers have noted that Lewis suffered parental neglect as a child, and over the past 40 years, he has endured a succession of serious, life-threatening medical conditions.
In 1966, a failed slapstick stunt on a TV show nearly paralyzed him. The resulting back pain, which lasted decades, was at times so unbearable that Lewis says he considered suicide. He fought addiction to painkillers. An electronic implant in his back finally eased his discomfort.
In recent years, Lewis has also survived two heart attacks, diabetes, prostate cancer, and a debilitating lung disease.
Through it all, Jerry Lewis at 81 maintains an extraordinary energy and optimism, and on his telethons each year, he is unreservedly sentimental. Comedian, actor, director, silly guy -- Jerry Lewis -- a survivor with a smile.
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