As confirmed by Variety, legendary slapstick comedian Jerry Lewis—possibly better known in recent years for his famous Muscular Dystrophy telethon—has died. He was 91.
Born Joseph Levitch in 1926 to a vaudeville entertainer father and piano player mother, Lewis’ career in show business essentially began before he was even a teenager, with singing and doing comedy as a kid at resorts in the Catskills. By 15, he perfected a comedy routine that involved performing overly dramatic and ridiculous pantomimes to popular songs. The gag became enough of a hit that Lewis’ comedy career started to take off, and as he Lewis started booking more gigs on the road, Lewis crossed paths with a young Dean Martin. The two of them became a double act in 1946, with Martin acting as the straight man to Lewis’ antics, and both of their careers took off over the next ten years thanks to a series of goofy comedy movies like The Caddy, The Stooge, and My Friend Irma.
The duo broke up in 1956, but Lewis filled in for Judy Garland at a Las Vegas show shortly after that and proved to be such a hit that he continued performing there almost up until his death. He also continued working on movies, making his directorial debut with the The Bellboy in 1960 and releasing the biggest hit of his career with The Nutty Professor in 1963.
Outside of the huge successes, though, his filmmaking career had more than its share of stumbles, possibly due to offscreen issues like his prickly impatience and his struggles with—as Variety puts it—”numerous illnesses and a prescription drug dependency.” In the last four decades or so, Lewis appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, Daniel Noah’s Max Rose, and the infamously terrible (and rarely seen) Holocaust drama The Day The Clown Cried.
In the ‘50s, Lewis began hosting telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and his Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon became an annual event in 1966 and ran until 2010. In 1976, Dean Martin made a surprise appearance on Lewis’ telethon, and the two of them patched things up a few years later. In 2011, the relationship between Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association came to an end, and the organization decided to end the annual telethons entirely in 2015.