Jerry Lewis, king of comedy, dies at 91

Much-loved American comic behind hit films such as The Nutty Professor has died in Las Vegas

Jerry Lewis, the king of comedy who dominated 1950s Hollywood, has died at the age of 91.

His publicist, Candi Cazau, said the American comic died Sunday morning of natural causes in Las Vegas with his family by his side.

Figures from the world of film paid tribute to the American entertainer, known for hit films such as the Nutty Professor and for his comedy double act with Dean Martin.

Robert De Niro, who starred with Lewis in the 1982 film The King of Comedy, said in a statement: Jerry was a pioneer in comedy and film. And he was a friend. I was fortunate to have seen him a few times over the past couple of years. Even at 91, he didnt miss a beat . Or a punchline. Youll be missed.

Jamie Lee Curtis, whose mother Janet Leigh starred with Lewis in films such as Living it Up and Three on a Couch, tweeted:

Jamie Lee Curtis (@jamieleecurtis)

Jerry Lewis loomed large in my family. Many movies with my mom & he made home movies with Janet and Tony. He made me and many laugh. #rip

August 20, 2017

Whoopi Goldberg posted: Jerry Lewis passed today, millions around the world loved him, millions of kids he helped w/his telethons. R.I.P. &condolences 2 his family.

Jim Carrey tweeted: That fool was no dummy. Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedys absolute! I am because he was! ;^D

Lewis, at his prime, was embraced as the ultimate 20th-century village idiot, a pocket tornado who blended slapstick prowess with squeaky-voiced histrionics. It was a combination that helped make him the industrys top box-office draw for several years running. I was about as discreet as a bull taking a piss in your living room, he once confessed.

Yet while beloved by the masses, the comic also found himself lauded by the artistic elite in France, where he was eventually awarded the prestigious Lgion dhonneur. The critics at French magazine Cahiers du Cinma hailed him as an American auteur, a visionary to rank alongside John Ford and Orson Welles.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis honed his act on the borscht-belt comedy circuit. He found early fame in tandem with the entertainer Dean Martin. The pair collaborated on 17 pictures, including The Stooge, Living it Up and Three Ring Circus, with Martin typically playing the suave straight man to Lewiss unruly clown. Following the partnerships acrimonious breakdown in the late 1950s, Lewis went on to score solo successes with the likes of Cinderfella, The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor.

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. Photograph: PR

Yet what was reputed to have been Lewiss most ambitious, personal production remains unseen to this day. In 1971 the comic directed and starred in The Day the Clown Cried, about a childrens entertainer at the Nazi concentration camps. The film was reportedly buried by horrified studio bosses and has since become a dark piece of Hollywood folklore. Lewis, who was rumoured to possess the lone copy of the film, refused to discuss it.

With his movie career on the wane, Lewis took a job teaching classes at the University of Southern California, where his students included George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He also kick-started what would become his annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, which went on to raise $2.45bn for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

In later years, Lewis appeared on screen in Hardly Working, Arizona Dream and Funny Bones. For many, however, his finest film performance came courtesy of The King of Comedy, which cast Lewis in the role of Jerry Langford, a successful TV host who finds himself preyed on by a stalker. A box office flop on its first release, Martin Scorseses acid black comedy has since been hailed as a classic portrait of modern celebrity.

Jerry Lewis, for his part, was bullish about his legacy. Im a multi-faceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius, he once remarked. I have an IQ of 190 thats supposed to be a genius. People dont like that. [But] my answer to my critics is simple: I like me. I like what Ive become. Im proud of what I achieved.

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