The comedy legend was said to have had a fling with the one and only Marilyn Monroe. He had two marriages, seven kids, and an alleged “love child.” But Jerry Lewis’s eternal love was for his former comedy partner Dean Martin. That said, it doesn’t mean Lewis didn’t have a passion for women, comedy, and raising eyebrows.
The 91-year-old died in 2017 in his Las Vegas home, leaving behind not only family and friends, but a whole generation of adoring fans who loved nothing more than to roar with laughter at his sometimes controversial material. Although Lewis had tons of fans, he also had his fair share of critics and downright haters – some of them his own children. Regardless of which side you’re on, Lewis was a defining figure in American entertainment.
This is the bittersweet life of Jerry Lewis.
Jerry Lewis found success in television, movies, nightclubs, on Broadway, and in university lecture halls. He had his career ups and downs, but at his peak, he was one of the biggest stars in the country. And it was a quick rise to stardom, too. But before we get to his superstardom, let’s look a little bit closer at the making of the man.
He was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. He was the son of Daniel “Danny” Levitch, a vaudeville performer with the stage name of Danny Lewis. Lewis’s mother was Rachael “Rae” Levitch, a pianist as well as her husband’s music director. Lewis eventually stopped calling himself Joseph and Joey as he got older, to avoid being confused with Joe E. Lewis and Joe Louis.
Lewis became a “character” as early as his teenage years. He would pull pranks in his neighborhood, like sneaking into kitchens to steal food. In the tenth grade, he dropped out of high school, and, by age 15, he had already developed his own act. In his “Record Act,” he would mime lyrics to songs as a phonograph played offstage.
He did a show at a burlesque house in Buffalo, but it didn’t do well, and no more shows were ever booked. To get by, Lewis worked for a while as a soda jerk and a theater usher at the Paramount Theatre and Loew’s Capitol Theatre in New York City. Then, a few wise words from his father’s friend put him back on the right path…
Max Coleman, a burlesque comedian who had worked with Lewis’ father, convinced him to try again. Comedian Irving Kaye saw Lewis’ Record Act and how much the audience loved it, and he became Lewis’ manager and guardian for his Borscht Belt appearances. (The Borscht Belt is a term for the summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, which were a popular vacation spot for NYC Jews between the 1920s and 1960s).
As the world was in the midst of its Second World War, Lewis applied to the military. But due to a heart murmur, he was rejected. As soon as the war was over in 1945, Lewis met the man who would become his brother from another mother.
Lewis shot to fame after the end of World War II when he started doing a nightclub act with the one and only Dean Martin. It was the beginning of an era – one that would give audiences a winning duo: the calm and cool Dean Martin crooning away as a hyperactive Jerry Lewis would frolic around the stage.
Lewis met Martin at the Glass Hat Club in New York City. They performed there until they hit Atlantic City’s 500 Club as the Martin and Lewis Act on July 25, 1946. The duo gained attention as a double act with Martin serving as the straight man to Lewis’ zany antics.
Not only were the two performers pleasant to look at, but they also had a unique quality to their act. They played to each other, ad-libbing improvisational segments during their planned routines. They were unlike any other comedy duo of the time. The two quickly became very popular, first with their nightclub act and then as stars of their own radio program called The Martin and Lewis Show.
1948 was when they made their debut on Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show). By 1950, Martin and Lewis were on The Colgate Comedy Hour. Their Comedy Hour shows involved stand-up dialogue, songs, and dancing from their nightclub act and movies.
By 1951, Lewis and Martin were popular throughout the country. Their appearance at the Paramount Theatre in New York made them a cultural phenomenon. The pair went on to star in 15 or so feature-length movies, including At War with the Army (1950), The Caddy (1953), and You’re Never Too Young (1955).
In later years, both Lewis and Martin were frustrated with Paramount Pictures for their formulaic and stale film choices that restricted the comedy duo to narrow and repetitive roles. During the first half of the 1950s, the partnership became strained. Martin’s roles in their movies became less important, and Lewis got most of the critical acclaim. In 1954, Look magazine published a publicity photo of them that had cropped Martin out.
The duo’s partnership ended after their final act on July 24, 1956. The men then ventured off into successful solo careers. Lewis turned to write, produce and direct a lot of his own films. But after the breakup with Martin, he was in a crisis state, feeling completely unconfident on his own.
“I was unable to put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. I was completely unnerved to be alone,” he was quoted as saying. He and his wife, Patti Palmer, went to Las Vegas. There, he got an urgent request from his friend Sid Luft (Judy Garland’s husband and manager), saying she couldn’t perform that night because of strep throat. Lewis was asked to fill in.
Lewis hadn’t sung alone on stage in 25 years, the last time being when he was five years old. But he accepted the offer nonetheless and appeared in front of an audience of a thousand, making jokes and clowning around while Garland watched off-stage. He sang a rendition of a tune he learned as a child: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody and Come Rain or Come Shine.
“When I was done, the place exploded. I walked off the stage knowing I could make it on my own,” he later recalled of that moment. Afterward, Lewis soared into a solo career and never looked back. Rock-a-Bye Your Baby became a hit single, reaching #10 and his album Jerry Lewis Just Sings reached #3 on the Billboard charts.
Before he became the talk of the town, Lewis married a woman named Patti Palmer in 1944. The two had six children together, five of them biological, one adopted. Their marriage was an interfaith one as Lewis was Jewish, and Palmer was Catholic. Although Lewis and Palmer kept having children, Lewis would openly pursue other women. Not only was he open about it, but he was also unapologetic in interviews when his infidelity was brought up.
Palmer eventually filed for divorce in 1980, after their 35-year union. She cited Lewis’ extravagant spending and his infidelity as the reason for the split. Their divorce was finalized in 1983. That same year, Lewis married his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, a stewardess who played a small role in his film Hardly Working. Once married, they adopted a daughter named Danielle.
In a 2011 interview with GQ, Lewis revealed his affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. There were moments where he didn’t want to name names about his extramarital affairs, but at the same time, he insisted that Monroe never had the rumored affair with President Kennedy. When the interviewer expressed skepticism about that fact, Lewis said…
“I’m telling you what I know. Never! And the only reason I know is because I did. Okay?” He added that Monroe used sex in the same way that he used humor – to make a connection. According to Lewis, Monroe “needed that contact to be sure it was real.” And for the curious, he said he was “crippled for a month.”
But let’s go back to his prime years…
By late 1956, Lewis was performing regularly at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was a turning point in his life and career, and he was rolling in the dough. The Sands signed him for five years and paid him the same amount they had paid Martin and Lewis as a pair. Live performances became a staple of his career.
He performed at casinos, theaters, and fairs across the country. In 1957, he followed Judy Garland at New York’s Palace Theater. Dean Martin called him up and wished him the best of luck. Lewis then established himself as a television star with appearances on the show What’s My Line? between 1956 and 1966.
He hosted the Academy Awards three times: in 1956, 1957, and 1959. The 1959 Oscars ran 20 minutes short, so Lewis had to improvise to fill up the time – and who better to improvise than him? After his contract with Paramount Pictures ended, Lewis was willing and ready to flex his creative muscles.
He was looking to deepen his comedy with sadness. The way he saw it, “Funny without pathos is a pie in the face. And a pie in the face is funny, but I wanted more.” It was around this time, in 1959, that Paramount and Jerry Lewis Productions signed a contract, specifying a payment of $10 million-plus 60% of profits for 14 movies over seven years.
That contract made Lewis the highest-paid Hollywood star. It was an unprecedented move seeing that he had unlimited creative control – final cut and film rights after 30 years. He had so much power at the time that Barney Balaban, head of production at Paramount, told the media, “If Jerry wants to burn down the studio, I’ll give him the match!”
The first movie he directed was The Bellboy in 1960, which he also starred in. the film was set in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, and it was all on a small budget and a tight shooting schedule. Lewis was shooting during the day and performing at the hotel in the evenings.
Lewis later revealed that Paramount was upset about having to finance a “silent movie.” They withdrew funding, so Lewis had to use his own money to cover the movie’s $950,000 budget. The film actually marked the pioneering method of a video assist system. It gave Lewis the ability to see the action even when he was in the scene.
The technique of using cameras and multiple monitors allowed him to review his performance immediately. His methods of filmmaking meant he could complete many of his films on time and under budget. Lewis directed more films, including The Ladies Man and The Errand Boy (both in 1961). The Errand Boy happened to be one of the earliest films about movie-making itself. They used all of the backlots and offices at Paramount.
Lewis directed, co-wrote, and starred in The Nutty Professor in 1963. It was a parody of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that featured him as an awkward professor named Julius Kelp who invents a serum that turns him into a good-looking but obnoxious ladies’ man. Many people consider it to be his best and most memorable film.
In fact, it was selected to be in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004 due to it being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Fun fact: Apple iOS 10 included an emoji for “professor” with a Jerry Lewis lookalike image from The Nutty Professor.
Another fun fact: In The Simpsons, Professor Frink is a character based on Julius Kelp.
In 1966, after 17 years with Paramount, he left the company with no explanation and signed with Columbia Pictures. There, he tried to reinvent himself with more serious roles. He starred in Three on a Couch (1966), The Merv Griffin Show, Way…Way Out (1966), and The Sammy Davis Jr. Show to name a few.
It was clear that Lewis was looking to get more serious when he signed on to make a film that was only partly released due to its subject matter. He starred and directed the 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried, which was a drama set in a German concentration camp. Lewis rarely discussed the film, but he did mention that litigation over post-production funding and copyright prevented the completion of the film and its theatrical release.
Lewis said another factor in the film’s incompletion was that he wasn’t proud of the effort put into it. He explained why he even chose the project and how emotionally difficult of a subject matter it was for him. In the end, a 31-minute version of the film was shown on a German TV station (ARD) in the documentary called Der Clown.
It was apparently the earliest attempt by an American film director to address the topic of The Holocaust. It came 13 years before Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking film, Shoah, and more than 20 years before Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. After this serious attempt, Lewis took a break from the movie business for a number of years.
After an 11-year hiatus, Lewis returned and directed and starred in Hardly Working in 1981. Despite being slammed by critics, the film earned $50 million. In 1982, he was in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, in which he was a late-night TV host who had to deal with two obsessive fans. The serious dramatic role won him wide critical acclaim as well as a BAFTA nomination.
In 1987, Lewis was performing a new double act with Sammy Davis Jr. in Las Vegas. After he learned of the death of Dean Martin’s son, Dean Paul Martin, he went to the funeral, where he reconciled with his old partner.
In 1989, Lewis and Martin were together again on stage for what would turn out to be Martin’s final live performance. It took place at Bally’s Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. On Martin’s 72nd birthday, Lewis wheeled out a cake and sang Happy Birthday. He joked, “Why we broke up, I’ll never know.” Unsurprisingly, their appearance made headlines.
Lewis came to be recognized as making a successful pivot from slapstick comedy to clever storytelling. After countless silly and serious roles in film, Lewis realized a lifelong ambition in 1995 when he made his Broadway debut. He was cast as the devil in a revival of Damn Yankees. He reportedly got paid the highest amount in Broadway history at the time.
Lewis was also a humanitarian, philanthropist, and volunteer who was especially in supported research into muscular dystrophy. Back in 1951, he and Martin made an appeal (the first of several) for the Muscular Dystrophy Association on the finale of The Colgate Comedy Hour. In 1956, Lewis became the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
In Lewis’ lifetime, MDA-funded scientists succeeded in discovering the causes of most of the diseases in the MDA program. They developed treatments, therapies, and standards of care, allowing people living with these diseases to live longer and be stronger. Over 200 facilities (for research and treatment) were built with the donations raised by the Jerry Lewis Telethons.
Lewis suffered several chronic health problems and addictions due to both aging and a back injury. The injury resulted from a fall, but the source of the fall is debated. It was either from a piano while performing at the Sands Hotel and Casino on March 20, 1965, or during an appearance on The Andy Williams Show. Afterward, Lewis became addicted to painkillers for 13 years.
Lewis also dealt with heart problems throughout his life. In fact, he revealed in a 2011 documentary (Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis) that he had his first heart attack in 1960 at the age of 34, while filming Cinderfella. Then, in 1982, he experienced another heart attack.
In 1983, he underwent emergency open-heart double-bypass surgery. Then, in 2006, during a cross-country flight, he had his third heart attack, but he fully recovered within a matter of weeks. In addition to his long-term heart problems, he also suffered from prostate cancer, type 1 diabetes, and pulmonary fibrosis.
For those who have followed his career, you may have noticed his considerable weight gain in the late 1990s. It was the result of treatment for his pulmonary fibrosis. Only after he stopped taking the drug did he return to his normal weight. By October 2016, nearly a year before his death, during an interview with Inside Edition, he stated that he might not star in any more movies.
During the interview, he admitted, through tears, that he was scared of dying. He said he feared leaving his wife and daughter alone. Lewis passed away at his home in Las Vegas on August 20, 2017. He was 91 years old. The cause of death was end-stage cardiac disease and peripheral artery disease. Lewis left his estate to Pitnick, his second wife of 34 years, and their daughter.
For some reason, he intentionally excluded his sons from his first marriage. He wrote in his will: “I intentionally and with full knowledge omitted to provide for my heirs.” Gary, his eldest son, publicly called him a “mean and evil person,” scolding Lewis for never having showed him or his siblings any love or care.
A stipulation in the will stated that Lewis’ adopted daughter Danielle would receive all of his personal and household items if her mother passed away within 30 days of his death. But that didn’t happen. Lewis kept Joseph, his and Palmer’s sixth and youngest son, in the will despite the fact that he had died in 2009.
Joseph passed away at the age of 45 from a drug overdose. At the time of Joseph’s death, he and his father hadn’t spoken in 20 years. Lewis reportedly refused to pay for his funeral. Lewis allegedly asked his other five sons to keep Joseph’s death quiet. He didn’t want the press to find out about the overdose.
Sadly, Joseph – the son of a superstar millionaire actor – spent his time eating at soup kitchens and staying in homeless shelters throughout his life due to his battle with drugs. He told a personal story about his father to the National Enquirer back in 1989. He recalled how he and his five brothers were beaten by their father when they were children.
“Living with him was pure hell. I’ve tried drugs. I’ve tried therapy, and the truth still hurts, my father doesn’t love me,” Joseph candidly revealed in the interview. By the time Joseph overdosed, his three sons, 10, 18 and 20, had never once met their grandfather. It’s a shame… to say the least.
Gary, Lewis’ oldest son, became famous in his own right as a member of the group Gary Lewis & The Playboys. The band had a number one hit in 1964 called This Diamond Ring. Gary also spoke out against his father after his brother’s death, blaming Lewis for Joseph’s passing.
“I don’t know if Joe’s death is drug-related, but I believe it could have been prevented if he and my father had been on better terms. I believe he partly died of a broken heart,” Gary said in an interview with The National Enquirer. Gary, Joseph, and their brothers were all under the impression that their father cared much more about his career and his image than his own family.
In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, it seemed as though Lewis mourned his son’s passing (two years after executing his final will). He said, “To this day, I don’t understand it because it’s unfair — not unfair to me, but unfair to him.” He added, “He was my son and he’s gone, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. I beat myself a thousand times.”
He said that his wife would tell him he had nothing to do with it. She told him, “You sent him out into the world when he was 25. You sent what you thought was a perfect human being. What he did with his time away from you is what the end result showed.”
But his later comments about his son were a far cry from what he had said about Joseph five years prior. At that point, he called him a “dope addict” and showed no apparent emotion over his death. His sons weren’t the only estranged relationships Lewis had. His first wife sued him in 1980 when she filed for their divorce, demanding $450,000 each year to support her and Joseph.
Patti Palmer also cited Lewis’ affair with SanDee, who became his second wife, saying that he “lavished gifts of jewelry and luggage on his mistress in Paris, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and Florida.” There’s a rumor that Lewis also had an “illegitimate” daughter named Suzann who was born out of wedlock during the 1950s while he was having a three-year affair with model Lynn Dixon. Apparently, Suzann was also homeless.
It’s pretty clear that Jerry Lewis lived a public and respected life while trying his best to keep all the skeletons kept neatly in the closet. But his sons were not keen on keeping their strained relationship with their father, so hush-hush. It’s definitely a shame that the man died without ever reconciling with his children.
Despite his troubled relationships with his children, Lewis remains a generally beloved figure of popular culture. During his prime, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, he was “a virtually unprecedented force in American popular culture.”