Star of stage, screen and television, iconic comedian Jerry Lewis passed away Sunday morning at his home in Las Vegas. He was 91.
According to John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, a statement from Lewis’ family indicates that he passed away at 9:15 a.m. on Aug. 20.
A spokesperson for the Clark County Coroner’s office in Las Vegas, reports that Lewis’ cause of death was from Ischemic Cardiomyopathy, more commonly known as heart failure.
According to the Cleveland Clinic website, Ischemic Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart’s ability to pump blood is decreased because the left ventricle — the heart’s main pumping chamber — has become enlarged, dilated and weakened, which is typically caused by a lack of blood supply to the heart muscle as the result of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
Following news of the comedian’s death, Jerry Seinfeld shared his memory of spending time with Lewis on Instagram, calling the legend’s appearance on “Comedians in Cars” a “comedy life moment.”
Born Joseph Levitch in Newark, New Jersey, to a family of Vaudeville performers, Lewis began performing at age five alongside his parents.
By age 15, he had already developed one of his best-known bits, his “Record Act”, in which he mimicked the vocals to a phonograph record as it played.
In 1945, 19-year-old Lewis met singer Dean Martin when they were both performing in a New York City nightclub, and eventually decided to team up as a double act. Their first performance, at a club in Atlantic City, did not go well, and the club owner threatened to fire them if they didn’t improve. As a result, they ditched their scripted bits and improvised, with their off-the-cuff banter proving to be a hit with audiences and set the template that made them one of the 20th century’s most popular comedy teams.
After successful runs in some of the East Coast’s most popular venues, Martin and Lewis brought their act to Hollywood, where they were tapped to provide comic relief in the 1949 film “My Friend Irma”.
While the movie proved to be forgettable, the comedy duo did not, and went on to appear in a string of successful movies, ranging from 1953’s “The Caddy” to their final film together, 1956’s “Hollywood or Bust.”
The partnership ended acrimoniously when Martin became fed up with being cast as the bland straight man while Lewis got all the laughs, which led Lewis to a solo career as a comedy actor and director in such Hollywood hits as “Cinderfella”, “The Bellboy” and “The Nutty Professor”.
Lewis’ films were so successful during the 1960s that he soon became Paramount’s highest-grossing star, which he leveraged to grant him unprecedented creative control over his films.
As Lewis’s film career waned in the 1970s, he became well-known for his role as chairman of the National Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosting star-studded telethons each Labour Day weekend from 1955 until he was ousted from the organization in 2011. Lewis’s telethons raised nearly $2.5 billion for “Jerry’s kids,” and in 1977, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the MDA.
It was during the 1976 telethon that Lewis and Martin reunited for the first time since their split in the 1950s, thanks to the efforts of Frank Sinatra.
Other accolades included being presented with the French Legion of Honor in 1984 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which he accepted at the 2009 Academy Awards. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lewis kept the latter award “on a platform above a TV in his Las Vegas home, where it would rotate at the push of a button.”
After his 1980 comeback comedy “Hardly Working” faltered at the box office, Lewis stunned everyone by delivering an acclaimed dramatic role as a beleaguered talk show host kidnapped by a deranged fan (played by Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 drama “The King of Comedy”.
In 1995, Lewis starred in a successful revival of “Damn Yankees” on Broadway, reportedly earning the highest fee of any Broadway performer at the time.
More recent film appearances included “Cookie” (1989), “Arizona Dream” (1993), “Funny Bones” (1995) and “Max Rose” (2016), in addition to a high-profile role in a 2006 episode of Law & Order: SVU.
Upon news of Lewis’s death, numerous celebrities took to social media to pay their respects.