Aside from starring in some of the classic comedy films of the past half century, Jerry Lewis will be remembered for his humanitarian work, especially the annual telethon he hosted for 45 years that raised money and awareness for muscular dystrophy.
The telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which the comedian served as national chairman of and spokesman from its inception until 2011, dated back to the 1950s, when the Jerry Lewis Thanksgiving Party for MDA raised funds for their New York City area operations.
From 1966 until 2010, Lewis appeared on television every Labor Day as host of the round-the-clock telethon to raise funds to fight neuromuscular diseases.
“After 61 years we raised 2.6 billion dollars,” he told Fox411. “I feel pretty satisfied about the 61 years of constant looking to make children better.”
The 1976 telethon also marked a special reunion for Lewis and Dean Martin, who were a popular comedy duo from 1946 until 1956. Lewis was completely surprised by the live appearance of his former partner, a reunion brokered by mutual pal Frank Sinatra.
Lewis’ fundraising efforts won him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Oscar telecast, an honor he said “touches my heart and the very depth of my soul.”
But the fundraising events were not without their share of criticism. They were chided as exploitative of the children, known as “Jerry’s Kids.”
Mike Ervin, one child who claims he was treated as an object of pity, later made a documentary called The Kids Are All Alright.
“He and his telethon symbolize an antiquated and destructive 1950s charity mentality,” Ervin wrote in 2009.
Lewis left the program after their 2010 fundraiser, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association choose to end their traditional telethon in 2015.
“They do what they have to do and I respect that,” said Lewis of the decision.
The comedy icon, whose manic style amused generations of fans died on Sunday, his agent confirmed to PEOPLE. He was 91.
Las Vegas Review Journal columnist John Katsilometes confirmed the news on Twitter on Sunday, writing that Lewis’ rep told him in a statement that he died at 9:15 a.m. on Sunday morning in his home in Las Vegas.
Despite his age and mounting health problems, Lewis told PEOPLE last year that he never stopped doing what he loved. “I never stop working,” he explained. “You always have your hand in it somewhere. I’m always thinking about future projects and at the same time trying to finish the project you’re in the middle off.”
Still, after performing for over 80 years, Lewis admitted his age had become an obstacle. “You do feel limited … I can’t take a fall now like I did when I was 20,” he explained. “You think about getting old, but when you get there it’s not what you thought it would be. The thing I think disturbs me more than anything is I can’t take those falls anymore. That disturbs me, but at 90 you don’t fall – at least you don’t mean to fall,” he quipped.
One thing that never changes, Lewis added, is the excitement of being in front of the camera. “That never stops. That’s what drives you: the joy and excitement of doing what you love,” he said.