Comedy King Jerry Lewis, 91, Dies 'Peacefully at Home of Natural Causes,' Says Daughter
Comedy king Jerry Lewis, whose manic style amused generations of moviegoers on both sides of the Atlantic, yet whose popularity often confounded critics, has died, his agent confirmed to PEOPLE. He was 91.
In a statement from Lewis’ daughter Danielle, the comedian’s manager confirmed that “he passed peacefully at home of natural causes with him loving family at his side.”
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.
Penn Jillette also reacted to the news on Twitter, revealing that the comedian had died.
“Jerry Lewis just died,” Jillette wrote. “When I met him, I feel apart, just sobbed. I guess it’s time for that again.”
In June, the actor was hospitalized in Las Vegas after developing a urinary tract infection, the latest in a history of health issues. In June 2006, Lewis suffered a mild heart attack in San Diego. Still, his manager told PEOPLE at the time, “He’s doing very well. He’ll be standing on that stage at the [Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association] telethon on Labor Day.” In its time, the annual fundraiser, which Lewis started in 1966 (he stopped hosting as of 2010), is said to have raised more than $2 billion for medical research.
Prior to his heart attack, Lewis had long faced problems with his health, and in June 2012 was rushed to the hospital with low blood sugar only minutes before he was to present an award to Tom Cruise at a New York Friars Club event.
Going back to 1982, Lewis had open-heart surgery, and after that had battled prostate cancer, diabetes and viral meningitis. He also suffered from a debilitating depression triggered by a megadose of the steroid prednisone, prescribed to treat the lung ailment pulmonary fibrosis (a scarring of the lung tissue).
The steroid caused a notable change in his appearance. “I put on 56 lbs,” Lewis told PEOPLE in 2002. “Because of the swelling, you can’t bend over and tie your shoe. I needed to exercise, but I’d get up and walk 20 feet, and I needed oxygen.”
The weight gain also put additional strain on his spine, aggravating the chronic back pain he had been battling for decades. “It got so bad,” he told PEOPLE, “I went upstairs, and I was sitting in the master bedroom and thinking I know where the gun is and it would be over in a minute.” (That same day, he had a “pain pacemaker” permanently implanted in his spinal column to ease his suffering.)
Showbiz in His Blood
Lewis was born Joseph Levitch, the son of a vaudeville performer father and piano-player mother, in Newark, New Jersey. Only 16, he got into comedy, and with his jet black hair and gangly 6-ft. frame, soon started making a name for himself.
Genuine stardom arrived once he teamed in 1946 with a suave Italian-American singer from Ohio named Dean Martin. Lewis clowned while Martin crooned, and audiences lapped it up, first in nightclubs, then in movies and on TV. Almost immediately they became a national phenomenon.
“I saw Jerry so unabashedly in need of attention that he’d do anything to get it,” Shirley MacLaine, who starred with Martin and Lewis in the 1955 movie Artists and Models, wrote in her 1995 book My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir. “Dean was another matter. He was smooth, kind, subtly witty, good-looking and seemed to be infinitely more complicated than Jerry.”
Offstage, the differences between the two men became even more pronounced. Lewis hogged the act, Martin claimed. Martin was holding him back, Lewis countered. In 1956, the two permanently went their separate ways, never to settle their feud — though Martin would make a brief surprise appearance on Lewis’s 1976 telethon, thanks to mutual friend Frank Sinatra.
“I broke up the act,” Lewis told PEOPLE in 2002. “Dean hurt desperately. And I felt guilty of not seeing it sooner.” Martin died at 78 on Christmas Day 1995.
On his own, Lewis scored at the box office with a series of comedies he wrote, directed and starred in, including 1960’s The Bellboy and Cinderfella, The Errand Boy (1961) and, the one considered the best of the bunch, The Nutty Professor (1963).
Then, in 1965, on the closing night of his solo lounge act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Lewis took a pratfall off a piano and chipped a piece of his spine, leaving him in chronic pain. He soon became addicted to Percodan, taking as many as 13 pills a day.
Lewis released no movies for a decade following 1970’s Which Way to the Front? and, in October 1978, collapsed. “I was bleeding from my nose, my mouth, my ear, every orifice,” he told PEOPLE. His physician, Dr. Michael DeBakey, had him hospitalized for 10 days to wean him off the painkiller. “When he cleaned me out, we dumped 2,000 Percodans in the toilet,” Lewis said.
In 1983, he made a career comeback in the Martin Scorsese-directed The King of Comedy, in which he played a Johnny Carson-like TV host who is kidnapped and held ransom by two crazed fans, played by Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard. Even those who earlier had found Lewis and his slapstick to be an acquired taste praised his uncharacteristically controlled performance.
That same year, he married former dancer Sandra Pitnick, whom he met while making 1981’s Hardly Working. Their daughter, Dani, was born March 1992.
Lewis was previously married from 1944 (when he was 18) until 1982 to Patti Palmer, with whom he had five sons: Gary, Ron, Scott, Chris and Anthony. That marriage ended in divorce.
As for Lewis’s enduring popularity, perhaps it is best explained in the advice he gave the actor Sean Hayes, who played Lewis in the 2002 TV movie Martin and Lewis. “Always play the 9-year-old kid,” Lewis told Hayes, “and always hold onto that innocence.”