Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents, Rae and Danny Lewis, were professionals in the entertainment world. While his father, as Jerry puts it, "was the total entertainer," his mother played piano at New York City radio station WOR, made musical arrangements, and was her husbands musical director.
When only five years old Jerry made his debut at a hotel in New Yorks Borscht Circuit singing "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" By the time he was fifteen, he had perfected a comic routine, miming and silent mouthing lyrics of operatic and popular songs to a phonograph located off-stage.
Dressed in a drape jacket and pegged pants, Jerry braved the offices of booking agents. When he finally got a booking it was at a burlesque house in Buffalo, but this hardly proved to be his big break ready to give up in discouragement, he was advised to continue his career by a veteran burlesque comedian, Max Coleman, who had worked with Jerrys father years before. When Lewis tried out his mime act at Browns Hotel in Loch Sheldrake, New York, the following summer. the audience was so enthusiastic that Irving Kaye, a Borscht Circuit comedian, helped the youth get further bookings.
On July 25, 1946, Jerry began a show business partnership with Dean Martin, an association that would soon skyrocket both to fame. It started when Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City and one of the entertainers quit suddenly. Lewis, who had worked with Martin at the Glass Hat in New York City, suggested Dean as a replacement. At first they worked separately, but then ad-libbed together, improvising insults and jokes, squirting water, hurting bunches of celery and exuding general zaniness. In less than eighteen weeks their salaries soared from $250.00 a week to $5,000.00.
When the motion picture producer Hal Wallis watched the two perform at the Copacabana in New York City, he had them sign a contract with Paramount Pictures. Of their first film, "My Friend Irma" (1949), Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote: "We could go along with the laughs, which were fetched by a new mad comedian, Jerry Lewis by name. This freakishly built and acting young man, who has been seen in nightclubs hereabouts with a collar-ad partner, Dean Martin, has a genuine comic quality. The swift eccentricity of his movements, the harrowing features of his face, and the squeak of his vocal protestations have flair. His idiocy constitutes the burlesque of an idiot, which is something else again. Hes the funniest thing in the picture."
For ten years Martin and Lewis sandwiched sixteen moneymaking films between nightclub engagements, personal appearances and television bookings. Their last film together was "Hollywood of Bust" (1956). On July 25th of that year the two made their last nightclub appearance together at the Copa, exactly ten years to the day since they had began as a team.
From then on, Jerry Lewis was constantly on the move. He recorded several records and albums; one of them "Rock A Bye Your Baby", released by Decca Records, has sold nearly four million copies to date. With increased confidence, Lewis plunged into screen writing, directing, producing as well as acting. In the spring of 1959, a contract between Paramount Pictures and Jerry Lewis Productions was singed specifying a payment of $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over a seven year period. at that time the biggest single transaction in film history for the exclusive services of one star. Paramount and Jerry dissolved the partner ship in 1965.
Jerry immediately moved to Columbia Pictures where he produced, directed and starred in "Three On A Couch".. he then wrote, produced, directed and starred in "The Big Mouth" and "Dont Raise the Bridge, Lower the River." He then directed Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr. in "One More Time" in England for United Artists before moving to Warner Bros. to star, produce and direct "Which Way To The Front?"
A fact not widely known in the United States is that Jerry has won the Best Director of the Year award eight times in Europe since 1960; three in France, and one each in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. When "Hardly Working" opened in Paris, the marquee on the Champs Elysees simply read "JERRY". No further explanation was necessary for Jerrys French fans. The French film critic, Robert Benayoun, wrote: "I consider Jerry Lewis, since the death of Buster Keaton, to be the foremost comic artist of the time. He corresponds to his era both reflecting and criticizing our civilization." The French director, Jean-Luc Godard, said: "Jerry Lewis is the only American director who has made progressive films, he is much better than Chaplin and Keaton."
The Times of London stated: "Quite apart from his gifts as a performer, Mr. Lewis is one of the best directors working in America today." Although Lewis is gratified by such esteem, he values the words engraved on a plaque in his dressing room more the plaque was given to him by his friend, President John F. Kennedy, and reads: "There are three things that are real God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond our comprehension, we must do the best we can with the third."
Over the year Jerry Lewis scored triumphs in stage appearances in Europe, where he has been hailed as one of the greatest comedians of the 20th Century. When he played at the Olympia Theater in Paris, tickets were sold out, the audience packed. "Jerry Lewis is more than a great artist, he is a great man," stated LAurore.