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Arts & Culture

Comedian Jerry Lewis Dies At 91, Also Known For Muscular Dystrophy Telethon

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The comedian, filmmaker and philanthropist Jerry Lewis, he of the nasally voice and epic pratfalls, has died. Here he is with his longtime partner and straight-man Dean Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY LEWIS: Oh, I saw a sign outside. And it said that you learn people how to dance. So I'm here.

(LAUGHTER)

DEAN MARTIN: Oh, you want to learn how to dance, huh?

LEWIS: Yeah. Yeah, I'd like to...

MARTIN: Why? Why?

LEWIS: Well, because everybody dances. And I always go to parties - you see, Mr. Martin? And I sit in a corner. And I don't dance with girls. They call me a wallflower. But if you teach me how to dance, then I'll go to a new party sometime next week. And I'll have all the girls. Boy, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: His classic goofball character stumbled through movies like "The Bellboy" and "The Nutty Professor." In real life, Lewis was almost as well known for his philanthropy, launching an annual muscular dystrophy telethon to help children. But he also had a habit of courting controversy. And let's talk about this with biographer Shawn Levy. He's a film critic and author of many books on the movies, including "King Of Comedy: The Life And Art Of Jerry Lewis." Welcome to the program.

SHAWN LEVY: Hi, thank you.

GREENE: Just listening to that voice, wow - I mean, so many movies, long career, also on television. How do you define the art of Jerry Lewis?

LEVY: Boy, you know, for a long time, it seemed like the art of Jerry Lewis was anything he set his mind to. In the 1950s and '60s, he was the highest paid entertainer on TV, movies and in nightclubs. He had top 10 singles on the radio. He performed at state fairs. He performed all around the world. He directed films. He was a dynamo.

GREENE: What was it? What was the appeal - I mean, someone who can come across as such a classic goofball but so beloved?

LEVY: Well, he played a young, innocent character. And that translated internationally, I think, and across the generations of audiences. And also, even though we think of him as a squealing voice, he was a physical comic. So that's like silent movies or cartoons. And there's an element to that that appeals to everybody because it's so easy to get the joke.

GREENE: What about the controversies? I mean, he had this legendarily bad temper and also stuck his foot in it - you know, criticizing female comedians.

LEVY: Yeah, he was - he could be very thin-skinned with employees, with his partner Dean Martin, with journalists, especially. And over the years, he had notable run-ins with the press. And he also, as time went on, became kind of a curmudgeon. Things he said in 1960 sounded very different when he said them again in 2010 or so. So - but he was extremely stubborn. If he thought it, he thought it. He would tell the world.

GREENE: What about his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which he became so well-known for? Did that shape him as a performer?

LEVY: I don't know if it shaped him as a performer. But it certainly shaped him as a man. He probably worked nonstop, and I mean day after day, for muscular dystrophy causes and initiatives for 60 years - literally every day of his life, I would say. He raised some $2 billion through his telethons and other fundraising work. And he was in touch with families all over the world all the time. So it truly was part of him.

GREENE: Author and film critic Shawn Levy. His latest book, "Dolce Vita Confidential" explores the glamour of moviemaking in 1950s Rome. Thanks so much for talking to us this morning. We really appreciate it.

LEVY: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF OTTO A. TOTLAND'S "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.