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Jerry Lewis: A Complicated King of Comedy

The entertainment great, who died Sunday at age 91, forged a multi-faceted legacy in a storied career spanning eight decades.

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    Jerry Lewis: A Complicated King of Comedy
    AP Photo/Joel Ryan
    U.S. comedian Jerry Lewis at a press conference where it was announced that Lewis would star in the upcoming production 'Max Rose', during the 62nd International film festival in Cannes, southern France, Friday, May 15, 2009.

    In his “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”-inspired comedic master work, “The Nutty Professor,” Jerry Lewis gave fans two characters for the price of one: sweet, ineffectual scientist Julius Klemp and his chemically conjured alter ego, the obnoxious lounge singer and ladies’ man, Buddy Love.

    But through his eight-decade career, Lewis, who died Sunday at age 91, presented many other sides of his personality as he spurred laughter, tears and even anger on the way to becoming a deceivingly complicated entertainment icon.

    There was the manic man-child who propelled Lewis’ zany 1940s and 1950s buddy comedy hits with straight-man crooner Dean Martin (the best of the bunch include “Artists and Models” and “Sailor Beware”). There was the solo, would-be auteur who, with mixed success, attempted to transform himself into the Chaplin of his era (“The Bellboy” and “Cinderfella” rank among the standouts – just ask his many French fans).

    There was the selfless, indefatigable humanitarian whose annual Labor Day TV telethons drew awareness  – and celebrities – to the battle against muscular dystrophy, raising about $2.5 billion on behalf of “Jerry’s Kids” over 44 years (Lewis lived up to the pledge he sang at the end of each installment: "You'll Never Walk Alone").

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    There was the Lewis who also could get serious on the big screen – no more so than in Martin Scorsese’s underrated 1982 gem “King of Comedy,” in which the actor portrayed a top comedian kidnapped by a deranged fan (Robert DeNiro).

    Then there was the Lewis, who eventually became the cranky old man of comedy – foolishly declaring, variously, that women couldn’t or shouldn’t be funny.

    Unlike Prof. Klemp, Lewis didn’t have to chug a secret formula to summon his multiple personalities – bouncing in latter-day stage and TV talk show appearances from the overgrown, rubber-faced kid yelling “Hey, Lady!” to singing schmaltzy songs designed to make his audience – and himself – shed a tear to occasionally letting his ego and blind spots get the better of him. 

    For whatever faults he possessed, Lewis' influence is everywhere – from every buddy-comedy flick made since the 1950s to the careers of Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy, who most folks probably think of these days when they hear the words “Nutty Professor.”

    Still, it’s hard to beat the 1963 original, especially the climax when slick Buddy slowly turns back into the buck-toothed and bespectacled Julius, who delivers a speech by turns corny and devastating:

    “I didn’t like being someone else,” Julius declares mid-transformation, his voice part whiny Klemp, part grating Buddy – and all Jerry Lewis. “At the same time, I’m very glad I was. Because I found out something I never knew: You might as well like yourself.

    “Just think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you.”

    Fans around the word were lucky enough to spend time with Jerry Lewis in all his incarnations – through the heartfelt to the infuriating to the inspiring to the hilarious – during an at-times nutty, but ultimately unforgettable comedic journey.

    Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.