Jerry Lewis: A true “King of Comedy”

When Jerry Lewis left us this weekend past at the age of 91, it forced many of us to say farewell to an old friend, one that the majority of us had never met in person. What we knew about him was mostly gleaned from movie cameras, television appearances, interviews, rumor, the usual Hollywood nonsense, and those few fleeting glances we may have had when he was found in his most personal moments.

Others will tell his story in much greater detail than I, so allow me just to note a personal note about the man and his impact.

The MDA Telethon and “Jerry’s Kids”

I grew up in the era when the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was must viewing by everyone. The cavalcade of stars, REAL stars, that floated, danced and sang their way across the stage in New York City and then for many years in Las Vegas, was in many ways a rare delight to see these entertainers all gathered together. Most of the time it was unscripted and, every now and then, ribald conversation for that era. No one cared. It was Jerry and his friends, having fun and raising money for a great cause.

Of course, who will ever forget the time Frank Sinatra used the telethon to bring a pair of old friends together again for the first time in many years?

After many years, Lewis was unceremoniously replaced as host of the telethon. MDA officials did their best to put a lipstick on this pig of an announcement, but the truth eventually emerged. They saw Lewis as an aging entertainer who no longer reached audiences, and they were determined to pare the telethon down into an “entertainment special” focusing on the likes of “D” list entertainers such as the Kardashians. Lewis was a bitter man to the end, the telethon eventually withered and expired, and what was once a National gathering that did so much good for so many people became just another corporate disaster.

What hurt Lewis most of all were accusations from those seeking to take advantage of the “piling on”, the people who said he “used” those children suffering from this debilitating disease in order to keep himself relevant. Those words were hurtful to a man who had devoted a large chunk of his life to helping others.

The reality of a man truly responsible to his words

Jerry Lewis raised more than $2.6B for Muscular Dystrophy over the years. That’s “B” as in “billions”. Everywhere he went he made time for those kids, their parents, the people touched by this insidious disease. And when he was unceremoniously fired and publicly humiliated by the people at MDA, he didn’t go into a media tirade. He didn’t spend months and years seeking revenge. He slipped quietly away and hoped what he was leaving behind spoke louder than those who would criticize. 

Indeed those actions do. Lewis will be remember by many as one of the greatest comic actors of our time. He will be remembered for movies that while not artistic masterpieces, made people smile and made their lives a little better. The Internet is, of course, filled with Lewis stories in the wake of his passing. Many are choosing to recall when he was rude at restaurants, made fun of people who couldn’t take a joke, perhaps failed to stop and sign an autograph while being hounded.

Lewis was human like the rest of us. He had his foibles and his moments of pique. Certainly there were times when he wasn’t perfect. Welcome to the human race.

But in the end, he must be remembered as someone who gave so much of his time to causes, those seeking to make life better for the less fortunate. There a kids who grew to adults when they were given zero shot of making it into their teens thanks in large part to his efforts. Not merely raising money, but raising awareness.

I remember a theme in his movie “Cinderfella”, which was assailed by the critics who never liked him and many, for ridiculous reasons, blamed him for the infamous breakup with Dean Martin years earlier. It was about a young man who didn’t want to  be a “people” anymore, who didn’t want to just be part of the crowd. He wanted to be a “person”, to be somebody special, to use his short time here on Earth to make a difference. That theme struck a chord with me when I first saw the film, and resonates to this day.

Jerry Lewis will never have to worry about being remembered as a “people”. He was indeed a “person”, one of great integrity, responsibility, accountability and leadership. A gentle man who will always in my mind, and that of millions more, be remembered as an image of someone who gave without question, and merely wanted to make our world a little brighter every day.

Even when he left us in tears at the end of every telethon, our world was made a little sunnier knowing we were part of something more than just a television show.

Thank you, Jerry. Thank you for making my life, and so many others, a little brighter every day.

And perhaps leaving behind a few lessons in how we can all strive for that level of image in our personal and professional lives.