When it comes to comedy, no one did it better than the late great Jerry Lewis. But as charmingly unique, wacky, and zany as his on-screen antics were, there was a lot more to him than meets the eye. Over a life that spanned 91 years and a career that spanned seven decades, Lewis ran the gamut from quirky and fun-loving to troubled and controversial, and everything in between. Here are 43 fun facts about Jerry Lewis—the man behind the comedy.
Jerry Lewis Facts
1. Running in the Family
Lewis’ talent and interest in show business didn’t just appear out of the blue—both of his parents were showbiz professionals back in their days. His father was a multi-talented Vaudeville performer, and his mother was a piano player for a radio station.
2. Starting Young
Lewis’ life as a performer began at the tender young age of just five years old, when he joined his parents on stage to perform in a special location: New York’s legendary Catskill mountains. This scene was where many of the 20th century’s greatest comics got their starts. Jerry Stiller and Lenny Bruce are just two examples of the stars who cut their teeth in the Catskills.
3. Howdy Partner
An unlikely pairing first brought Lewis into the public spotlight. His stage partner was none other than Dean Martin, who would rocket to superstardom as a singer. The two were both unknowns when they first met, but somehow decided to team up. Despite their unrelated talents, the public adored the duo. The rest, as they say, is history.
4. Identity Crisis
Like many other celebrities, the name that Lewis went by in public was just a stage name. Unlike those many other celebrities, though, Lewis kept a strange secret: No one knows about his real name. Lewis’ autobiography explains that his real name is Joseph Levitch, and that he was named after his grandfather. But that’s not the whole truth.
However, multiple legal documents, including his birth certificate and several government census reports, refer to him as Jerome Levitch. So…who is this guy??
5. Cheater Cheater Pumpkin Eater
Lewis was frequently unfaithful to his wives. Even worse, the comedy legend made very little effort to conceal his indiscretions. He openly bragged about having affairs with Hollywood legends Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich.
6. If They Could See Me Now
Due to the busy schedules of his show biz parents, Jerry was often left alone as a kid. He developed a strong need for attention as a result—a need that stayed with him for life. Some even believe that Lewis’ thirst for attention initially motivated him to become a performer. So there you go. Ignore your kid and they’ll become a successful comedian. Parenting 101.
Lewis had one strange and incredibly controlling hobby. Apparently, he used to edit other people’s completed movies in his spare time for his own personal use. He would cut out the parts that he didn’t like, and then insist upon playing his own edited versions of his favorite films whenever people came over to watch at his house. Okay, Jerry.
8. Breaking and Entering
Unsurprisingly, Lewis was always a prankster when he was young. As a teenager, he’d sneak into people’s houses and steal things like pies and chickens as a practical joke.
9. School’s out Forever
Lewis was certainly not the academic type. In fact, he never even completed high school. Instead, the comedian dropped out of school for good partway through the 10th grade. We guess he learned all he needed?
10. Giving Back
As silly and wild as his persona was in the movies, Lewis had a heartbreakingly soft side in real life. For many years, he served as the national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. To help raise money for his cause, Lewis hosted a popular annual Labor Day Telethon for 44 years in a row. Why did Lewis take on the work? A staff member begged him to host and Lewis just couldn’t say no.
11. Piano Was Not His Forte
While performing in Las Vegas in 1965, Lewis messed up a comedic fall from a piano. It was a dark, fateful moment. As a result of the fall, he severely injured his back. He landed so badly that he suffered from extensive injuries and was almost permanently paralyzed. Luckily, he managed to make a complete recovery in the end.
12. He Shall Overcome
Though Lewis recovered from his infamous 1965 back injury, it came with a heartbreakingly high cost. In one of the darkest chapters of his life, Lewis became addicted to painkillers in the aftermath. The comedian struggled with the addiction for no less than 13 years. Though it was no laughing matter, he finally overcame his demons and quit for good in 1978.
13. Record of Achievement
By the time he was just 15 years old, Lewis already developed his now famous “Record Act” bit. If you haven’t seen it, the bit involves Lewis pantomiming a lip-synced performance of a song in an exaggerated and silly way. The routine would become a Jerry Lewis signature. He performed the song-and-dance act for decades.
14. Say Cheese!
In addition to his comedy act, Lewis opened a camera shop in the early days of his career. I guess Lewis was determined to be in the spotlight in one way or another.
15. Getting the Assist
On top of the many new styles that he introduced to the world of comedy, Lewis was also very innovative in the arena of filmmaking itself. On top of widely experimenting with different uses of cinematography, he also invented a “video-assist” device that allowed him to review video footage as soon as it was filmed, saving huge amounts of time and money on the editing process.
The device was so useful, it’s still commonly used by filmmakers to this day.
16. Give My Regards to Broadway
One of Lewis’ lifelong dreams was to appear on Broadway. When his career went a different way, he thought he had to give up those ambitions—Happily, he was so, so wrong. His dream finally came true in 1995 when he was asked to replace a cast member as the Devil in the revival of Damn Yankees. But then it got better: He got paid a record sum for the part.
17. All My Sons
Lewis was the patriarch of a very large family. He had seven children, to be precise, including two whom he adopted. Six of them were sons, and one was the lone daughter named Danielle. I can only imagine the kind of shenanigans Danielle had to put up with as the only girl in a house with six brothers and a rowdy legend for a dad!
18. An Unclean Bill of Health
As a young man, Lewis tried to enlist in the military to serve in the Second World War, but he was rejected for a heartbreaking reason. The doctors discovered that Lewis had a heart murmur and deemed him unfit to serve.
19. Once a Nut, Always a Nut
Most movie fans are aware that Eddie Murphy remade Lewis’ comedy classic, The Nutty Professor, in 1996. But few people know about the movie’s little secret: the executive producer of that remake was none other than Lewis himself. I guess he didn’t mind having his works reimagined by others—unlike many of his Hollywood peers!
20. A Sadness That Never Leaves
In 2009, unimaginable tragedy struck Jerry Lewis. His beloved son, Joseph, struggled throughout his life. Over time, he turned to substances and in the end, committed suicide at the age of 45. Understandably, this devastating loss had a profound and lasting impact on the comedian. In Lewis’ own words, “you don’t get over [something like] that.”
21. Sad Clown
Despite being known by the public almost exclusively as a funnyman, Lewis once starred in a dramatic role. The public’s response was startling. When Lewis appeared in the dark 1983 Martin Scorsese film, King of Comedy, critics were amazed by his performance. Lewis, playing against type, received widespread acclaim.
22. Sock It to Me
As a way of celebrating how far he came since his poor childhood, the adult Lewis purposely chose never to wear a pair of socks more than once. Each time he would buy a pair, he would wear it for one day and then throw it in the garbage. In fact, at times, he even changed into new pairs of socks up to four times a day—just because he liked “the feeling of brand-new.”
23. Brushes With Greatness
Perhaps because he never wanted to be too far from the big screen, a young Lewis worked at a local movie theater to make some cash while his comedy career wasn’t taking off. While getting promoted from a soda jerk to an usher and helping patrons find their seats, Lewis couldn’t have known that he was in the presence of Hollywood greatness.
His boss was the father of future actress and star of the Alfred Hitchcock classic The Birds, Suzanne Pleshette.
24. Family Feud
Although Lewis was popular with many, one surprising person is not a fan. Sadly, that person is Lewis’ own son Gary. Gary publicly referred to his father as “a mean and evil person” who, he feels, never demonstrated any love or care for his children. Yikes! He may have been a comedian, but there’s nothing funny about this.
25. Bad Housekeeping
Starting in the late 1980s, Lewis and his family were tormented by an unknown stalker who would continually harass them. When they found out his identity, they were shocked. The culprit was Gary Benson, a former housekeeper’s boyfriend. Though Benson went to prison in 1994 for his crimes, the revelation made the Lewis family feel violated.
26. No Respect
Despite being an enormously popular and well-respected movie star for a generation, Lewis was never nominated for an Academy Award.
27. Showing Them How It’s Done
Lewis taught a class on film directing at the University of Southern California back in the late 1960s—even though he never finished high school. Among the pupils who attended his lectures were not one but two future directing legends: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. I guess good ol’ Jerry knew what he was talking about!
28. Is This Part of the Act?
In 2012, Lewis gave his fans an enormous scare when he collapsed in the middle of an event. He went to the hospital immediately, where doctors discovered that his blood sugar was dangerously low. Thankfully, they put him on the mend.
29. An Animated Performer
The Simpsons character Professor Frink is actually based off of Lewis’s performance in The Nutty Professor.
30. Funny Money
In one of his many bizarre quirks, Lewis always insisted upon making sure that his personal aides arranged all of the money in his wallet in order. “In order,” as in according to the bills’ serial numbers. Hmm.
31. Lewis the Third
When Lewis first started performing, he went by the stage name of “Joey Lewis.” He decided to change it to Jerry to avoid being mistaken for either fellow comedian Joe E. Lewis or boxing star Joe Louis.
32. He Waited a Lifetime for This
Despite never winning an Academy Award for any of his films, Lewis received an Oscar for “Lifetime Achievement” in 2009. He was so proud to finally have one that he actually carried it around with him much of the time for the remainder of his life!
33. That Je Ne Sais Quois
Lewis wasn’t always a beloved comedian, and American critics spent a long time deriding his hijinks and wacky antics. Oddly enough, however, Lewis was wildly popular in France long before gaining fame stateside.
Getty Images34. A Winning Cause
When all was said and done, Lewis’ annual Labor Day telethons raised a total of a whopping $2.45 billion for his cause. I’m sure that made a whole lot of people out there grateful for his on-stage shenanigans and their unique ability to draw the public’s attention.
35. Maury Povich: Jerry Lewis Edition
There have long been rumors that Lewis fathered an illegitimate child, Suzan Minoret, with the model Lynn Dixon. Though Lewis stayed silent on the matter, in 2009, Inside Edition investigated his paternity and performed genetic testing on Minoret. The results stated that there was more than 88% likelihood that he was the father.
36. Not Exactly Model Behavior
In response to these paternity investigations, Lewis did something truly horrific. He reportedly ordered Dixon to never contact him again.
37. Access Denied
Lewis’ relationship even with his acknowledged kids was rockier than anyone realized. When he passed away in 2017, the press discovered that Lewis’ will contained a terrible order. He purposely left all five of the children from his first marriage out of his will. But that wasn’t even the worst part. Lewis also insisted that these five children could not benefit from his estate in any way.
38. This Means War
There are celebrity feuds, and then there are celebrity wars. It’s safe to say that Lewis’ relationship with the late Joan Rivers falls into the second category—but the details are even more disturbing than you’d think. One day, Rivers made a joke in public about how Lewis should be grateful for his charity telethon, and Lewis absolutely flipped his lid.
After writing her a note to say that “We’ve never met, and I’m looking forward to keeping it that way,” he escalated things to the point of no return. Lewis claimed that he “wouldn’t mind” if Rivers died that day and promised to “get somebody from Chicago to beat [her] head off” if she ever mentioned him or his family again.
39. It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis seemed like a match made in comedy heaven, but nothing good lasts forever—and their breakup is one of the most infamous splits in show business. After several years of disillusionment, Dean Martin just couldn’t deal with the fact that Lewis got more attention than him. He lost his temper, and the results were chilling.
Martin angrily exclaimed that Lewis was “nothing to me but a [freaking] dollar sign!” Yeah, I’d say it’s probably pretty hard to continue working with someone after a fight like that. They coldly finished up their remaining scheduled performances, but it was so bad that afterward, the once inseparable pair didn’t speak to each other for 20 years.
40. Happy Anniversary
Purely by coincidence, Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin ended precisely on the 10th anniversary of the day when they first agreed to work as a team.
41. When Life Gives You Lemons
For Jerry Lewis, the professional breakup with Dean Martin was no small event. He’d spent 10 years as a member of the duo. His only taste of professional success was when he was Dean’s partner. What would happen now? The uncertainty threw Lewis into a state of emotional turmoil. Little did he know, his life would never be the same.
Lewis would soon go on to much bigger and better things as a solo artist and filmmaker, far exceeding his success as part of a double act.
42. Together Again
Through no choice of his own, Lewis made television history in 1976. While live on the air during one of his annual telethons, guest performer Frank Sinatra surprised his host by announcing that he had brought an old friend around who wanted to say hello to the comedian. The guest made everyone’s jaw drop to the floor.
To everyone’s utter shock, Lewis included, the one and only Dean Martin walked out on stage. After he and Lewis had not spoken in two decades following the breakup of their act, they were now reunited for the first time. All the animosity between them seemed to evaporate in real time as they embraced each other in front of the whole world.
If you’ve never seen this clip, it’s definitely worth checking out—but be warned, even the best of us can hardly contain our tears while watching this touching moment between two true friends.
43. Friends Again
Despite the intensity of their 20 year feud, Lewis spoke to Dean Martin practically “every day” from the moment of their surprise on-air reunion onward. It seems that when Sinatra unexpectedly brought them back together, they both instantly realized that they wanted to be friends again after all. They spent the rest of their lives trying to make up for lost time.
In fact, during a 1988 reunion show in honor of Martin’s 72nd birthday, Lewis exclaimed “Why we broke up, I’ll never know!”