He was born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, N.J. His parents, Danny and Rae Lewis, were professional entertainers. Their support and influence brought Jerry to his stage debut at age 5 in a New York Borscht Circuit hotel. By the time he was 15, he had perfected a comic routine.
In July 1946, Jerry began a show business partnership with Dean Martin that would skyrocket both to fame. It started when Jerry was performing at the 500 Club in Atlantic City and one of the other entertainers suddenly quit. Jerry, who had already worked with Martin at the Glass Hat in New York City, suggested Dean as a replacement.
For 10 years, Martin and Lewis sandwiched 16 moneymaking films between nightclub engagements, personal appearances and television bookings. In the spring of 1959, a contract between Paramount and Jerry Lewis Productions was signed—the biggest transaction in film history—specifying payment of $10 million plus 60 percent of the profits for 14 films over a seven-year period.
For more than four decades, Jerry has served as volunteer national chairman of the MDA health agency. Since 1966, his Labor Day Telethons have raised some $900 million for the search for treatments and cures for neuromuscular diseases, and to provide unparalleled service to those affected by them. Watched by some 70 million viewers, the 1997 Telethon raised a record $50.5 million in pledges and contributions. He says, "People think I show up only on Labor Day—that's hysterical."
Jerry has been effective in enlisting aid for hundreds of thousands of people with neuromuscular disorders through legislative action. In 1973, he appeared before the California legislature and petitioned for and received $1 million for the Jerry Lewis Neuromuscular Disease Research Center at UCLA.
Jerry's determined humanitarian efforts have earned the television and film celebrity numerous awards and honors. In 1977, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize—the only time an entertainer has been so honored. The French made their sentiments official in 1984 by giving him their two most distinguished awards. He was made Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, followed by an induction into the Legion of Honor, in recognition of his many years of leadership of MDA.
On June 8, 1985, the U.S. Defense Department presented him with its highest civilian award—the Medal for Distinguished Public Service. And in December 1996, Jerry and the MDA were recognized by the American Medical Association with Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Jerry is also a successful inventor—his patented video assist is currently used on virtually every movie set, and on many television sets.
Besides his many entertainment, philanthropic, and family responsibilities, Jerry is also a full professor at the University of Southern California, where he has taught classes in film direction. The Total Film Maker, based on recordings of 480 hours of his classroom lectures, was published in 1971. He holds Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Mercy College and Emerson College.