Legendary comedic actor and philanthropist Jerry Lewis died yesterday in his Las Vegas home from natural causes. He was 91.
A singer, filmmaker, and screenwriter, Lewis was probably best known around the world for his slapstick brand of humour showcased in movies like The Nutty Professor in addition to the much darker The King Of Comedy, directed by Martin Scorsese. Lewis' biggest impact, however, probably revolved around the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon, an event he hosted for 44 years to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), which raised more than two billion dollars.
Muscular dystrophy is a hereditary disease characterized by the progressive weakening and wasting of muscles. The Muscular Dystrophy Association funds research into finding a cure to the disease, providing care and support for families with muscular dystrophy, and funding things like the MDA Summer Camps for children with muscular dystrophy.
Started in 1950, the Muscular Dystrophy Association attracted marquee celebrities quickly, with Lewis and comedy partner Dean Martin beginning to champion the organization in 1951. Lewis and Martin started hosting telethon events in 1956 and by 1966 these became formalized as the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons. MDA estimates these telethons raised $2.45 billion USD ($3.08 CAD) in during the years Lewis hosted the event between 1966 and 2011.
Over the years many of the biggest names in entertainment participated in the telethons. A small sampling of the A-listers who've been involved include Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson, John Lennon and Tina Turner.
R. Rodney Howell, MDA's chair, credited Lewis with helping make the organization what it is today.
"What Jerry did for our cause is immeasurable — he stood head and shoulders above any other celebrity associated with a specific cause to make sure the world knew about muscular dystrophy and the children and adults who live with it," Howell said in a statement. “His relentless determination and commitment to find a cure for neuromuscular disease has profoundly affected the lives of millions of families. We salute him, forge ahead to realize his vision, and honor his memory in gratitude for his extraordinary accomplishments and gifts to MDA."
Numerous high-profile entertainment figures made moving statements about Lewis upon hearing of his death. Jim Carrey said "Jerry Lewis was an undeniable genius an unfathomable blessing, comedy's absolute! I am because he was!" in a tweet. Scorsese, meanwhile, said "Jerry Lewis was a master. He was a giant. He was an innovator. He was a great artist. And he was a remarkable man" in a statement.
Lewis' charitable work became so closely aligned with MDA that children with muscular dystrophy were often referred to as "Jerry's Kids." For all his efforts, Lewis was not without his detractors. Disability advocates often found his views and language extremely problematic. He'd call wheelchair-bound children "cripples" and sometimes suggested people with muscular dystrophy should be pitied. In the final years of the telethon a disabilities group calling itself Jerry's Orphans would protest the event. The final MDA telethon took place in 2014.
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