Tribute to Jerry Lewis: A legacy bigger than comedy

CNN  — 

Jerry Lewis was indisputably an entertainment legend and comedy giant, yet also a complex and polarizing figure – one whose often-contradictory career went through various stages, and whose appreciation waxed and waned across the times and even geographic locales.

Like Dick Gregory, the civil-rights pioneer and stand-up comedian who also died over the weekend, Lewis will be remembered for much more than just comedy. While performing wasn’t merely the tip of the iceberg, in both cases their show-business careers were wrapped up in personalities that cast a shadow, and leave behind a legacy, which spilled well beyond the stage and screen.

Lewis enjoyed vast popularity during his 10-year partnership with Dean Martin beginning after World War II – first as a live act, then in such movies as “You’re Never Too Young” and “Scared Stiff.”

After their much-publicized split in 1956, Lewis made a name for himself as a director and star of broad slapstick comedies – movies like “The Nutty Professor” (remade starring Eddie Murphy in the 1990s) and “The Bellboy.”

Because of his box-office success, Lewis wielded enormous clout at Paramount Pictures, although the auteur label that such a multifaceted star would have worn was largely limited to Europe, especially France, because of the farcical nature of his work.

Lewis tried to broaden his appeal, but was frequently met by resistance and setbacks. His 1972 movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” a drama he wrote and directed set in a concentration camp, was never released, and became an ongoing source of fascination. (A portion of the movie surfaced a few years ago.)

Off screen, Lewis’ charitable endeavors and especially his championing of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Assn. telethon further shaped his image, raising billions for research but also enhancing his reputation as a kitsch figure.

Through the years, however, the comedy community admiringly embraced Lewis as an enduring link to another era, recognizing his success and longevity, as well as the creativity and innovations he brought to the comedies of his heyday. In addition, he demonstrated impressive chops as a dramatic actor – most notably in director Martin Scorsese’s 1982 movie “The King of Comedy,” in which Lewis played a Johnny Carson-like TV personality not so far from his own persona; and later, an arc of the TV drama “Wiseguy.”

Lewis could be gruff, outspoken, prickly. He derided female comedians and bristled at criticism of his approach to the MDA telethon. His break with Martin was acrimonious, although the two were reunited decades later by Frank Sinatra, and Lewis eventually wrote a book reminiscing about their partnership, titled “Dean & Me (A Love Story).”

The New York Times’ obituary nicely captured the dichotomies that surrounded Lewis. Calling him “mercurial,” the piece noted that he was “adored by many, disdained by others,” and that in a career filled with ups and downs, “at its zenith there were few stars any bigger.”

Memories of Lewis defy simple categorization. But he’ll endure as a symbol of his time – one whose artistic merits can (and surely will) be debated, but whose bigness and significance can’t be ignored.