Jerry Lewis Will Be Remembered For His Comedic And Humanitarian Legacies

In his lifetime, Lewis raised over $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Jerry Lewis, comedian and noted philanthropist, died Sunday in Las Vegas at the age of 91. Lewis made a career out of being the zany, wildcard half of a comedy duo with Dean Martin, and starred in films such as The Nutty Professor and The Bellboy while at the same time creating a lasting legacy through his relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

In the early 1950s, after appearing in a handful of the first telethons ever produced, Martin and Lewis were asked to host a television event to raise money for muscular dystrophy, a then little-known disease. They started small. The four-hour event appeared on a handful of local channels before more and more stations picked up the annual fundraiser that had expanded into a 21-hour live television broadcast. 

Martin and Lewis parted ways as a comedy duo in 1956. Martin moved onto other things. Lewis was just beginning a hosting gig that would continue until 2010. 

In 1966, the first Jerry Lewis Telethon for muscular dystrophy was broadcast live from the Americana Hotel in New York over Labor Day weekend — the weekend it would be hosted on from then on every year. More than 85 million viewers watch the show's broadcast, which made over $1 million. 

During Lewis' tenure, special guests including Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan and three of the Beatles stopped by the telethon. One year, Joe DiMaggio answered phones. And even Martin stopped by in a teary-eyed reunion set up by their mutual friend Sinatra.

It was announced in 2011 that Lewis would be leaving the telethon, and Lewis remained quiet about what exactly ended the relationship between him and the MDA. Despite decades working with the organizations, the announcement that Lewis was leaving the telethon was met with unsubstantiated rumors that he had been stealing from the MDA and left a blight on a their relationship. The event would continue until 2014 without Lewis at the helm. 

In the more than 40 years that Lewis hosted the telethon, more than $2 billion was raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In 2009, Lewis was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — his only Oscar — for his work with the association. 

"For most of my life, I thought that doing good for someone didn't mean you would receive commendation for that act of kindness, at least until now," Lewis said during his acceptance speech. "This award touches my heart and the very depth of my soul because of who the award is from and those who will benefit. The humility I feel is staggering and I know it'll stay with me for the rest of my life. I thank you."

Cover image via Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock

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