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September 24, 2017

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Jerry Lewis, the 'king of crazy,' dies at age 91

Actor, director, philanthropist and renowned curmudgeon Jerry Lewis knew how to leave an impression - in more ways than one.

At a 2014 ceremony immortalizing his hand- and footprints alongside other Hollywood greats, Lewis cracked off-colour jokes and bit director Quentin Tarantino on the hand, laughing all the while.

But such was Lewis' standing in the pantheon of Hollywood stars that Tarantino took it as an honour.

"I got bitten by Jerry Lewis!" the director said, holding his hand up like a trophy.

His career spanned seven decades, as part of comedy duo Martin and Lewis in the 1940s and '50s, a slapstick film star and director into the 1970s, and in later, meatier roles in Hollywood and on Broadway that kept him working into his 90s.

Lewis, who was also known for his annual money-raising telethons for muscular dystrophy, died at the age of 91 at his home in Las Vegas, according to news reports quoting his publicist Candi Cazau.

He died peacefully surrounded by family, Cazau told CNN.

"There are times when I wonder where I get all the goddamn energy," he told GQ magazine in 2014.

Born Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey, Lewis inherited a taste for the spotlight from his vaudeville-performer parents.

As Jerry Lewis, he took to the stage at an early age, and by 18 was already working the comedy circuit, taking on odd jobs to get by.

His big break came in 1945, when he met the Italian-American crooner Paul Dino Crocetti, nine years his elder. The singer, better known as Dean Martin, was "the big brother I never had," Lewis told GQ.

They were the perfect pair: the good-looking Martin in the role of charming straight man, Lewis as the daffy goofball and clumsy clown.

On stage, radio and the silver screen, the two catapulted to the top of the entertainment industry, where "they were like rock stars before rock stars existed," the New York Times wrote.

But after 10 years on stage together, Martin and Lewis split and didn't speak again for 20 years.

As a solo artist, Lewis came into his own. His off-the-wall brand of slapstick was box office gold around the world. He appeared in more than 80 movies for film and TV and directed more than a dozen more. His hits included "The Bellboy," "Three on a Couch" and "The Nutty Professor," all of which he directed.

Later in his career he had success in dramatic roles, including opposite Robert DeNiro in "The King of Comedy."

France, in particular, embraced him as a zany auteur, dubbing him "le roi du crazy" - "the king of crazy" - and awarding him the Legion d'Honneur in 2006.

Amid all the successes, Lewis was also known for one legendary misfire: his 1972 Holocaust comedy "The Day the Clown Cried." The never-released film was the story of a German circus clown sentenced to a concentration camp. Though few have ever seen it, it has acquired cult status as one of the worst films every made.

He donated his copy of the film to the US Library of Congress, with the stipulation that it could not screen the film before 2025.

In a 2016 documentary about the film made by German television broadcaster ARD, Lewis said he was ashamed of his work.

The film's failure so distressed Lewis that he did not work in movies for more than 10 years. But in the end, it did little to damage his reputation and his legacy.

Star director Martin Scorsese said Lewis was ahead of his time. In a 2011 documentary, fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld called him the "essence" of comedy, saying "if you

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