Jerry Lewis to Retire from MDA Telethon

By Mike Reynolds for Ability Maine

The famed philanthropist and comedian Jerry Lewis has announced he isretiring after this year’s telethon on September 4th. The telethon has also shortened the length of the program to six hours from twenty one in a move to increase affiliates and viewership. Lewis stated this years telethon will be his last, capping 45 years of advocating for funding for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

Lewis has been a lightening rod in the disability community for his pathetic portrayals of people with Muscular Dystrophy and disabled people in general. In 1981 Evan Kemp, one of the architects of the ADA and a person living with a neuromuscular disease, wrote the first criticisms of Lewis in an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times Labor Day weekend 1981. Mr. Lewis wrote in a 1990 Parade Magazine article that he would be “half a person” living “half a life” if he had
Muscular Dystrophy. Several activists, including Laura Hershey and Mike Ervin started “Jerry’s Orphan’s” to protest the pathetic depictions. The MDA posted their addresses in an MDA publication, and encouraging hate mail. While hate mail was received , Hershey stated in interviews it was through this she met activist Harriet McBryde Johnson, a noted author, disability activist, and lawyer, who died in 2008. Hershey passed away last November, with her poetry book, “Spark Before Dark” coming out in June. When asked to comment about the announcement of Lewis’s retirement, longtime public radio journalist John Hockenberry stated, “Disability finally affects everybody, even a delusional narcissist like Jerry. I wish him well.” Hockenberry, a paraplegic since 19 who uses a wheelchair, discusses his views on Mr. Lewis in his memoir “Moving Violations.”

Mike Ervin is a accomplished writer who has written for a plethora of national magazines and radio shows. He also once had the wrath of Mr. Lewis when he attended a public speech in 2005 at the Chicago Public Library. As Ervin was reading a prepared statement, Mr. Lewis attacked him verbally, stating “I paid for the chair he is sitting in.” Additionally, when audio was released of the event, Lewis’s manager sent a cease and desist order to the webmaster involved.  The manager
was terminated by Mr. Lewis after asking Newsweek for a reported twenty grand for an interview with Mr. Lewis.

Lewis has been in the entertainment business since 1931, first as a solo performer who would oddly pantomime to records but later Lewis was paired with Dean Martin in the early 1940’s and the pair would appear on the debut show of “Talk of the Town”, which was hosted by Ed Sullivan. Lewis and Martin would be a huge comedy team that would dominate the box office during the 50’s. In 1956, the comedy duo would famously split, although they did reunite on the 1976 MDA Telethon in a reunion planned by Frank Sinatra. Lewis would become a successful solo comic throughout the 60’s, when he would act in several of his most well known roles including “The Nutty Professor” and “The Family Jewels.”

Lewis would not only reserve his talents for the movie screen, in the mid seventies he would star opposite Lynn Redgrave in the musical “Hellzapoppin” and would star on Broadway in 1994 in a revival of "Damn Yankees."

Lewis would be plagued with health concerns for much of the nineties dealing with a long list of medical issues.  He would return to the screen in 2009 in a film titled “Max Rose” Also in 2009 he would receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, ar the Oscar ceremony. Disabled activists quickly mobilized a campaign to stop the Academy from giving Lewis the award, citing not only his  portrayals of people with disabilities but also citing slurs made against women, gays, and other minority groups. The group called “The Trouble with Jerry” picketed the awards ceremony and received media attention internationally. Lewis was undeterred and even at the age of 85 has plans to remake three of his classic films and a Broadway play based on his life as he leaves his post chairing the annual MDA telethon. Mr.Lewis has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for MDA over the past 45 years and plans to end with his signature song “You’ll Never Walk Alone."