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The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Jerry Lewis

The king of comedy is honored for his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.

February 23, 2009|Greg Braxton

Jerry Lewis is known as one of show business' silliest and most outrageous clowns. But when he was honored Sunday night during the Oscars for his humanitarian work, he played it straight.

"This touches my heart and the very depths of my soul, not only because of who this award is from, but who it will benefit," Lewis said in accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. "My humility is staggering."

Lewis, who received a standing ovation when he emerged from backstage, also thanked the Hollywood community, adding that working in the movie industry is "the joy of everything I do."

The award, given to an individual whose "humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry," was presented to Lewis for his work on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., which has raised more than $2 billion.

Lewis has been the group's national chairman since 1952, and he has been "the No. 1 volunteer" of the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon since 1966.

The short acceptance speech by Lewis, who will turn 83 next month, was a bit of a surprise. The entertainer, who can be alternately gracious, silly, cocky and prickly, was considered one of the Oscar ceremony's wild cards.

In a wide-ranging career of more than 50 films in which he often mixed his acting duties with writing, producing and directing, he had never been nominated for an Oscar. The Hersholt award is often regarded as a consolation prize, and many wondered whether Lewis -- an iconic and controversial comedic figure -- would express a touch of bitterness over the fact that he was being honored for his humanitarian efforts, not his film legacy.

That speculation was fueled by Lewis' behavior and comments in recent years, which have landed him repeatedly in hot water, including insults against female comics and derogatory language toward gays.

But Lewis' acceptance speech was brief and emotional -- and he chose not to visit the news media area backstage.

He was introduced by Eddie Murphy, who adapted one of Lewis' most famous characters, the Nutty Professor. Murphy called him an inspiration as he introduced clips from Lewis' stormy but tremendously successful partnership with crooner Dean Martin, and brief scenes from some of his solo films, which include "The Errand Boy," "The Ladies' Man," "The Bellboy" and "The King of Comedy."

As he waved good night to the audience, it was clear that Lewis considered the award anything but a laughing matter.

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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