Hollywood legend Jerry Lewis passed away from natural causes on Sunday morning of this week at the age of 91.
News of his death spread like wildfire throughout the internet, and since the announcement has maintained first place in Facebook’s Trending News. Celebrity after celebrity has taken to Twitter to mourn the loss of the longtime entertainer. And, of course, thousands of fans of all age groups and ethnicities have taken to their personal social media, eager to pay the famed comedian their respects.
The magnitude of the reaction is not surprising, however, considering Lewis’ expansive success in his career as an actor, comedian and filmmaker. According to the New York Times:
Mr. Lewis knew success in movies, on television, in nightclubs, on the Broadway stage and in the university lecture hall. His career had its ups and downs, but when it was at its zenith there were few stars any bigger.
But how did Jerry Lewis achieve this amount of influence? For those in marketing, the answer may be a no-brainer: keeping current.
Lewis accomplished this in three particular ways, all of which can be applied to modern day marketing:
Know When to Change the Platform
Jerry Lewis went through many phases of his life, from performing on stage to acting in his own productions. Many attribute this to a lucky series of opportunities, but the real reason is that Lewis recognized the importance of using relevant platforms for his art.
His initial induction into the Hollywood industry performing nightclub acts with Dean Martin. At the time, right when World War II was ending, these nightclubs were all the rage, as people reunited with family after the war in an effort to bring levity and unity.
Barely out of his teens, he shot to fame shortly after World War II with a nightclub act in which the rakish, imperturbable Dean Martin crooned and the skinny, hyperactive Mr. Lewis capered around the stage, a dangerously volatile id to Mr. Martin’s supremely relaxed ego…
The act was a success. Before the week’s end, they were drawing crowds and winning mentions from Broadway columnists. That September, they returned to the Havana-Madrid in triumph.
The phenomenal rise of Martin and Lewis was like nothing show business had seen before. Partly this was because of the rise of mass media after the war, when newspapers, radio and the emerging medium of television came together to create a new kind of instant celebrity. And partly it was because four years of war and its difficult aftermath were finally lifting, allowing America to indulge a long-suppressed taste for silliness. But primarily it was the unusual chemical reaction that occurred when Martin and Lewis were side by side.
But as film started to revolutionize people’s idea of entertainment, Lewis decided it was time that he and Dean said goodbye to showbiz, and establish themselves in a more lucrative platform.
The films were phenomenally successful, and their budgets quickly grew. Some were remakes of Paramount properties — Bob Hope’s 1940 hit “The Ghost Breakers,” for example, became “Scared Stiff” (1953) — while other projects were more adventurous.
Later on, Lewis would split with Dean Martin and move on to create his own films. The concept of a comic producing and directing his own low budget films was a cutting-edge idea at the time. And yet another smart tactical move by Lewis.
With their themes of fragmented identity and their experimental approach to sound, color and narrative structure, Mr. Lewis’s films began to attract the serious consideration of iconoclastic young critics in France. At a time when American film was still largely dismissed by American critics as purely commercial and devoid of artistic interest, Mr. Lewis’s work was held up as a prime example of a personal filmmaker functioning happily within the studio system.
Transform Branding to Keep Up with the Times
The next lesson that we can take from Lewis’ career was his willingness to transform his character and his branding to keep up with trends in the performing arts.
…[T]he studio era was coming to an end, Mr. Lewis’s audience was growing old, and by the time he and Paramount parted ways in 1965 his career was in crisis. He tried casting himself in more mature, sophisticated roles — for example, as a prosperous commercial artist in “Three on a Couch,” which he directed for Columbia in 1966.
Know When Something Isn’t Working… and When It Is
Last, but certainly not least, Jerry Lewis knew the importance of trial and error. Many of us don’t like to step outside of our comfort zone, and especially for marketing it is easiest to stick to the tried and true. But success often comes from new techniques and strategies, something Lewis knew very well.
He seemed more himself in the multi-role chase comedy “The Big Mouth” (1967) and the World War II farce “Which Way to the Front?” (1970). But his blend of physical comedy and pathos was quickly going out of style in a Hollywood defined by the countercultural irony of “The Graduate” and “MASH.” After “The Day the Clown Cried,” his audacious attempt to direct a comedy-drama set in a Nazi concentration camp, collapsed in litigation in 1972, Mr. Lewis was absent from films for eight years.
A follow-up in 1983, “Smorgasbord” (also known as “Cracking Up”), proved a misfire, and Mr. Lewis never directed another feature film. He did, however, enjoy a revival as an actor, thanks largely to his powerful performance in a dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1982) as a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian (Robert De Niro) desperate to become a celebrity. He appeared in the television series “Wiseguy” in 1988 and 1989 as a garment manufacturer threatened by the mob, and was memorable in character roles in Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream” (1993) and Peter Chelsom’s “Funny Bones” (1995). Mr. Lewis played Mr. Applegate (a.k.a. the Devil) in a Broadway revival of the musical “Damn Yankees” in 1995 and later took the show on an international tour.
Jerry Lewis may have been known for his hilarious pantomimes and his quirky roles, but his subtle wisdom is something that every marketer can learn from.