Jerry Lewis was the comedic legend who starred in dozens of films, remaining active until his death at 91 in 2017. But how many of those titles, many of which he also wrote and directed, remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 15 of his greatest movies, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1926, Lewis initially gained attention as one half of the team Martin and Lewis, opposite future Rat Packer Dean Martin. The combination of Martin as the lady-killing straight man and Lewis as the spastic goofball started as a night club act and a radio program. They appeared in 17 films together before their breakup in 1956.
He went on to star in, direct, and write a series of slapstick comedies laced with hints of sentimentality. In titles such as “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), and “The Patsy” (1964), Lewis played a lovable, rubber-faced dork who won our hearts while grating on our nerves.
Despite his box office success, Lewis was never recognized at the Academy, although he did receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 for his philanthropy on behalf of muscular dystrophy research. Perhaps the closest he ever came to Oscar glory was with his BAFTA-nominated supporting turn in Martin Scorsese‘s “The King of Comedy” (1983), in which he played a successful late night host kidnapped by a delusional fan (Robert De Niro).
Additionally, Lewis earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Comedy/Musical Actor for “Boeing, Boeing” (1965) and an Emmy bid as Best Comedian in 1952 (shared with Martin). He received the TV Academy’s Governors Award in 2005.
Tour our photo gallery of Lewis’s 15 greatest films, including a few classics that should’ve brought him Oscar consideration.
15. WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? (1963)
Directed by Frank Tashlin. Written by Frank Tashlin and Harry Tugend. Starring Jill St. John, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Walston, Kathleen Freeman, John McGiver.
Frank Tashlin’s live action cartoon casts Lewis as a bumbling store clerk who’s in love with the beautiful elevator girl (Jill St. John), who, unbeknownst to him, is also the boss’s daughter. Her wealthy mother (Agnes Moorehead), desperate to break up their engagement, tasks the store manager (Ray Walston) with assigning him a series of impossible tasks so he’ll quit and prove his worthlessness. Instead, he destroys the store in the most hilarious way possible.
14. THE DELICATE DELINQUENT (1957)
Written and directed by Don McGuire. Starring Darren McGavin, Martha Hyer, Horace McMahon, Mary Webster, Richard Bakalyan, Robert Ivers, Joseph Corey, Emory Parnell, Frank Gorshin.
In his first post-Martin and Lewis outing, Jerry plays a teenage janitor who falls in with a rough crowd. A sympathetic cop (Darren McGavin), seeing potential in the boy, pulls him out of the gang and enrolls him in the Police Academy. The film’s clumsy blending of slapstick and pathos doesn’t quite work (its ham-fisted message against juvenile delinquency arrived at a time with “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle” were lighting up the box office). Still, it points the way toward a more sympathetic slant in Lewis’s humor.
13. ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955)
Directed by Frank Tashlin. Written by Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker, Hal Kanter. Starring Dean Martin, Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, Eddie Mayehoff.
Lewis appeared in 17 films with Rat Packer Dean Martin, starting with “My Friend Irma” (1949) and ending with “Hollywood or Bust” (1956). One of their very best, “Artists and Models,” casts Martin as a struggling comic book artist who uses the bizarre dreams of his roommate (Lewis) to cook up a series of successful superhero tales. Meanwhile, the two run afoul of Russian spies and romance their neighbors (Dorothy Malone and Shirley MacLaine). As always, Martin’s smooth ladykiller charms are a perfect match for Lewis’s off-the-wall goofiness.
12. FUNNY BONES (1995)
Directed by Peter Chelsom. Written by Peter Chelsom and Peter Flannery. Starring Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Richard Griffiths, Oliver Reed, George Carl, Leslie Caron.
Lewis’s mid-to-late-career efforts ranged from the sublime (“The King of Comedy”) to the abysmal (“Which Way to the Front?”). “Funny Bones” ranks somewhere in-between, an offbeat bauble about a young comedian (Oliver Platt) living in the shadow of his famous father (Lewis). After an embarrassing Vegas performance with dad in the audience, he returns to his roots in Blackpool, England, to mine material from local talent. Though the film never blends its various odd parts into a successful whole, it’s always charming.
11. THE GEISHA BOY (1958)
Directed by Frank Tashlin. Written by Frank Tashlin and Rudy Makoul. Starring Marie McDonald, Suzanne Pleshette, Sessue Hayakawa, Robert Hirano.
Lewis travels East for this touching comedy about a would-be magician who’s sent to Japan to entertain the troops. While there, he forges a friendship with a little orphan boy (Robert Hirano). The inventive sight gags (including one with several members of the 1958 Los Angeles Dodgers playing against a rival Japanese team) work a little better than the pathos between Lewis and Hirano, which borders on the maudlin. Suzanne Pleshette makes her film debut as Jerry’s USO liaison and love interest.
10. BOEING, BOEING (1965)
Directed by John Rich. Screenplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Marc Camoletti. Starring Tony Curtis, Thelma Ritter, Christiane Schmidtmer, Dany Saval, Suzanna Leigh.
A bedroom farce of epic proportions, “Boeing, Boeing” stars Tony Curtis as an American journalist stationed in Paris who’s engaged to three airline stewardesses at the same time. His plan goes awry when his various mistresses find themselves in the City of Lights at the same time, and his friend (Lewis), a visiting reporter, decides to take over the living situation for himself. Lewis earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Comedy/Musical Actor for the role — the sole mention from the group in his career — though the Academy wasn’t amused. Thelma Ritter is a hoot as Curtis’s long-suffering housekeeper.
9. CINDERFELLA (1960)
Written and directed by Frank Tashlin. Starring Ed Wynn, Judith Anderson, Henry Silva, Robert Hutton, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Count Basie.
Lewis steps into Cinderella’s glass slippers in this gender-swapping revamp. As with the original, “Cinderfella” casts the comic as a poor boy abused by his evil stepmother (Judith Anderson) and her two blockhead sons (Henry Silva and Robert Hutton). When a princess (Anna Maria Alberghetti) arrives for a royal ball, it’s up to Fella’s fairy godfather (Ed Wynn) to help him win her heart. Sentimentality and some screeching musical numbers (courtesy of Count Basie’s orchestra) come close to marring the comedy, which is, as always, hilarious.
8. ROCK-A-BYE BABY (1958)
Written and directed by Frank Tashlin, based on a previous screenplay by Preston Sturges. Starring Marilyn Maxwell, Connie Stevens, Salvatore Baccaloni, Reginald Gardiner.
A semi-remake of Preston Sturges’s “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944), “Rock-A-Bye Baby” casts Lewis as a hapless TV repairman who still pines for his former sweetheart (Marilyn Maxwell), now a famous actress. When her husband dies in a bull fight before she gives birth to their baby, Lewis agrees to help raise her kid in order to avoid scandal. Problem is, she pops out triplets. Though it can’t hold a candle to Sturges’s original, there’s still more than a few amusing moments.
7. THE FAMILY JEWELS (1965)
Directed by Jerry Lewis. Written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond. Starring Sebastian Cabot, Neil Hamilton, Jay Adler, Robert Strauss, Jesslyn Fax, Renie Riano, Ellen Corby, Donna Butterworth.
Jerry Lewis fans will rejoice with “The Family Jewels,” which casts him in seven different roles (those who can’t stand his antics, on the other hand, beware). Donna Butterworth stars as a pint-sized heiress who stands to inherit millions after her father dies. The catch: she must choose one of six uncles (all played by Lewis) to raise her, even though she loves the family chauffeur (Lewis again) more than any of them. Goofy costumes and accents abound as the comic plays a gangster, a clown, a pilot, a photographer, a detective, and a ferryboat captain.
6. THE BELLBOY (1960)
Written and directed by Jerry Lewis. Starring Alex Gerry, Bob Clayton, Milton Berle.
Lewis made his feature directing debut with this episodic comedy about a mute bellboy who causes trouble at a luxurious Miami Beach hotel. There’s not much in the way of plot here, just a series of short vignettes in which Lewis engages in slapstick and high jinks worthy of comparison to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Milton Berle (who happened to be vacationing in Miami at the time of the shoot) shows up in a cameo appearance, as does professional golfer Cary Middlecoff.
5. THE PATSY (1964)
Directed by Jerry Lewis. Written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond. Starring Ina Balin, Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, Peter Lorre, John Carradine.
“The Patsy” finds Lewis at his most manic, which, depending on your affinity for his comedy stylings, is either a good thing or a bad thing. When a star comic dies in a plane crash, his management team decides to replace him with a wacky bellhop (Lewis) with no real talent other than creating chaos. Several Hollywood figures — including Ed Sullivan, Hedda Hopper, George Raft, Scatman Crothers, and Ed Wynn — show up in cameos, as does Peter Lorre in his final screen performance.
4. THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY (1964)
Directed by Frank Tashlin. Screenplay by Frank Tashlin, story by Norm Liebermann and Ed Haas. Starring Susan Oliver, Glenda Farrell, Kathleen Freeman, Karen Sharpe.
Suffice it to say, any hospital that would hire a guy like Jerry Lewis probably shouldn’t get your business. “The Disorderly Orderly” casts him as a med school flunkie who gets a job at the local sanitarium, causing mayhem in every ward. Things turn sappy when Susan Oliver, playing Lewis’s high school crush, turns up after a suicide attempt. He tries to cure her of her malady, making his girlfriend (Karen Sharpe) jealous.
3. THE LADIES MAN (1961)
Directed by Jerry Lewis. Written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond. Starring Lillian Briggs, Helen Traubel, Kathleen Freeman, Buddy Lester, George Raft.
Not to be confused with the Tim Meadows character on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Ladies Man” finds a heartbroken Lewis taking on a job as a handyman at a mansion filled with many, many women. They help cure their love-lorn servant of his fear of the opposite sex, but not without a few hilarious gags. The massive and inventive set — designed by art directors Ross Bellah and Hal Pereira — is almost more impressive than the story itself. Also notable for the use of Lewis’s signature line, “Hey, lady!”
2. THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul D. Zinnerman. Starring Robert De Niro, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott.
Largely dismissed in its time, Martin Scorsese’s darkly funny “The King of Comedy” feels frighteningly prophetic today. Robert De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a seriously delusional would-be comic who idolizes the nation’s top late night host (Lewis). When his stalking gets out of control, he kidnaps his hero and refuses to release him until he’s given a prime spot on his show. Lewis shines in a rare dramatic role, toning down his rubbery antics to play a jaded celebrity. The role brought him a BAFTA nomination, yet the Academy ignored him.
1. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963)
Directed by Jerry Lewis. Written by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond. Starring Stella Stevens, Del Moore, Kathleen Freeman.
“The Nutty Professor” is the best of Lewis’s mixtures of manic slapstick and maudlin pathos. This comedic “Jekyll and Hyde” sendup casts him as Professor Julius Kelp, a nerdy academic who drinks a miraculous potion that turns him into the smooth-talking ladies man Buddy Love. Of course, he soon learns that inside beauty is more important than what’s on the outside. You can thank this film for the creation of Professor Frink on “The Simpsons” and the 1996 Eddie Murphy remake, plus its 2000 followup.