For the first time in 45 years, Jerry Lewis will not be in front of a camera Labor Day weekend after he was abruptly dismissed as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's telethon, an event that drew attention to the childhood disease and in its heyday was an annual television highlight.
The group said the legendary comedian would not appear on this year's telethon and would no longer serve as its national chairman, a position he held for nearly 60 years. The telethons have raised nearly $2.5 billion, the MDA said.
The MDA said it did not expect to name a new host this year, and the Sept. 4 event would be shepherded by entertainment personalities Nigel Lythgoe, Jann Carl, Alison Sweeney and Nancy O'Dell.
The decision represented an about-face from MDA's announcement in May that Lewis would host the telethon for a final time this year and would appear in the closing moments of future telethons to sing his trademark number, You'll Never Walk Alone.
But the 85-year-old comedian told reporters last week at a Television Critics Association press tour to promote an upcoming TV documentary, Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis, that his involvement wasn't finished.
"Who told you that?" Lewis asked a reporter who asked him how he felt about this year being his last telethon. "I never read it."
Lewis also harshly criticized reality television shows that include heavy involvement from telethon co-hosts Lythgoe and Sweeney. Lythgoe is executive producer of American Idol, which Lewis called a singing competition of "McDonald's wipeouts," while Sweeney hosts the weight-loss show The Biggest Loser.
"You just have to be bad. The business is scrounging around for what to do," Lewis said when asked how comedic actors can become great today. He went on to say TV is "a medium that's running around, knocking their brains out trying to see how we beat the fat lady at 375 pounds, and in four months she's going to be 240. Who (cares)," Lewis said. "It's ridiculous."
Even before ousting Lewis, the MDA was poised to scale back the telethon from more than 20 hours to as few as six, primarily because stations were threatening to drop all or part of the telecast. The telethon's earning power had declined in recent years. According to public tax filings, it brought in $56.4 million in gross receipts in 2005. But in 2009, the latest year records are available, the tally dropped to $45.6 million.
Scientific advances in understanding MD have accelerated in recent years with a number of new treatments in the pipeline.
The notion of sick children, experts said, contradicted the current reality in which patients lead full lives into their 30s and even beyond. "When the disease wasn't treatable, it was sadness and poster children," said M. Carrie Miceli, co-director of the Center for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The new image is not as pitiful as much as empowering."
A spokeswoman for Lewis said the star had no comment on his exit from the telethon.
Lewis began a small-scale telethon in 1954, not long after which he also became MDA's national chairman. He expanded it into its current format as a marathon special in 1966, first in New York and then in Las Vegas. Over the past 45 years, he had turned a generic fundraising event into a fixture of the entertainment calendar.
On the telecast, Lewis could provide a dose of spontaneity — and sometimes gaffes — to what would otherwise be a stuffy set-up. Perhaps its most famous moment came in 1976, when Frank Sinatra helped arrange a reunion between Lewis and longtime partner Dean Martin, with whom he had fallen out.
But Lewis' involvement hasn't been without controversy. In 2007, Lewis nearly let slip a homophobic epithet. Lewis also raised the ire of women's groups over the years with several disparaging comments; in 1986 he mockingly noted a female reviewer's menstrual cycle, prompting some groups to call for him to leave the telethon.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.