As a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Mr. Lewis raised vast sums for charity; as a filmmaker of great personal force and technical skill, he made many contributions to the industry, including the invention in 1960 of a device — the video assist, which allowed directors to review their work immediately on the set — still in common use.
Mr. Lewis’s shorthand definition for their relationship was “sex and slapstick.” But much more was going on: a dialectic between adult and infant, assurance and anxiety, bitter experience and wide-eyed innocence that generated a powerful image of postwar America, a gangly young country suddenly dominant on the world stage.
Reassured that his public still loved him, Mr. Lewis returned to filmmaking with the low-budget, semidramatic “The Delicate Delinquent” and then shifted into overdrive for a series of personal appearances, beginning at the Sands in Las Vegas and culminating with a four-week engagement at the Palace in New York.
After that, finally ready to assume complete control, Mr. Lewis persuaded Paramount to take a chance on “The Bellboy” (1960), a virtually plotless hommage to silent-film comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in, playing a hapless employee of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
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 amp, collapsed in litigation in 1972, Mr. Lewis was absent from films for eight years.
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