Sometimes the measure of a career isn’t so much in the work that you do as in the influence that you have. A case in point: Jerry Lewis.
Mr. Lewis, who died Sunday at 91, was a towering figure in the entertainment business, but his résumé was almost devoid of the kinds of honors Hollywood bestows on its most respected artists. Despite being one of the biggest box office stars in the world in the 1950s, he went 0-for-his-career in Oscar nominations, winning only the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009. He had just one Emmy nomination back in 1952. He won a few lesser awards, but also managed some “worst of” citations from the Razzies and others.
Partly this was a result of his personality — he was by numerous accounts not easy to work with, and if you’re an entertainer, the people you clash with on the job are often also the ones voting on awards. But it was largely because of the nature of his output: lots of low comedy, an abundance of pratfalls and funny faces, but (“The King of Comedy” and some others excepted) not much of the kind of substantive or enduring work that brings statuettes.
There aren’t many members of what might be called the 3J “Tonight Show” club — Mr. Lewis was on the Jimmy Fallon, Johnny Carson and Jack Paar versions. (In the Jay Leno era, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, he seems to have preferred David Letterman’s show.) That longevity, and his sheer body of work in films and television, are starkly at odds with his small list of laurels.
Yet Mr. Lewis did earn plenty of accolades — from comedians in the generations after him. Practically any comic who was young when Mr. Lewis was a top star will happily gush about how films like “The Bellboy” (1960) and “The Nutty Professor” (1963), as well as Mr. Lewis’s earlier movies with Dean Martin, shaped the future performer’s youthful sensibilities.