As Hollywood’s undisputed “King of Comedy,” Jerry Lewis brought smiles to millions of faces. Away from the screen, though, Lewis’ personal life was definitely nothing to laugh about. And it all came to a head following the star’s passing in 2017. Even beyond the grave, Lewis was causing trouble, as his children found out from a shocking passage in his will.
But many fans had no clue this surprise was coming. To them and the rest of us, Lewis was just the funny guy who still made us chuckle after his many decades in showbiz. Time was taking its toll on the actor and comedian, however. And, eventually, it became clear that he was not long for this world.
Lewis had long dealt with cardiac issues, and he ultimately passed away from heart failure in August 2017. He had been 91 years old at the time of his death. And, reportedly, Lewis’ wife SanDee Pitnick and adopted daughter Danielle had been by his side at his Nevada home as he took his final breath.
Then, in the weeks after Lewis’ death, all the secrets of his personal life finally began to spill out. It all started when the contents of his will became public knowledge. That legal document made it clear what the comedy legend thought of his six other adult children – and let’s just say that it wasn’t pleasant.
Had there been a dark side to Lewis that only his nearest and dearest had known about? It seemed like it. And the star was able to camouflage this part of himself from the public as he made his way up the showbiz ladder. Lewis – real name Joseph Levitch – had hit Hollywood after growing up in a talented family.
Yes, Lewis’ mom and dad were performers, too. Rae Levitch was a whiz at the piano, while her husband Danny was a singer and dancer. But before the pair headed off to shows together, they had to drop little Joseph with relatives. And being passed off like this by his parents left an indelible mark on the future star.
In particular, Lewis began to develop feelings of self-doubt. That pushed him on to search for attention from other people – which explains why he courted the limelight later on. But way before he started to leave audiences in stitches, the young Lewis had another ambition that he wanted to realize.
Heartbreakingly, Lewis was just desperate for his folks to bring him along while they traveled for work. As he patiently waited for an answer, though, he started to put together shows of his own at school. And in the end, the New Jersey native finally got what he wanted.
Yes, when Lewis’ dad was offered a lengthy gig at a New Jersey hotel, he decided to bring his son along. But Lewis wasn’t going to let his father completely steal the spotlight. At the hotel, he teamed up with the owner’s daughter to create his own comedy duo. Together, they mouthed the lyrics from well-known songs.
That taste of stardom? Lewis couldn’t let it pass him by. He ditched high school, then, and tried to break into the entertainment business. But first there was the small issue of his name. Joseph Levitch just wasn’t destined to be spelled out in lights on the front of theaters. Jerry Lewis was a better fit.
Armed with that new moniker, Lewis went on to meet Dean Martin. The aspiring comedian was wowed by the singer, who seemed so confident, attractive and, well, just plain cool. Luckily, Martin was also taken with Lewis. And despite their contrasting on-stage personalities, the pair went on to forge a highly successful partnership that ran and ran throughout the 1940s and into the ’50s.
Together, Lewis and Martin’s unique blend of music and comedy won nightclub audiences over. But as the unlikely duo performed their routine at the Copacabana club in 1948, fate was waiting in the wings. A Hollywood producer named Hal Wallis was in the crowd that night, and he was pretty impressed with what he saw.
At the very least, Wallis signed both Lewis and Martin to Paramount Pictures. Yep, they were both going to become movie stars! The pair made their debut in the 1949 comedy My Friend Irma and churned out a string of funny movies in the seven years that followed. Hollywood or Bust marked their last collaboration together in 1956.
Of course, Lewis didn’t fade away following his split from Martin. He continued to establish himself in Hollywood, featuring in a whole host of laugh-a-minute movies that cemented his name as one to watch. But Lewis wasn’t just a one-trick pony, as he proved by moving behind the scenes.
For 1960’s The Bellboy, Lewis not only took on the leading role of Stanley, but he also directed the whole movie. It was the start of a number of films in which the funnyman pulled double duty. And that approach finally paid dividends in 1963.
That year, The Nutty Professor was released in theaters across America. Much as Lewis had done with The Bellboy, he both directed and starred in the comedy classic, proving his talents as a filmmaker. And luckily for Lewis, the movie was a hit. The Nutty Professor brought in $19 million at the box office – nearly three times its original budget.
Off the back of that success, Lewis could bank on plenty more work in Hollywood. And he took full advantage of that, releasing a movie a year until 1972. From 1966 onwards, he also hosted his famous telethons in aid of muscular dystrophy. He was pretty busy, alright! No wonder, then, that he chose to take a break in the early ’70s.
After Lewis returned to the limelight in the ’80s, though, he diversified yet again. And, appropriately enough, he used Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy to do it. Although Lewis played a comedian in that movie – no stretch for him – his character was essentially the “straight man” to Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin.
Could Lewis leave the wisecracks behind for a second and let someone else be funny for once? Well, The King of Comedy proved he could. And he earned plenty of praise for his role – including a coveted BAFTA nomination. But while his career was enjoying a resurgence, his personal life was in – let’s just say – an interesting place.
Like many Hollywood stars, Lewis hadn’t exactly been short of female attention. But there had been some particularly special women in his life. Before he had even joined up with Martin, he had been introduced to a woman named Patti Palmer. And just a few months after that first encounter, the pair decided to tie the knot in 1944.
Lewis and Palmer celebrated the birth of their first child, Gary, in July 1945. He was followed by a second son, Ronald, four years later. And for a time the family unit stayed as it was, as the actor found his feet on the big screen.
Lewis and Palmer weren’t done yet, though. They had four more kids – all boys – as the comedian rose up the ranks in Hollywood. But after Palmer had sacrificed her promising career as a singer to look after her sons, Lewis repaid her by seeing other women behind her back.
Yep, Lewis was a cheat – as he would freely admit to the press. That’s partly why his marriage with Palmer broke down. But even after the couple divorced in 1983, Lewis gave monogamy one more try. He would wed again, too.
SanDee Pitnick – a dancer in Las Vegas – became Lewis’ second wife in 1983. And even though Lewis already had those six sons, he decided to start another family. In 1992, then, he and Pitnick welcomed a new addition to their household: adopted daughter Danielle.
Danielle, as we mentioned, was reportedly at Lewis’ bedside when he passed away. That devotion? It was repaid to her after her dad’s will was revealed. As for his other kids… Well, they must have gotten quite the surprise when they found out about the contents of the legal document.
You see, in what appeared to be a remarkable act of spite, Lewis had cut his sons off completely. The will explained, “I have intentionally excluded Gary Lewis, Ronald Lewis, Anthony Joseph Lewis, Christopher Joseph Lewis, Scott Anthony Lewis and Joseph Christopher Lewis and their descendants as beneficiaries of my estate, it being my intention that they shall receive no benefits hereunder.” Ouch.
In the end, then, Lewis’ $50 million estate was left solely to Pitnick and Danielle. But you’re probably wondering why the funnyman chose this form of cruel revenge. And while there doesn’t appear to be a definitive reason for the snub, there are some potential explanations.
According to Anthony, he and his brothers had a troubled relationship with their father. Yes, when the comedian’s second-youngest son came forward to speak with Inside Edition in late 2017, he painted a rather unnerving picture of what Lewis had been like behind closed doors.
Anthony claimed, “It was not an Ozzie and Harriet life. When [my dad would] show up and park right in front of the big front door, my mom would get on the intercom, and she’d say, ‘Your father’s home!’ And [me and my brothers] scattered. We could never predict his behavior on a given day.”
Lewis’ son also explained that his dad had twice beat him with a belt. But in his mind, that wasn’t the worst part of it. Anthony added during his Inside Edition interview, “The emotional abuse [I suffered] – it was every day.”
Then, after the film star passed away, only two of his sons were asked to come to the funeral. That alone hinted at how bad relations had been between Lewis and his children. But, of course, Christopher and Scott’s presence at the ceremony didn’t change the outcome of the will.
And we’ve had hints at Lewis’ behavior before. Back in 1989, Joseph had frankly told the National Enquirer, “Living with [my dad] was pure hell. I’ve tried drugs. I’ve tried therapy, and the truth still hurts. My father doesn’t love me.” That had to be devastating.
Sadly, Joseph died of a drug overdose in 2009, leaving behind three children of his own. Prior to his death, he hadn’t talked to his dad for 20 years. His own sons had never even met their grandfather, either. And, sadly, that wasn’t the half of it.
Astonishingly, Lewis also turned down covering Joseph’s funeral costs – even though he could well afford it. And if that wasn’t enough, rumors later emerged that the comedy legend hadn’t wanted this story to become public. Perhaps fearing a backlash, he had reportedly told his other kids to keep the information to themselves
Then, some 12 months on from Joseph’s death, Gary Lewis sat down to talk with the National Enquirer. And much like his youngest sibling, he had a few harsh words for his dad. Even worse, he appeared to claim that the comedian was partly responsible for Joseph’s passing.
Gary said, “Jerry Lewis is a mean and evil person. He was never loving and caring toward me or my brothers. I don’t know if Joe’s death is drug-related, but I believe it could have been prevented if he and my father had been on better terms. I believe he partly died of a broken heart. [My father] doesn’t really care.”
What did Lewis have to say about these accusations? Well, in 2014 he finally opened up about his family while talking to The Hollywood Reporter. And during the emotional chat, the father of seven appeared to be saddened by everything that had transpired. He said, for example, that Joseph’s death really had hurt him.
Lewis claimed, “To this day, I don’t understand [Joseph’s passing] because it’s unfair. Not unfair to me, but unfair to [Joseph]. That he went that way made the unfairness stupidity. But he was my son, and he’s gone, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. I beat myself a thousand times.”
Lewis continued, “Sam will come to me and say, ‘Are we beating ourselves again?’ I will say, ‘A little bit.’ [She’ll say], ‘You had nothing to do with that. You sent [Joseph] out into the world when he was 25. You sent what you thought was a perfect human being. What he did with his time away from you is what the end result showed.’ But I’ll tell you this: you don’t get over that.”
But perhaps the last word should go to Anthony. He told Inside Edition, “I knew I wasn’t going to get anything [in the will]. But the real sticking point, the real dagger in my heart is for the grandchildren [who were cut out]. I’m really sorry that I didn’t have any one-on-one time with [my dad] to express that I love him.”
Lewis wasn’t the only Hollywood star to make a controversial will, though. When Burt Reynolds passed away in September 2018, it came after a long and lucrative career. He had millions in the bank, and that cash looked set to go to his nearest and dearest. But when details of Reynolds’ will came out, they contained a surprising omission. Shockingly, it appeared that the star had left no money to his only son.
Back in the 1970s, Reynolds was arguably one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. The role that first brought him to international attention was his part as Lewis Medlock in Deliverance – a movie nominated for three Oscars. That film wouldn’t be Reynolds’ only hit, though, as he followed it up with the commercially successful likes of The Longest Yard and Smokey and the Bandit.
And Reynolds’ personal life was eventful, too. In 1988 he wed his second wife, Loni Anderson, and together they adopted a child: son Quinton. But sadly, the relationship between Reynolds and Anderson ultimately broke down. Their divorce would then become perhaps one of the nastiest celebrity break-ups of its era, with both parties attacking each other in the press.
Reynolds claimed, for example, that Anderson was an unfit parent and promiscuous; Anderson, on the other hand, said that her estranged husband had been violent. She would even arrange for a childminder to be present when their son visited Reynolds, as Anderson told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, because “Quinton is small and I want him to be protected.” Quinton’s usual nanny wouldn’t work there because the actor “[had thrown] a chair at her,” Anderson also alleged.
And although there is nothing on record to suggest as much, Reynolds and his son may have even become estranged in the wake of the marriage breakdown. As he was clearly caught between two parents, perhaps that’s understandable. By the time Quinton was a grown man, however, things seemed to have sorted themselves out between him and his dad.
Reynolds certainly seemed to be all praise for his son during a 2018 interview with Closer Weekly, during which the actor called Quinton his “greatest achievement.” Reynolds added, “[Quinton]’s a wonderful young man and is now working as a camera assistant in Hollywood. He never asked for any help with his career. He did it all himself, and I’m so proud of him. I love him very much.”
That interview was published only a matter of weeks before Reynolds’ death from a heart attack, with the star passing away surrounded by his family. And as soon as news of the star’s fate broke, many of his friends and admirers turned to social media to honor him.
Big-name celebrities like Dolly Parton, Kevin Smith, and Sally Field – who’d had an on-off relationship with Reynolds in her youth – spoke of their sorrow at his death. And a tribute also came in from Anderson – one that made reference to their son but didn’t mention the painful divorce.
Anderson released her statement to Fox News, saying, “Quinton and I are extremely touched by the tremendous outpouring of love and support from friends and family throughout the world. Burt was a wonderful director and actor. He was a big part of my life for 12 years and Quinton’s father for 30 years. We will miss him and his great laugh.”
Reynolds was then cremated on September 10, 2018 – a few days after he had died. A week on from this, however, the celebrity gossip website TMZ obtained details of the late actor’s will. The star’s niece Nancy Lee Brown Hess was his trustee, the headline announced. And one particular detail of the will may have been a further surprise: Reynolds, it appeared, had deliberately left nothing to his son.
“I intentionally omit [my son Quinton] from this, my last will and testament,” the legal document read. Often, a person will do this out of spite for an estranged family member. In fact, there have been high-profile cases of this happening before: for example, actress Joan Crawford cut both her son and daughter out of her will.
It can be a nasty business when people leave loved ones out of their wills; lawyers may get involved, and families can be torn apart. Luckily, however, this wasn’t actually the case this time. Reynolds’ last will and testament went on, “I have provided for [Quinton] during my lifetime in my Declaration of Trust.”
So the situation wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it may have initially sounded. And perhaps Reynolds’ decision was for financial reasons. According to The Sun, which reported on the story, “Leaving loved ones money through a trust – rather than a will – is apparently a common move to avoid paying estate taxes.”
Reynolds hadn’t always been so careful about his money, though. In fact, the actor came dangerously close to losing it all after declaring bankruptcy in 1996. And while the expensive Anderson divorce had cost him dearly, he had also splashed the cash elsewhere. At one point, Reynolds had reportedly owned several luxurious properties, a private jet, and even $100,000 worth of toupees.
“I’ve lost more money than is possible because I just haven’t watched it,” Reynolds told Vanity Fair in 2015. “I’ve still done well in terms of owning property and things like that. But I haven’t been somebody who’s been smart about his money. There are a couple of actors who are quite brilliant with the way they’ve handled their money. But they’re not very good actors.”
Meanwhile, in 2014 Anderson told Entertainment Tonight that she was auctioning off some of the most expensive items that Reynolds had gifted her when they were married – including paintings, diamonds and clothes. And during the interview, she also gave a glimpse of how the relationship between her, Reynolds and Quinton had evolved.
Anderson said, for instance, that she and Reynolds still had dinners together with their son. Then she talked about how her attitude to her ex-husband had changed. She revealed, “If it’s a messy divorce, then you need a break. And you go back, and you go, ‘Well there wasn’t 12 terrible years. There was just that end.’ So you go back and start thinking, ‘Oh, I remember that! Oh, we laughed so hard! Oh, that was so fun!’”
However, Reynolds and Anderson’s son Quinton has kept a rather lower profile than his mom and dad. And as he is someone who has had personal experience of how the press can dig up sometimes damaging information, his seeming desire not to court the media is perfectly comprehensible.
What is known, though, is that Quinton was present for his father’s private memorial service on September 20, 2018, at the Quattlebaum Funeral, Cremation and Event Center in Florida. There, Bobby Bowden, Reynolds’ former football coach at Florida State University, delivered the opening prayer to the 80 guests before talking about the Hollywood star’s amazing life.
Then, after Bowden’s speech, Anderson stood up to give her own. And while exactly what she said remains private, she did reportedly introduce Quinton to the crowd as her and Reynolds’ “greatest collaboration.” So, no matter how much money Quinton ends up receiving from his late father’s trust, the relationship between him and his dad will surely always be the most important thing.