Richard Belzer: Jerry Lewis’ ouster from MDA smacks of ‘indignity, disrespect’

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis at the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon at the Sahara 09/05/76
Nevada News Bureau

One of the more distinctive figures spotted at the South Point during and after the 2010 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon was veteran comic and dramatic actor Richard Belzer. Lewis and Belzer are close friends, which would explain why Belzer has a tattoo of Lewis on his right shoulder. Lewis had the same tattoo inked to his shoulder before last year’s show, but his was a temp.

A cast member of Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Belzer has been in recent and regular contact with Lewis in the aftermath of the sudden, and yet-unexplained, announcement last week by the MDA to pull Lewis off the telethon and strip him of his position as MDA chairman, a post Lewis has held for more than a half-century.

This announcement, made in two sterile paragraphs in the same sort of news release an organization would send out, irked Belzer, which is what he told The Last Word host Lawrence O’Donnell during an appearance on Friday’s show.

Belzer, who early in his career as a stand-up comic was the warm-up act on the original Saturday Night Live, praised Lewis as “not only the greatest living performer, but maybe the greatest performer, ever,” considering how many entertainment mediums Lewis has conquered and the span of his career.

Lewis, who has raised more than $2 billion in his 45-year tenure as the telethon host and MDA chairman, has made no comment about the sudden eradication of his services with the MDA and its telethon. In May, the organization announced that it would be trimming the show back to six hours and that Lewis would be showcased one last time, singing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as his telethon sendoff. That all changed, abruptly, last week.

“(Lewis) will make a statement,” Belzer told O’Donnell. “I greatly admire his restraint, certainly.”

Meantime, there is something of a grassroots effort on Lewis' behalf, as led by Las Vegas photographer Denise Truscello, who called for one last appearance by Lewis at September's show. At this point, such a reconciliation would be a long shot in the form of the 1969 Miracle Mets, but anyone who wants to contact the MDA for any reason can go to the organization's Web site, or send a letter to the MDA headquarters at 3300 E. Sunrise Drive, Tucson, AZ, 85718.

Belzer said his cell phone has been burning up since the MDA announced that Lewis had appeared in his last telethon.

“This is a shock to the world,” Belzer said. “People are stopping me in the street. I’m getting calls from wire services from around the world and magazines asking what happened.”

Not that Belzer would have any concrete answers or explanation.

“I know nothing about this kind of Shakespearean event that went on,” he said. “(But) there are so many ways to say goodbye to someone. This could have been one of the greatest events in the history of the medium.”

O’Donnell cut in, “If you told me this was going to be Jerry Lewis’ last appearance on the telethon, there’s no way I would miss it.”

Belzer responded, “But the indignity, the disrespect, is so profound. I’m still a pretty cynical guy, but I am so deeply and emotionally disturbed by what has happened, that people would conspire to do this. … To summarily issue a two-paragraph or one-paragraph statement is absolutely -- I’m speechless, which is rare.”

Suffice to say, he is not alone.

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