Former co-stars of the late actor and comedian Jerry Lewis have accused him of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
The women all met Lewis when he was at the height of his Hollywood career. In an investigation by Vanity Fair and accompanying short film, they allege Lewis – who died of natural causes in 2017 aged 91, had mistreated them.
The story and film are based in part on interviews conducted by Emmy-winning Allen v Farrow film-makers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, who have been investigating Hollywood’s long history of abuse. They found that some of the most explosive accusations involved Lewis.
Among those interviewed are Hope Holiday, who starred alongside Lewis in The Ladies Man, Jill St John, who starred opposite Lewis in Who’s Minding the Store?, Anna Maria Alberghetti, who worked with him on Cinderfella, Karen Sharpe, who played Lewis’s love interest in The Disorderly Orderly, Oscar-nominated writer Renée Taylor, and singer Lainie Kazan.
Sharpe, now 87, alleged that after a costume fitting in his office in 1964, Lewis physically assaulted her. “He grabbed me. He began to fondle me. He unzipped his pants. Quite frankly, I was dumbstuck,” she said.
“I put my hand up and said, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t know if this is a requirement for your leading ladies, but this is something I don’t do.’ I could see that he was furious. I got the feeling that that never really happened to him.”
Sharpe alleged that after she rebuffed Lewis, he refused to rehearse with her and forbade the entire production, bar the director and assistant director, from speaking to her. “If anyone speaks to you … we’ll be fined,” a crew member allegedly told her.
Holiday, 91, said she had known Lewis since she was 13 but was in her early 30s when he allegedly invited her to his dressing room, locked her in and began to “talk dirty” and masturbate.
“He said, ‘You’ve got a great figure, you’ve got nice boobs, you’ve got lovely legs. That’s what I like to see,’” Holiday said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there. I wanted to leave so badly. I wanted to get out of there, and I couldn’t.”
She said the incident made her depressed. “I didn’t want to go on dates. It wasn’t good.”
Holiday said her friends urged her to report Lewis to the Screen Actors Guild but she was too afraid. “He was very big at Paramount. I was under contract to him and to Paramount, and I didn’t want to shake the boat. I figured I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”
Taylor, 88, said she was in her 20s when Lewis arranged a meeting for her with Paramount executives, who immediately asked her if she was “one of Jerry’s Girls”. When she said no, she alleges they began speaking crudely about her anatomy and that of Lewis.
“They said, ‘Well, how big is your pussy? Jerry has a salami and will use it on a girl’,” Taylor said.
Lewis’s comedy and singing duo with Dean Martin propelled him to stardom on par with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. He married singer Patti Palmer in 1944 and the couple had six children together. He later adopted another child with his second wife, SanDee Pitnick.
In 1959, at the age of 33, he signed a seven-year contract with Paramount for $10m, the largest contract of its kind between a studio and performer at the time.
The Vanity Fair film, titled The Dark Side of a Hollywood Icon, was released on Wednesday.