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Iranians Remember US Comedy Legend Jerry Lewis

US actor Jerry Lewis on May 15, 2009 posing with his Oscar for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in Cannes. Lewis was exceptionally popular in Iran and many in the country mourned his passing on August 20, 2017.

Jerry Lewis, the legendary American comedian, died Sunday at 91 at his home in Las Vegas. Lewis put smiles on the faces of millions of Iranians at a very difficult time which is why many Iranians mourn his demise.

Shortly after the seizure of power by ayatollahs in Iran in 1979, the country was invaded by the army of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. During the war that lasted for 8 years (1980-1988), Iranians experienced extremely harsh conditions. The war was swallowing all the nation’s resources. Even basic food items such as meat, rice, milk, butter, and sugar were rare and rationed. People had to wait in long lines for hours to purchase essentials.

The film and entertainment industry was also facing unprecedented crisis: many actors and actresses were banned from work because they had acted in movies during the Pahlavi era that were considered obscene by the new rulers.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic used the two existing TV channels to indoctrinate citizens according to its own ideological values and mobilize them for the war. Viewers could only enjoy secular entertainment once or twice the week when usually an old foreign-made movie was aired. Few Jerry Lewis movies were among them, albeit heavily-censored according to the stringent control of the state TV.

Dubbed by Hamid Ghanbari, one of the most talented voice actors in Iran, the "Persian" version of Jerry Lewis was perhaps even more entertaining than in original. For Iranian audience, Lewis had always a funny high-pitched nasal voice and made many genuine jokes all the time. Most of these jokes were not even in the original movie and were added by the voice actor or his colleagues in order to make the film more funny.

​Even though, the Iranian TV censored the foreign movies heavily so that the its viewers do not come in contact with non-Islamic lifestyle, including extramarital relationship, drinking, or even dancing, still, not all Lewis movies were qualified for broadcasting. One of them was “Boeing, Boeing” (1965) in which a friend of Lewis's had simultaneously three girlfriends who were all flight attendants with different international airlines. The movie was already purchased and dubbed by the Iranian TV before the revolution when Late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi tried to promote secularism and Western values in the society. However, after the revolution, the state TV blacklisted the film. This fact did not prevent many Iranians from trying to acquire its bootlegged copies on VHS cassettes. “Boeing, Boeing” was in fact one of the most popular movies circulating among people during the 1980s in Iran.

This Sunday, August 20, when Iranian netizens heard of his demise, thousands of messages appeared on social media in Persian remembering Lewis for his art and the smiles he brought to a nation under siege.

The following Tweet in Persian by an Iranian user reads: "If the likes of Jerry Lewis, who won people's hears with their art, are going to Hell, I shall be happy to be a dweller of Hell."

"Every time he was on TV, a nice smile appeared on the face of my mom. For that, God bless him," wrote an Iranian Twitter user on the occasion of Jerry Lewis's death.

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    Mohammadreza Kazemi

    Mohammadreza Kazemi is an Iranian journalist and a former colleague at Radio Farda, who still occasionally contributes. He currently lives in the United States.