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Without Jerry's invention, movies just wouldn't be the same

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By Paul Niemann

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[SEPT. 2, 2004]  Some inventors don't get the credit they deserve, and it's their own fault. Sometimes they don't mind, though. They simply had careers that overshadowed their work as inventors.

For example, Abraham Lincoln received a patent for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" in 1849. Despite the fact that he's the only U.S. president to receive a patent, most people don't know that he was a part-time inventor before he became president.

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, which was overshadowed by the Nobel Prizes that he established.

Jerry falls into this same category -- inventors who were overshadowed by their other careers. You've heard of Jerry, but not because of his patented invention.

What did he invent?

It's called the video assist, and it's used in nearly every movie studio and for many television shows, including music videos and commercials. The video assist is a method of using a closed-circuit camera; what this means is that it allows a director to view the footage that he just shot without having to wait a day or longer for the film to be processed. It was Jerry's work as an actor and director that inspired him to create it.

As a director, Jerry won the "Best Director of the Year" award eight times in Europe. A man who calls several U.S. presidents his friends, he is a celebrity known all over the world for his movies and his charity work. Even the French love him. Jerry has won numerous awards during his long career, and he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

But he's not well-known as an inventor. Like many inventors, he created his invention merely to help him do his job better.

So who is this Jerry, and why haven't we heard of him if he's so famous?


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He was born as Joseph Levitch in Newark, N.J., in 1926 and took a stage name for his showbiz career. His parents were entertainers as well.

He began his career as a nightclub performer. In fact, he ran up more than $180,000 in gambling debts early in his career in Las Vegas and was confronted by Bugsy Siegel, the man who founded Las Vegas as a gambling town. It took this future King of Comedy 10 years to pay off his debts to the casino; by that time, Bugsy had already been murdered.

In a case of life imitating art, real-life actor Jerry played the role of an inventor in one of his movies. In this movie, he played a chemistry teacher who created a magic potion.

Jerry's kids -- make that "Jerry's Kids" -- include his five sons with his first wife and a daughter with his second wife. He doesn't get much credit for his invention, the video assist device, but that's probably OK with him. He doesn't seem to care if he gets credit for his annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon, either, which he has hosted for the past 39 years and raised $1.6 billion since 1966.

You guessed it -- it was Jerry Lewis who invented the video assist device for filmmakers.

In another case of life imitating art, Jerry Lewis, the man whose name is synonymous with muscular dystrophy, has survived double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia. At age 74, he recently agreed to a 20-year deal to perform in Las Vegas, the place where the first of his three careers began.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at Niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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