Real estate records suggest that the 91-year-old comedian died with less than $2 million in cash on the books. But big movie rights are now in play.
Jerry Lewis made such an imprint on the global entertainment landscape that even onetime partner Dean Martin — who stopped regularly performing with him six decades ago — is trending, playing the straight man beyond the grave.
It’s an epochal moment for Old Hollywood. But cut through all the tributes and the financial footprint is more subtle than spectacular.
While the Nutty Professor may have died with only a few million dollars in the bank, he owns his most iconic movies outright, from script to negative.
That hoard of intellectual property from the pre-Beatles epoch may become the bedrock of his family’s financial future. That’s the only estate planning challenge his advisors really needed to solve.
Tricky trust transactions
According to at least one real estate tracking site, Lewis and his now-widow used a family trust to buy their Las Vegas residence, but then made the unusual decision to buy it back in 2002.
It may be a data glitch around the way the site handles trust property. But if it’s accurate, the move may have satisfied two financial motives.
First, the estate may have dwindled to the point where holding the house in trust didn’t matter any more.
Back then, married couples could leave up to $2 million behind between them without triggering a federal estate tax, so if there wasn’t a whole lot of cash left, there wasn’t much point in not owning the house directly.
It’s a nice house, don’t get me wrong: five bedrooms, six baths, three-car garage on a 3/4 acre lot. Maybe it’s worth $700,000 today, and it was worth a whole lot less 15 years ago.
But if Lewis moved an asset like that back into his estate, it could’ve been to wind the trust down because there was no way the family would hit the $2 million threshold with or without the house. No estate tax liability, no need to maintain the trust.
However, a transaction like that may also have provided cover for Lewis to move other assets into the trust while the house was moving out. That’s the more interesting scenario.
Lewis liked to brag about how he recaptured the rights to his classic Paramount catalog in the mid-1990s. In the VHS era, those pre-1965 movies were a cheap commodity, one step up from the public domain.
After the Eddie Murphy “Nutty Professor” remake, they got a whole lot more valuable. And those are the kinds of assets that should move into a trust where they could go on generating value and not taxable events.
Maybe the Lewis Family Trust traded those films for the house and now collects the royalties on behalf of the ultimate beneficiaries. In the meantime, if the house didn’t break the $2 million threshold back in 2002, it’s probably not going to push the estate over what’s now an $11 million limit.
We’ll just have to see. Either way, Las Vegas is one of the trust planning capitals of America. The lawyers there would have known what was best for the family and juggled the assets accordingly.
The Day the Clown Cried and other tragedies
While those movies can easily represent millions of dollars in future screening, streaming and remake rights, it’s hard to construct a scenario where Lewis managed to amass a whole lot of cash otherwise.
The Paramount deal was a career high point for a world-class star. It earned him $40 million across seven years, but those were more humble times. The late 1960s and the full decade of the 1970s were a haze of guest roles and undoubtedly relatively small paychecks.
The infamous clown concentration camp film “The Day the Clown Cried” almost killed his directorial career when he decided not to release it.
Fans of the bizarre can rejoice: while Lewis promised to keep it buried forever, the Library of Congress will be allowed to screen it in late 2025. At that time, presumably, it starts making money for the family.
Unfortunately, he was busy with the telethons and behind-the-scenes business ventures by 1980. The ventures failed along with his first marriage. He filed for bankruptcy protection to get out from under obligations to both.
At the time, he was bringing in a then-decent $600,000 a year. The wife and other creditors got half of that. She also got the house.
Reading behind the lines, the creditors also got his interest in the movie he was working on at the time, shock hit “Hardly Working.” If Lewis left a substantial cash fortune behind, any ownership he kept in that movie would have been a big piece.
Either way, even if he kept working hard enough to make his court-ordained payments, the work got thin and his creditors had long memories.
The “Nutty Professor” remake was structured more as a working gig than a pure rights deal, funneling more cash to Lewis than to the people who negotiated an ownership stake in the bankruptcy.
Those people included his ex-wife. Lewis didn’t like to talk much about her and late interviews were all about the second wife and their daughter — maybe his five surviving sons were older and didn’t need as much attention.
The boys are in their late 50s and up. If they’ve reacted to their dad’s death on social media, it’s been a private affair, which is just as well.
They’ll probably inherit their mother’s interest in the movies no matter how Lewis decided to allocate his share. That might come down to the trust documents.
Whatever happens, Lewis obsessively retained creative control over all remake negotiations. He’s not around to co-write new versions of “Cinderfella” or “The Family Jewels,” so those deals may remain in limbo.
Ultimately, his professional pride may work against the family. He had no visible creative successor to take his legacy into the future. Unless there’s someone waiting in the wings, it’s all reruns from here.