If I had to explain what I admire about Jerry Lewis, I would point to “Wiseguy,” “King of Comedy” and “Funny Bones,” one TV series and two movies in which he demonstrated acting discipline and a forcefulness that remains impressive. Where the movies Lewis controlled tended not to include supporting players who might overshadow Lewis, in these roles he had to work opposite formidable screen performers; “Wiseguy” in that arc also included Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci, “King” had Robert DeNiro with Martin Scorsese directing, and “Funny Bones” starred Oliver Platt. And still, I remember Lewis.

Also of note is that these roles were built on father/son relationships, with Platt and Silver playing sons of Lewis’s characters, and DeNiro playing a man who saw Lewis’s character as a spiritual/creative father. The complicated dynamic of fathers and sons, especially when the father is as domineering as Lewis was offscreen, gave Lewis something real to grapple with, consciously or unconsciously. And it’s when he gets close to his real self that his acting is most successful. It’s no accident that, of his self-controlled comedies, “The Nutty Professor” generally ranks highest, because it shows Lewis in conflict between two of his selves – a man who wants to be loved, and a man who barely cares about that. Some observers have said the movie bases the uncaring man, Buddy Love, on Lewis’s old partner, Dean Martin. But more recent criticism has rightly seen Buddy as the darker side of Lewis himself.

Beyond that, it gets tough to say something positive about Lewis, who died Sunday. He was a pretty awful man, by many accounts, hostile toward women, perpetually angry over perceived slights, nasty to some reporters – not least because they did not take him as seriously as he took himself. The Martin & Lewis movies had their moments, since the two were playing with and against each other. Lewis’s own movies – and I don’t pretend to have seen them all --- have a certain sameness, good bits here and there surrounded by a lot of dreck. Even “The Nutty Professor” has stagnant stretches.

A Rolling Stone profile of Lewis in 1982 gets at the problem: Lewis by then was surrounded by people who laughed at his every humor-intending gesture; there was no challenge left – unless, as I’ve said, he took on a task that involved real challenges. I look at those three roles I mentioned and think, this is a guy who should be taken seriously, and not just as someone who made some technical advances. (Lewis, directing himself, pioneered videotaping on the set, so he could immediately see if a scene he was in had come out all right. Unfortunately, however good the video may have looked, it didn’t change what was being recorded.)

Of course, many look at his work on the MDA telethon as redemptive. Some, including friends of mine, have eloquently argued that the money he raised for MDA did a lot of good. “The MDA paid for every single piece of equipment we needed to care for (my father) when he was dying of ALS,” said one friend, “including a wheelchair lift for the van we had to get, a motorized wheelchair, and a hospital bed.”

On the other hand, telethon critics including former poster children have argued, as Jon Wiener did in a 2011 piece for The Nation, that Lewis’ perpetuated stereotypes of people with MD, misled audiences by talking constantly of a cure that has not come, and did not focus on what people with the disability really need: “help with their symptoms and with mobility.”

Instead, you had Jerry on the telethon, often tearful at one’s end, perpetuating a degree of saintliness which the rest of his life did not indicate. And it was the image of saintly Jerry which briefly inspired Donald Trump, the New York Times’s Gail Collins wrote recently.  But not to be a philanthropist. Asked if he thought about “using his development genius to build housing for the poor” by Collins, “Trump said that he wanted a sickness of his own that everybody would know he was trying to cure, the way Jerry Lewis had muscular dystrophy. He ran through the list of possibilities. The only one I recall involved kidneys, which he thought were important but not really the kind of image he was going for.”