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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Absent but still the star of the show, comedian Jerry Lewis helped the 2011 Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon raise more than $61 million over the weekend.
An annual event that stretched over 21 hours on Sunday honored his efforts during the past 45 years to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the disorder through medical research, the organization said on Monday.
Gigantic photos of Lewis, who retired this year from the fundraiser he has headlined since 1966, served as a backdrop for the stage on which four co-hosts gushed about the funny man with a big heart.
"It isn't possible, Jerry, to replace you, sir," said "American Idol" executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, one of the hosts of the Sunday evening prime-time hours of the event.
"What you have done for this organization and its families is something close to a miracle. And I know that we all want to carry on its legacy."
In six prime-time television hours, the telethon raised more than $61.4 million, up from $58.9 million raised during the prior year's 21.5-hour telethon, according to a statement from MDA.
The 46th Labor Day telethon was the most successful since the recession began in 2008, the organization said.
"The tremendous success of the Telethon, even in a tough economy where some communities are also being challenged by natural disasters, shows that America understands and appreciates the truly rapid progress being made by MDA-funded researchers worldwide," said R. Rodney Howell, M.D., chairman of the MDA Board of Directors.
The newest hosts, who thanked Lewis for inspiring them to join the telethon effort, included Lythgoe, "Entertainment Tonight" host Nancy O'Dell, NBC's "The Biggest Loser" host Alison Sweeney and entertainment journalist Jann Carl.
The show watched by tens of millions of viewers included performers such as Lady Antebellum and Boyz II Men and celebrities Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.
The 85-year-old Lewis starred in more than 40 films and is best known for the popular 1963 movie "The Nutty Professor."
In the 1940s and 1950s, he performed on stage, in television and on film in a wildly popular comedy duo with singer Dean Martin.
In May he said he was retiring as host of the telethon, although he was expected to make a final appearance this year to sing his signature song "You Never Walk Alone."
Those plans were scrapped last month when the MDA said Lewis would not be appearing on the show.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg. Editing by Peter Bohan