Updated: Thursday, March 1, 2018, 6:32 PM
Demetrius A. Lewis, 68, formerly of Philadelphia, a stuntman and actor, and one of the first African American cameramen to work in television in Philadelphia, died Thursday, Feb. 15, of lung cancer at his home in Harleyville, S.C., his family said.
Known to friends as “Meachie,” Mr. Lewis was born in Philadelphia to Samuel Lewis and Georgianna Johnson Lewis Coafou. His mother was afraid of gang activity in the city, so she sent him to Harleyville, where he graduated from Jenkins Hill High School in 1968.
“I wished that I had started school in the South from the beginning, because I learned so much in the short time that I was there,” he told his brother, Samuel Lewis Jr.
In 1969, Mr. Lewis returned to Philadelphia and began working for KYW-TV in the mail room, and soon rose to the position of cameraman. He worked on broadcasts of The Mike Douglas Show. In that role, he met the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and the trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The latter urged Mr. Lewis to stay in the TV industry despite any discrimination he might encounter, Samuel Lewis said.
Over 40 years as a cameraman, Mr. Lewis filmed national political conventions, three presidential inaugurations, concerts, films, the Kentucky Derby, Miss America pageants, and the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games.
A gregarious man who loved to talk, Mr. Lewis made friends with entertainers Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Jay Leno.
In 1971, Mr. Lewis took classes at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. He also joined the Philadelphia Acting Studio, a community group that staged productions in Germantown. He learned to be an actor, producer and film director, his brother said.
Ernie Watts, a longtime friend and fellow Cheyney student, credited Mr. Lewis with introducing him to the television studio in the university’s audio-visual center in 1971. That introduction led Watts to a career in TV technology.
“He helped me study for my FCC license, and later I got my professional engineering certification,” Watts said. “I ultimately became senior director of technical operations for remote field operations for Turner Broadcasting. And before I ended my 38-year career at Turner, I filled in as acting vice president of the same department. I owe all of that to Demetrius.”
Starting in 1972, his love of performing led to him to take a job as an actor and stuntman at Six Gun Territory, an amusement park in Willow Grove. He trained actors and staged the action skits for 1,800 shows before the venue closed in April 1975. It later was razed and became Willow Grove Park mall.
Mr. Lewis was fascinated by Old West gun fighting and so thoroughly mastered the techniques that he later planned and directed action sequences for motion pictures and theater.
Being the only African American playing a cowboy in stunt shows made him curious about the history of black cowboys in the old West, his brother said. He researched the life of outlaw Crawford Goldsby, or Cherokee Bill, and that of Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River and a model for the Lone Ranger. Mr. Lewis wrote screenplays about both, but the dramas were never staged.
In 1976, Mr. Lewis enlisted in the Air Force, and was trained as a personnel specialist. He served in the Air National Guard before being honorably discharged in 1981. During this period, Mr. Lewis worked for the Bucks County Department of Corrections as a guard and as a merchant marine. “He was on a ship,” said Sam Lewis. “That was an adventure he wanted to have.”
He then returned to his career as a cameraman, working for Walt Disney Studios and Universal Studios in Los Angeles, and later for NBC, CBS and Fox networks in Philadelphia, and ABC in New York. To deepen his knowledge of film production, he enrolled in Orlando College, from which he graduated in 1995 with a degree in video arts and science.
As his health began to decline, he retired in 2012 to Harleyville, where he made improvements to the family homestead.
Mr. Lewis was married to Belinda Clark Lewis. She died in 2011.
In addition to his mother and brother, he is survived by a sister and two brothers; two nieces; three nephews; and a close friend, Benzenia Murray-Johnson.
Funeral services were Friday, Feb. 23.