Given the vastly different star identities carved out by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis over the course of their lengthy individual careers, it’s hard to fully appreciate today what enormous show biz figures they proved to be — as a team.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to welcome back Hy Hollinger, our longtime pal and veteran Hollywood correspondent, to chronicle the painful — make that downright nasty — split-up that shook the mid-20th Century’s entertainment world.
The Martin and Lewis comedy duo was informally formed in 1946, during an engagement at a smoky night club in Atlantic City. Martin had been a struggling crooner, born Dino Paul Crocetti in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio. Lewis (nee Joe Levitch) was nine years younger, a zany comic wannabee from Newark, New Jersey.
The teaming was serendipitous and instantly successful. Lewis later said that other comedy combinations never generated anything like the hysteria that (we) did, and that was because we had that X factor — the powerful feeling between us. And it really was an X factor, a kind of mystery.
By the end of the Forties, Martin and Lewis had become America’s most popular show biz team, generating reported earnings of $5,000 per week (that’s nearly $50,000 in today’s dollars). They also proved to be all-media stars — popular in person and on records, enormous on TV (their Colgate comedy program even outdrew The Ed Sullivan Show) and, of course, huge box office draws in the movies.
In all, Martin and Lewis made 16 pictures together over their 10-year professional partnership with Martin invariably playing the sleek sybarite to Lewis’ shrill, overgrown adolescent. (In 1955′s You’re Never Too Young, Lewis portrayed an aspiring barber involved in a robbery who has to disguise himself as a 12-year-old to get out of harm’s way.)
By the time that movie opened, both members of the team had more than tired of each other. After five years at Paramount, Martin was getting pissed off at the parts he was getting while Lewis dominated with his comedy schtick, Hy believes. Lewis, incidentally, did not want the separation (although years later he told reporters that he instigated the 1956 breakup.) We stand with Hy on this one.
Reporting for Variety at the time, Hy and some 100 show biz journalists convened in 1955 at an upper New York State caravansary, part of the famous “Borscht Belt” where so many comedians and actors cut their professional teeth. What follows are excerpts from Hollinger’s report, datelined Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., June 12:
Jerry Lewis returned to his early training ground — Brown’s Hotel in the Catskills resort area — where he started his career over a decade ago as a busboy. Occasion was the premiere of his and Dean Martin’s latest Paramount pic, ‘You’re Never Too Young.’
It was a difficult assignment for the zany comedian, facing over 100 junketing newsmen from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, who were all primed with the $64 question, ‘What’s with the split with Dean Martin?’ (Martin did NOT attend the event.)
When Lewis made his first onstage appearance he noticed there were two microphones. He turned to the orchestra leader and said, ‘We won’t need that one tonight.’
Although he had his ‘cross to bear and a heavy heart,’ words he employed in describing the situation, Lewis was his ubiquitous self, greeting press arrivals in a bellboy uniform, waiting on tables, and entertaining guests in the hotel lobby and bistro.
Hollinger pointedly noted that Lewis ducked any inquiries about Martin, dismissing them with a no comment or you’re asking a leading question. After a two-hour comedy performance Lewis bowed off in a serious vein, mentioning his problem. A sympathetic audience provided a standup ovation that left Lewis limp and sobbing.
Despite his absence, Martin’s shadow hung over the proceedings. All along Route 17, gateway to the Borscht Belt, billboards proclaimed the joint appearance of the team.
Martin and Lewis split for good the year after Hy filed his report from the Catskills. The breakup was professional but also deeply personal. The two did not speak for the next 20 years. After a brief reuniting on Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy tv telethon in 1976, relations between the two continued in the deep freeze.
Lewis and Martin reconciled for good after the latter’s son, Dino, an Air National Guard pilot, died in a plane crash in 1987. That was just eight years before Martin, a virtual recluse at the time, died of lung cancer.