EDITOR’S NOTE: We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you news of Jerry Lewis’ death at his Las Vegas home on Sunday. He was 91.
The standout comedian, actor, director, script writer, tv personality is best remembered, of course, for his comedy partnership with Dean Martin. Lewis inherited the Lou Costello mantle when Martin and Lewis replaced Bud Abbott and Costello as America’s most popular comedy duo.
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.
The Martin and Lewis comedy duo was formed in 1946, during an engagement at a smoky night club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Martin had been a struggling crooner, born Dino Paul Crocetti in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio. Lewis (ne 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 proved to be all-media stars — popular in person and on records, radio and 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, our late friend and veteran trade journalist Hy Hollinger believed. Lewis, incidentally, did not want the separation (although years later he told reporters that he instigated the 1956 breakup.)
During his long life, Lewis endured open heart surgery, prostate cancer surgery, various other health problems as well as the barbs of critics who tired of his raucous schtick and his politically incorrect observations in recent years. But throughout, the French loved him, seeing in him elements of Charlie Chaplin. Lewis was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1984. Rest in peace, Jerry, in that Muscular Dystrophy telethon in the sky.
Tomorrow: Our usual Monday Quiz