New Jersey Jewish News
Jerry Lewis, Newarks own, recalls glory days with his pal Dean Martin
DEAN & ME (A Love Story) by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 341 pages, $26.95.
As legendary comedian and philanthropist Jerry Lewis reaches his 80th birthday today, March 16 he takes the opportunity to reflect on one of the most important people in his life: his old pal, Dean Martin.
When one thinks of Martin and Lewis, the first thing that comes to mind is shtick. Martin would croon and Lewis would fonfer, cracking up both the audiences and his partner. It seemed like the perfect gig.
Lewis, who was born in Newark on March 16, 1926, recalls the admiration and deep affection he had for Martin, some 10 years his senior, from the moment the two met in 1945. Martins charm made him the type of man women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like.
Comedy teams are often compared with married couples, and the relationship can have the kinds of ups and downs that sometimes lead a husband and wife to split. The breakup of Martin and Lewis in the entertainment world was a divorce of monumental proportions.
Lewis can be brutal in his assessments. One hesitates to accepts Lewis version of events prima facie; Martin, who died in 1995, might have put a different spin on their relationship and its dissolution.
Lewis claims to have been the voice of reason, the brains of the outfit, which must have galled Martin, who had the looks and the voice, but never seemed comfortable, believing he was never taken seriously.
Off-stage, Martin was a drinker, a gambler, and gamboler. To be fair, Lewis admits to the same vices, but is he simply being honest, or is he falsely humble, painting himself in unflattering tones, looking for empathy?
After several years playing the night club circuit, Martin and Lewis parlayed their popularity into the big screen. Like Abbott and Costello, they invariably played the same characters in film after film: Martin, the suave romantic lead, and Lewis the bumbling buddy, who always needed rescue from some ludicrous predicament. Safe, but boring, wrote the critics.
Inevitably the tide began to turn sad and even ugly. Lewis depicts Martin as increasingly reluctant to fulfill obligations and act in a professional manner. The breaking point came when Martin didnt show up for a benefit performance that Lewis had agreed to do; Martin denied ever having known about it, despite Lewis claim of a handshake agreement.
The last straw came when Martin adamantly refused to play a police officer in, of all things, a movie send-up of the Damon and Pythias story. Again, Lewis claims to have been the calm one, the peacemaker despite all the frustrations.
At one point following a health scare, Lewis tried to make amends with Martin. He half-closed his eyes, gazing downward for what felt like a long time. Then he looked me square in the face. You can talk about love all you want, Dean said. To me youre nothing but a f-ing dollar sign.
The official breakup took place on July 24, 1956, following a final performance at New Yorks famous Copacabana night club. When I awoke [the following] afternoon, I understood how an amputee must feel, Lewis writes.
Despite their falling out, Lewis says, he was proud of Martins accomplishments, especially as he built a reputation as a serious movie star, something he had been unable to attain prior to the split.
Fortunately, the friendship was too strong to keep them estranged forever. Lewis credits Frank Sinatra for masterminding the surprise reunion during the Muscular Dystrophy telethon in 1976.
While I was thanking [Sinatra], he interrupted, saying, I have a friend who watches what you do here every year and thinks its terrific. Id like to have him come out. Frank then yelled, Hey, send my friend out here, will ya?
And out walked Dean Martin, my partner, and I was in a time warp . I tried to stand tall as he approached me, and we hugged hard, very hard. He kissed me on the cheek and I did the same to him.
When Martin died, Lewis was reluctant to attend the funeral. People should say nice things before the loved one is gone, he writes. No doubt, having read Dean & Me, people will have even more nice things to say about Lewis.
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