Jerry Lewis met Dean Martin in New York in March 1945. As he later recounted in Dean & Me: (A Love Story), Lewis was newly married with a kid on the way, and he was trying to make his name as an oddball comic when he crossed paths with Martin, who instantly captivated him. “Men don’t like to admit it,” Lewis writes in the memoir, “but there’s something about a truly handsome guy who also happens to be truly masculine — what they call a man’s man — that’s as magnetic to us as it is to women. That’s what I want to be like, you think. Maybe if I hang around with him, some of that’ll rub off on me.”
In Martin, who was about nine years older, Lewis (an only child) found an older brother who seemed far more confident and sophisticated than he did as a geeky, insecure teen. “The truth is, funny sentences were always running through my brain: I thought funny,” Lewis wrote in Dean & Me. “But I was ashamed of what would come out if I spoke — that nasal kid’s voice. So I was funny on stage, but I was only part funny: I was still looking for the missing piece.”
Martin was the missing piece, playing the suave straight guy to Lewis’s crazy buffoon. They quickly went from nightclubs to radio to television to movies, the name “Martin and Lewis” becoming synonymous with a kind of high/low comedic assault that merged banter and vaudeville.
The legend of this duo — who were one of the biggest acts of the 1950s — sometimes simplifies the two men into Martin as the dull, crooning dreamboat and Lewis as the hyperactive “monkey,” to use the term Lewis mockingly ascribed to himself. Those simplifications did a disservice to both men, which Lewis acknowledged in his book, giving Martin his due as a comedic mastermind and an expert ad-libber. “Over the next 60 years, I would come to understand it better and better,” he explained of Martin’s talent. “The vast majority of comedians with good rhythm use beats — small hesitations, often with some comic business or other — to set up their jokes. Dean didn’t use beats. I was in the presence of magic.”
But eventually, egos got in the way. On film, Martin may have been the cooler, older brother, but behind the scenes, Lewis had all the control, longing to be seen as the true genius. As Martin later complained, “He read a book about Chaplin,” referring to the iconic screen legend Charlie Chaplin, who wrote, directed and produced his own material. “At some point, [Lewis] said to himself, ‘I’m exactly like Chaplin,’ and from then on no one could tell him anything.” Such frustrations no doubt inspired Martin to once famously lash out at his partner, “[You’re] nothing to me but a fucking dollar sign.”
After 10 years together, Martin and Lewis finally parted ways, both men finding success on their own. Martin became part of the Rat Pack, while Lewis began starring in his own movies, eventually taking the reins of his career by writing and directing features like The Nutty Professor. In that film, Lewis plays his trademark screwball-character type as Julius Kelp, a nerdy scientist who transforms himself into the despicable Buddy Love, a swingin’ lothario that many assumed was supposed to be a savage parody of Lewis’ old partner. (Lewis always denied it.)
But despite the fact that the two performers refused to speak to one another after their split, their association remained, years later, fully cemented in the public’s imagination. As film critic Shawn Levy, who wrote the biography King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, observed, “There was a strange hint of something like sexuality between” Martin and Lewis in their films. For instance, they remade romantic comedies but turned them into buddy movies in which Lewis was always the female role.
Also, Levy points out, “There was an unusual physical intimacy to their act — Dean would lift Jerry in his arms like a big baby, they would pat one another’s cheeks, they nearly kissed on camera at times, staring into each other’s eyes with big, sincere grins.”
All of that may be true, but it more accurately translated into brotherly love than any kind of sexual repression. Their partnership, and its aftermath, was everything we’ve come to expect from siblings: contentious, but with a begrudging understanding that the other person knows you better than anyone else. Little wonder that after they split, as Lewis writes in Dean & Me, “I understood how an amputee must feel.”
It wasn’t until their mutual friend Frank Sinatra got them on stage together during the 1976 Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon that they once again shared the spotlight. Sinatra surprised Lewis with Martin’s appearance, which threw the host for a loop. As he recalled later, “I just looked up to heaven and said, ‘Dear God, give me something to say.’”
When Martin died in 1995, Lewis went to the funeral. As he writes in Dean & Me, “I lost my partner and my best friend. The man who made me the man I am today. I think of him with undying respect. I miss him every day I’m still here.”
While Martin and Lewis had gone their separate ways, they never could escape one another.
Just like family.