Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were two all-time comedic and performing greats. And while they both enjoyed prominent and successful solo careers in the latter halves of their lives, there was once a time when they were the biggest comedic duo around.
Sadly, it all came crashing down after ten years together, creating a huge rift between the two legends.
How They Got Together
The two were first in the same venue when they were on the bill, separately, at a club in NYC called the Glass Hat. Lewis was there performing a lip-syncing comedy routine, and Martin was singing.
Lewis was impressed by Martin’s voice, as well as his cool guy demeanor. Then, one night in 1946, the two happened to be on the same bill again.
This time it was at the Havana-Madrid night club. Lewis was equally enamored of Martin’s act, and decided to approach him after the show.
The two immediately got along, and they hung out at the club after it closed that night, riffing on potential comedic bits that a duo could do.
They stayed in touch, and then one night when an act dropped out at Atlantic City’s “500 club,” Lewis convinced the club’s manager to let Martin fill in.
In addition to his usual singing routine, Martin then joined Lewis on stage.
The two tried out the comedic bits they had written at the Havana-Madrid club. The audience loved it.
Martin and Lewis sensed they had tapped into something special, and began to hone their act. Lewis played the goofball whose antics lit up the stage, while Martin played the straight man and would sing as well.
Later, Lewis once called their act, “sexy and slapstick.”
Their Initial Success
At first, they started performing around the New York City area as a stage act, including a residency at the Copacabana. After finding success on that circuit, the two turned their attention to radio.
Their success there led to appearances on TV, which also led to even more success on radio.
They were on the very first episode of the legendary Ed Sullivan Show in 1948 (though technically, it was still called “Toast of the Town” at that point.)
They got their own NBC radio show in 1949, and that was on the air until 1953.
But perhaps their biggest success came from films. They signed a movie deal off of the success of their stage act, their TV appearances, and their radio show.
And this lead to a lengthy list of very popular movies – 17 in all. Some of these included titles like My Friend Irma, At War With The Army, That’s My Boy, Jumping Jack, and Money from Models.
Often the plots of these movies were eerily similar. Martin and Lewis would play best buds who were torn apart by some event. This was often a result of Martin’s character being a womanizer.
And over the course of the movies, they’d realize that their friendship was more important than anything, and come back together to help each other. It was a simple formula, but audiences ate it up with each film.
Things Fall Apart
So where did things go wrong for this legendary duo?
It would seem like they’d do everything they could to make sure their friendship and working relationship stayed healthy, considering what a successful run they were having.
But sadly, this didn’t end up being the case. As tends to happen when people find Hollywood success, they start to envision the length to which they could expand and achieve.
And Jerry Lewis was certainly susceptible to this type of thinking. He wasn’t satisfied simply remaining a part of a comedy duo that did fun movies together.
Instead, he was interested in becoming a Hollywood bigwig. The first aspect of this was that he became interested in creating and directing features of his own.
So he began to assert more and more creative control over the movies he was making with Martin.
The other aspect that Lewis deemed important was expanding the types of characters he played.
While he knew he could always fall back on his slapstick characters who were simply zany and wild, he felt his characters should also have a relatable side, and that audiences should find them sympathetic.
He characterized the type he was envisioning as a “lovable schnook.” So he began playing and writing his characters to have more heart and to be more three-dimensional.
A Matter of Ambition
At some level, these changes should have been fine, so long as Martin was fine with continuing with the same formulas they’d been working with in their films.
Specifically, his characters tended to be slick, too-cool-for-cool and a little uncaring.
That was, until Lewis’s characters, who were always lovable and funny, made Martin’s characters see the light in the third act.
Then Martin’s character would change his ways, and audiences would root for him.
So in a sense, when Lewis decided to make his characters more of a “lovable schnook” It would only have enhanced this relationship, making Martin’s character’s redemption story even more powerful.
The problem was, Martin had grown increasingly wary of playing this same role over and over. He too wanted to try out some characters with more heart and who were more lovable.
But with Lewis staking claim to that end of the spectrum, Martin was essentially pigeonholed in his type.
And when Lewis began taking more of a creative hold on their films, Martin knew that there was no turning back.
These were becoming Jerry Lewis movies that happened to feature Martin and Lewis as a duo.
Martin grew increasingly frustrated at the fact that his characters were basically one dimensional and fairly mean until the final few minutes of each film. Plus, his singing career had finally started to take off.
He was eager to include more singing performances in their movies, something Lewis had no interest in.
After they split, Dean was quoted as saying that it wasn’t professional jealousy that made him want to end their relationship, despite many people assuming this to be the case.
He said it was simply Lewis’s overabundance of ambition, and the results it had on their products, that soured things. He said he felt like Lewis was essentially trying to take over, and this wasn’t something he could accept.
They didn’t speak for 20 years
The pair did a final show that was meant to act as a farewell performance on July 25th, 1956. It was at the Copacabana, and was 10 years to the day from when they’d first performed together on stage.
And, while some entertainment partnerships break up and the people involved stay in touch occasionally, this was not the case with Martin and Lewis. The rift between them had grown too deep, and neither wanted to back down.
It’s been said that while their two personalities couldn’t have been less alike, one common thread they shared was that they were both stubborn.
And it was perhaps this stubbornness that led to neither of them wanting to be the one to back down and get in touch with the other. This stalemate lasted for 20 years.
And it likely would have gone for even longer, had Frank Sinatra not stepped in.
In 1976, Lewis hosted his annual muscular dystrophy fundraising telethon. Sinatra, who was a mutual friend of both men, managed to arrange an on-set reunion between the two.
Perhaps because neither knew it was coming, both men were fairly stilted and awkward.
But the hope was that by having a small step toward reconciliation, it would allow both men to make up properly and not lose face. It’s didn’t work, sadly. The interaction was not only weird for audiences, but also for the two men.
Years later, in 1983, Lewis was asked by People magazine if he wanted to try yet another reunion with Martin. He responded that he didn’t think it would happen, especially since their careers and their lifestyles were so contrasting.
Lewis added that if he found out Martin was outside at that moment, he’d gladly “jump on his neck.”
Their second reunion
It seemed that after their strange on-screen reunion that the two wouldn’t speak again. And that was true during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
But they ended up coming back together, albeit in incredibly sad circumstances. Tragically, Dean Paul Martin Jr. died in 1987 in a plane crash. In a surprising twist, Lewis attended the funeral.
Perhaps both men saw that their feud represented a petty and unnecessary part of both of their lives, and decided they were done with it.
But the death of Dean Jr. certainly provided the impetus for reconciliation. Lewis was able to comfort Dean in his grief, and Dean was able to feel the warmth of an old friendship.
The two made up at the funeral, and while they didn’t perform again together, or become close friends, they did stay in touch.
They’d talk here and there between 1987 and when Martin passed away in 1995.
After Martin died, Lewis actually started publicly speaking better of him, a huge reversal from the days of talking about jumping on his throat.
In 2002, he spoke yet again to People Magazine. This time he said that their breakup was likely his fault.
He also said that he now realized that Martin night have acted like he was fine with their
feud, but that inside he was hurting a lot over it. Lewis added that he felt like he should have realized that sooner.