In 1946 a young Jewish slapstick clown from Newark, New Jersey was performing at a small club on the same bill as a suave Italian crooner from Steubenville, Ohio. It was love at first sight. Jerry was awkward and needy. Dean was cool and secure. They couldn’t have been more opposite, but Dean was everything that Jerry wanted to be. A little while later they once again found themselves sharing a bill. They horsed around a little after the show, and got some laughs. That’s all it took. Three years later they were the biggest act in show biz. Didn’t anyone tell them that vaudeville was dead?
The great teams of Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, Laurel & Hardy, et al all had seen their day. The brand new medium of television was bringing these great comic duos to a new generation, but as far as the business was concerned, the straight man/clown teams were corny—a thing of the past. What was it about Martin & Lewis that bucked the trend; that reinvented the wheel?
What I understood, even as a young kid, was that Jerry idolized Dean. He absolutely loved him. Dean was the cool Romeo who boys and men wished they could be. He sang like a combination of Perry Como and Bing Crosby, but his persona was more like Frank Sinatra, only more in control and cooler. Plus he was handsome with an athletic build. In a word, he was every girl’s dreamboat.
Jerry was skinny, gangly, all arms and legs, insecure, and a physical comedy genius. In the hey day of Sid Caesar, whose sketch comedy celebrated Caesar’s range of characters, Jerry’s physical comedy was single-minded. He was the nerdy, inept klutz who never got the girl—that was Dean’s territory. For us kids in the ’50s, Dean was who we wished we were, and Jerry was who we were afraid that we were. That was no accident. Jerry set it up that way. Jerry encouraged Dean to let go and be crazy. They were the perfect team, until they weren’t.
In his book about their partnership, Jerry took credit for their demise. Unlike Dean, who was happy just to stand in front of a band and sing, Jerry needed control. Control of everything. Unlike most control freaks, Jerry was actually good at the things he wanted to control. It’s easy to see why Dean grew to resent Jerry. They were equals, but now Jerry was more equal. I’ve seen it a thousand times.
Sadly, they didn’t speak for the last year of their 10-year partnership. Nor did they speak for 20 years after that, until Frank Sinatra secretly put them together on Jerry’s Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. They were polite, but still didn’t speak for another decade. This time, Jerry broke the ice and attended the funeral for Dean’s son. After that, they spoke from time to time until Dean’s death a decade later, but it was never the same. It was like when I was young and had a girlfriend. We would break up over something—who knows what, and then it could never be the same. Something gets broken. I always think that’s sad.
So, in 1956, Jerry and Dean went their separate ways. Everyone said that Jerry had the world by the tail, and that Dean was finished. And for a while, Jerry did have the world by the tail. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in a string of popular movies. He even had a top 10 recording singing a swinging version of a 40-year old song, Rockabye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody, owing much stylistically to fellow Jew, Al Jolson’s 1918 recording. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfVeOpw-NPY. Compare Jerry’s recording to Dean’s version of the same tune, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4PFbxQbps4. Jerry is pressing, needy; Dean is cool, relaxed, and stylistically more modern.
The odd thing is that Jerry wasn’t locked into pre-swing music. Not at all. He was a huge jazz fan. He loved jazz musicians. But above all, he loved Count Basie’s band as shown by his two famous pantomimes, Chairman of the Board, set to Frank Foster’s Blues In Hoss’ Flat, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS21T_p0pNA, and Jerry doing the dishes to Neal Hefti’s Cute, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elTYN1LyMGw.
Jerry’s affinity for the music is present in every movement and gesture. He equated jazz with hipness and cool. After parting with Dean, Jerry expanded his persona. In his greatest and most popular movie, The Nutty Professor, which is loosely based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jerry plays the dual role of the insecure, nerdy Professor Kelp and the out-of-control egomaniacal lounge singer, Buddy Love. This was his old act with Dean, only now Jerry got to play both parts to the extreme. It is the id and the ego at war with each other. In the end, the old Jerry wins out, and we love this nerd, who gets to come out of his shell just a bit. But, within a few years, Jerry’s brand of humor was old news. Hollywood was done with him.
At that same time, Dean began his long-running Dean Martin Show, on TV from 1965-74. Now Jerry was down and Dean was up. Not that Dean was ever really down. He was a member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack and was big on the nightclub circuit. He did some acting in movies, most notably Some Came Running with Frank Sinatra. It’s often said that comedians make great serious actors, and that was certainly the case with Jerry. Dean pretty much played Dean in his roles, but Jerry could break our hearts. It’s a pity that he didn’t do more of this. The truth was that Jerry had a well-earned reputation for being hard to work with. Few directors want to share control with their actors.
There is a clip from 1950 of the young Martin & Lewis team hanging out their dressing room window at the Paramount Theater clowning with throngs of fans below. They were big—the biggest. Like Benny Goodman or the Beatles. Really. So what made their act work, while other comedy teams couldn’t? Just look at that candid video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sICVChBIlOs. They were having the time of their lives, and you can hear them say so. It’s obvious how much they love each other. You can’t fake that.
Theirs was the friendship we all would love to have. And then it wasn’t. They loved each other for the rest of their lives, but like an ex-girlfriend once told me, the love was still there, but life had moved on. I guess that nothing lasts forever. Sometimes we need to move on to fully become who we are. And then we die.
Rest in peace, Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)