Why Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Split Up

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were, in my own humble opinion, the greatest comedy team in the history of show business.

I like Laurel and Hardy very much; I love the Marx Brothers and I idolize the Three Stooges, but there was something so electric about Dean and Jerry. It was a new concept, a fresh idea, teaming up a handsome, smooth, ultra-cool singer with a funny guy, his antithesis, his pesky kid brother- a monkey.

Somehow the mix worked perfectly.

Dean and Jerry were together as a team for 10 years, from 1946 to 1956, and although they existed as a team before I was even born, I have worshipped Martin and Lewis from day one.

I first saw them together in the 1956 movie Pardners, a comedy western, it was re-released in 1963 and I must have seen this film in that year. I remember my Uncle Harvey was with my dad as they picked me up from the Strand theater. I raved on about how great Dean and Jerry were and Uncle Harvey said, “They went pffft.” (Yes, he made that sound.)

I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but of course, I do get it now. From 1949 to 1956, Martin and Lewis had great success in movies (the two made 16 films together and every one made a boatload of money.) They were also a hugely popular live act, touring the country to wild acclaim, in nightclubs and other live appearances.

Few realize it, but Martin and Lewis were the first comedy team to strike it big on television. Dean and Jerry periodically co-hosted a variety show called “The Colgate Comedy Hour” from 1950 to 1955, and the two were a huge ratings smash.

So with all this lucrative success, why did Martin and Lewis break up?

When Dean and Jerry did split in ’56, the commonly given reason was their respective work ethics.

Jerry was a self-acknowledged workaholic. He was a whirling dervish of energy (and raw talent) and he wanted to churn out more and more films, TV shows, and live appearances.

On the other hand, while Dean liked the work, he loved his golf. Dean only enjoyed working “so much”, then he liked to get out onto the links and tee off… a simple enough explanation for the breakup.

But pinpointing the reasons regarding such a split, like trying to surmise why any couple splits up, is usually not so simple.

It is usually not just one thing, more likely a compound of several factors, each one to a greater or lesser degree.

Reason Two Commonly Given For the Split Up: Jerry was “taking over” the act.

Although most people of our generation know Dean Martin as a funny, personable, talented singer, at the time of Martin and Lewis, he was basically thought to be a “fifth wheel”, a lucky guy who latched onto a multi-talented, brilliant comedian. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were thought of as “a nice guy straight man” with “a great comedian” who basically carried the act.

While Dean was fairly content to be a singer/straight man to Jerry, Jerry had huge ambitions. Jerry, admittedly, wanted to “make them forget (Charlie) Chaplin”. Even as early as the mid-1950’s, he was dreaming of not only being a comedy star, but branching out into directing, producing, writing, and many other fields.

The fact that Jerry Lewis was regarded as the “real star” of the act wasn’t the most pleasant news to Dean Martin. Contemporary reviewers would constantly rave over Jerry’s performances and generally dismiss Dean, often not even throwing him a bone.

Dean (as would almost anyone) developed a sour attitude about being Jerry’s partner, especially knowing full well that he was a great straight man and helped the act tremendously. (Jerry, to his credit, always acknowledged Dean’s contribution to their act, calling him a “genius” and “the greatest straight man in the history of show business’.)

Reason Three Commonly Given for the Breakup: Their wives.

Jeanne Martin and Jerry never really got along very well (Jerry and his wife Patti, were very close to Dean’s first wife, Betty, and when Dean divorced Betty to marry Jeanne, she claimed they gave her the “deep freeze”.) As Jeanne Martin was to admit, “Whether they admit it or not, two women can do more to drive two men apart [faster than any other factor].”

For instance, according to one source, late in their partnership, at a party, Dean made a crack about Patti Lewis’ morals before she’d married Jerry and the two almost came to fisticuffs.

Reason Four: Dean and Jerry developed different ideas about the act.

Early on in their movies and TV shows, Jerry tried to bring in more and more pathos, against Dean’s wishes. Like Charlie Chaplin, he wanted his character to be a sympathetic figure, the “little guy” you felt and rooted for.

In one sketch on their TV show, all the men in the bit find attractive women dance partners and dance with them, while Jerry is left alone to dance with a lady mannequin.

According to Jerry, “Dean just hated the bit.”

“Why don’t you cut out all this sad stuff and just be funny?”, Dean said in frustration.

Other minor incidents occurred, motivating Dean’s unhappiness. On the set of their 1954 movie “Three Ring Circus”, a group of young boys approached Dean.

“Hey mister”, they asked, “Where’s Jerry Lewis?” According to a witness, he never saw such a hurt look on a man’s face as he saw on Dean’s face that day.

The proverbial “last straw” came in 1956 when Dean and Jerry were scheduled to star in the movie “The Delicate Delinquent”. In the film’s script, Dean was to play a policeman. But Dean didn’t relish the idea of playing a cop and refused. “Then we’ll just have to get someone else”, said Jerry loftily.

“Start looking, boy!” said Dean as he stormed away.

Thus, the two who had made millions of dollars together and made the world laugh so richly broke up. I think Jerry Lewis said it best himself: “…the man said to the other man, ‘Those are beautiful shoes you’re wearing’. And the other man replied, ‘Yes, but I’m the only one who knows how much they hurt.’

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  • I must respectfully differ. As I was growing up, my parents tuned in to the “Dean Martin Show”. I found myself rather enjoying it, despite my youth. Dean had a sly, self-deprecating sense of humour that made him quite entertaining. Jerry Lewis movies, even as a kid, I found kinda stupid. Like some of the “class clown” wannabes in my school. Kids that don’t really get what humour is, and try to compensate by being increasingly louder and sillier to get attention.

    I was actually in my teens before I was informed that Lewis and Martin were once a team. I found this bizarre. Like discovering people once ate pizza covered in marshmallow sauce.

  • I was the production singer at the Copa when Dean And Jerry appeared there Jerry was the more serious one. He ran things especially when Dean would disappear He was the bigger ladies man even when he was engaged to Jeanne Beavers

  • I agree with Murray. Some comedians think they have to be loud, brash and obnoxious to be funny. Dean could do it with a sly smile or a roll of the eyes.
    Unfortunately most modern comedians take Jerrys path rather than Dean’s. I, for one, don’t find them funny.

  • Jerry Lewis either never got Dean’s POV or didn’t care. Watch the video when Sinatra surprises them both and brings Dean on the stage at the MD telethon. Right off the bat it is very tense and then Jerry starts joking at Dean’s expense. Dean was clearly very uncomfortable. And the cocktail glasses were full of tea.

  • The reason for the breakup was Lewis was an egomaniac non-talented bum who got a break from Martin and felt he was something. Something bigger than Dean and Dean got tired of it and dropped him. Lewis never got over it, never did anything again other than show his ass in a telethon attempting to take credit for something and cash in on disabled people.

    Dean should have dumped Lewis after the first year but he made the right choice getting rid of the bum some years later. I doubt they ever spoke again. Lewis is still going on with bilking the disabled and attempting to get attention he has always been starved for but he’s never really earn a dime in his life. He has had money handed to him. Real pig.

    • Dean…
      If you really knew what you were talking about, Jerry Lewis was involved with MDA in the early 50’s when the Martin and Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour was on tv. Don’t believe me? Research it!

    • I was never a fan of Jerry Lewis at his silliest, but this comment is really just ignorant. Lewis the top box office draw in Hollywood for years after the split, and to say that his MD Marathon was anything but generous just shows a level of foolish bitterness that I can’t imagine.

  • In his book titled “Dean and Me” Jerry is very complimentary of Dean and his talents and contribution to their act. I think it is rather naive to dismiss Jerry as a non talented bum. Both men were comedic geniuses and complimented their act equally. That’s why it worked so well. They were a very fresh talent and combination never before seen, and both men went on to become very successful on their own. Was Lewis an egomaniac? Possibly, which he basically admits to having a lot of ego. Who wouldn’t after the success he had as a 19 year old? To this day he regrets the breakup, and he truly adored Dean as a “Big Brother”. Their legacy is secure both as Martin & Lewis and as individuals. TwoGreat performers.

  • I must respectfully disagree with Murray, Penny Carol,Eddie, and Jake Lakota. It was Jerry Lewis who was the star of the partnership, he was years ahead of his time regarding comedy which did not include violence or bad language.After the break up Jerry went on to write, produce,direct and star in many great comedic movies thus showing his commitment and versatility to his trade. Jerry is also great singer which he demonstrates in the movie ‘The Delicate Delinquent’. His cd ‘Jerry Just Sings’ is as good, if not better than any of Dean Martin songs. Jerry is truly named the ‘King of Comedy’ and in my opinion has not yet been equaled. Long may he reign

  • Dean is full of s*** Jerry Lewis went on to become an actor entertainer movie director movie writer movie producer and all of the above he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground Jerry Lewis is no bum Dean get your head out of your ass you obviously don’t know anything about the two

  • Mike, you nailed it.

  • If Jerry Lewis even in his prime was appearing in my backyard I would close the window. He stopped being funny to most people over the age of twelve with his one joke “aren’t I silly fool act”. It was Dean who was the talent and became beloved. Jerry’s children tell us what a real ASS he was and still is. Frank Sinatra once was asked if he could be given one wish. His answer was “to sing Like Dean Martin”. Talent beyond belief and missed like hell…

  • I really get so tired of everyone slamming slapstick humor. It never gets any respect. I for one love it. My favorite was Laurel and Hardy, but, growing up Jerry Lewis was the first one I would see with my father and to this day I will love Lewis for this. I have nothing against Dean Martin but I have always felt and hated that people in a way have made Lewis out to be a talentless shmuck and Martin as the respectable good guy in the break up. I do not know what happened, but, I think they were both great. I loved Lewis’s comedy and Martin was very talented and had a great voice. I just, personally will choose humor over being serious. I think it is great to be able to laugh at yourself.

  • Dean Martin had said the main reason for the split (from his standpoint) was the direction of the Martin and Lewis movies. Increasingly, Martin felt he’d only have to show up, say his lines, sing a few songs, while Jerry did the comedy. He’d called the movies “awful” which is sad because in retrospect the 16 Martin and Lewis films, while not as riotous as their nightclub act, were all slickly produce and entertaining.

    Also, I’m surprised to read all the Jerry bashing. Whatever the Jerry’s shortcomings, neither he or Dean ever trashed each other publicly. Check out the clips from YouTube showing the duo’s infamously crazed, hell-raising sketches from their TV appearances. There’s a palpable love and affection the two exhibit toward each other that’s somewhat missing from their movies.

  • People try to find simple answers to situations such as Lewis was a bum or Martin was a bum. To me, it’s a bit like Lennon and McCartney and who was the better Lennon or McCartney. It was neither, it was together. Both Lewis and Martin were brilliant – together and separately. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to like them both equally. Did they both have faults? Who doesn’t? Lewis is a bit of an over the top egomaniac (IMO), but that doesn’t reduce his brilliance when he did have it – writer, director, actor, singer, producer, comedian, entertainer. Martin – actor, singer, comedian, entertainer. Both extremely successful both together and separately.

  • Peanut Butter is great. Jelly is great. But pb&j incredible. Get my meaning?

  • My comments is they were Great.both of them they had their problems as all of Us but I love them both and will never knock any body down..we all have our favorites. But i love them both…and I am so glad to watch them act…..Dean rest in peace. You are always remember. .Jerry lewis. We love you…Great Great actors…..

  • I agree with three previous comments. I grew up in the 50s on the streets of Queens, NY. As kids we argued over who was the best singer, pitcher, batter, anything and everything, but there was unanimous agreement that Martin and Lewis were the gold standard of comedy (we used rougher language, of course). Their breakup, followed by the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn marked the end of my childhood; the dawning of adult cynicism. Luckily, as I turned 12, I discovered that girls could go a long way toward filling those voids. Back in the early days of television, the Colgate Comedy Hours which were hosted by Dean and Jerry were the highlight of each month. There were no reruns that I remember, so it is hard to recall specific skits. I know I can buy a dvd but I’m honestly afraid to risk it. Can a man in his sixties relive what made him laugh until it hurt when he was 10 years old?

    Dean and Jerry were not “just” the greatest comics of their time, but they were the greatest ENTERTAINERS. They could sing and dance and act. If there is one movie scene on your bucket list, you could do no better than Jerry’s stairway scene (in Artists and Models) with young, fresh, Shirley MacLaine. Yet Dean was the glue that made that movie a masterpiece. Later years proved that each of Dean and Jerry was a great entertainer in his own right. But together they were a whole much greater than its parts. Interestingly, the only other group of entertainers whose presence on stage seemed to define the word synergy was when Dean teamed up with Frank and Sammy. Common denominator? A man named Dean Martin. Can you imagine the four of them on stage together? Did it ever happen? Not to my knowledge.

    Bless you Jerry Lewis! Live long and prosper my friend whom i’ve never actually met.

  • It was a handshake partnership. It was the most expensive divorce in history. The split cost them $100 million each — about $1 billion in today’s dollars.

    Why didn’t they breakup earlier? More than anything else because of commitments to perform at night clubs controlled by the mob. Had they broke those commitments, one or the other or both would have been killed.

    They initially did not know how well they were doing; they just knew that if the CopaCabana wanted them back week after week and that it’d be unwise not to show up. “No one knows” where all the cash went for the first years of the act, but there was an awful lot. At the Paramount Theater in Times Square in 1946, they performed 6 to 8 shows a day to capacity. The gate was running over $25,000 a day, over $200,000 a week. Inflation adjusted, they sold more than $2,500,000 in tickets per week — more than any Broadway show has ever made per week — for more than three months.

    In interviews, Jerry Lewis has said and has written in his book about their relationship that there are plenty of comics, but very few excellent straight men, and of excellent straight men who can also come up with great ad libs there’s only been one — Dean Martin.

  • As a kid growing up in the 50’s/60’s, I never cared for Jerry Lewis, but LOVED Dean Martin–his singing, movies and TV show–LOVED him. As a kid I always felt JL was making fun of mentally handicapped people. The kids in my neighborhood all thought he was hilarious, but I never cared for him or his movies, until I saw him play a serious role. He really was a very good actor. Dean was great in every way. To this day, I still listen to his music and watch his movies. Sons of Katie Elder is my favorite! John Wayne, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum all together? Who could NOT like it?! Jerry was a fabulous businessman and new what he was doing; the schmuck comedy definitely made him money. I read his book and felt he was very honest about everything, including the dumb comedy he did. As he put it in the book: “Most people laughed politely, a few were rolling over in their chairs.” There is something for everybody, but Jerry Lewis just wasn’t for me.

  • Angelo padovan

    Both were great entertainers. However, I think Martin just tired of the same formula in every movie and night club performance. He sought out better roles in film and took some risks that paid off huge dividends for him. Then when he had a chance to do television, audiences took to his easy going persona and clever wit. Of the two I think Martin fared slightly better post break up. Not to take anything away from Lewis, but the quality of his films waned by the latter part of the sixties and early seventies. Both I consider to be brilliant in their own ways.
    And, just so that its clear, Martin was also very much part of the MDA with Lewis early on. A fact that I was unaware of until recently.

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