Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis formed the most electric comedy team in the history of show business. Joining together in the summer of 1946, their act caught on like wildfire. A combination of Dean Martin’s smooth, cool, baritone-voiced suave and Jerry Lewis’s incredible, creative, explosive, comedic brilliance, Dean and Jerry were the top act in all of show biz from the late forties through the mid-fifties.
Finally, after 16 films (all of which made money, the pair never had a box-office flop), a TV series (“The Colgate Comedy Hour”), several radio shows, and scores of frenetic, unforgettable live appearances on stage and in clubs, Dean and Jerry decided to end their lucrative partnership. On July 25, 1956, 10 years to the day after they teamed up, Dean and Jerry officially called it quits.
The split was filled with acrimony and bitterness. For many years after the split, Jerry refused to listen to Dean Martin records. (By all accounts, Jerry took the break-up much harder than Dean. The night of their split, Jerry had to sleep under sedation. In contrast, according to Dean’s wife, Dean came home, she made him a fried egg sandwich and they watched some television together, all as if nothing had happened.)
In September of 1958, Jerry was making a guest appearance on “The Eddie Fisher Show”. Jerry was talking about singing on the show, and in a huge surprise appearance, Dean walked in the studio while the show was on the air. “Don’t sing! Just don’t sing!” Dean said. Jerry proceeded to chase his erstwhile partner around the studio.
Later that year, the two were both shooting movies on the Paramount Studio lots. “I’d see him tooling around the lot in his little golf cart with his name on it in lights,” Dean recalled, “When he saw me, he’d duck around a corner.”
Dean had Jerry brought to his dressing room for a drink. “Now, isn’t this better than ducking me?” Dean asked. Jerry replied “Yep,” and, “I felt pretty good about it.” Then Jerry left. “The next time he saw me, he ducked me again,” said Dean.
In 1960, four years after the split, Dean and Jerry were both performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. After Dean’s closing show, Jerry made a surprise appearance on stage. Dean introduced his ex-partner from the stage. Jerry came on and the two clowned around together for 15 minutes. Dean sang “Come Back to Me” to Jerry. Jerry joined in and they sang the song together.
Later in 1960, Jerry was exhausted from filming his movie “The Bellboy” in Florida and had to cancel his engagement at the Sands. Dean heard about Jerry’s problem and graciously filled in for him.
In 1964, in a strange scene in show business history, the Beatles had come to Hollywood to perform a concert at the Hollywood bowl. A huge line of movie stars, including Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, Burt Lancaster, etc. had lined up to meet the Fab Four in person. Jerry Lewis was in the line to meet the Beatles, but when he spotted Dean Martin in the line, he quickly hurried away and left the affair.
In 1976, there was the much publicized Martin and Lewis reunion on national TV on Jerry’s annual muscular dystrophy telethon. Touched by Dean’s surprise appearance, Jerry wrote Dean a letter that night and asked to see him again. He never received an answer from Dean. He kept trying, but still no answer. At this point in time, Jerry wanted to reestablish a friendship, or at least some kind of relationship, with his ex-partner. Dean, on the other hand, seemed to hold no real animosity for Jerry, but he just wanted to be left alone and to go his own way.
Then came the worst day of Dean Martin’s life. On March 20, 1987, his beloved son, Dino Jr., was killed in a plane crash. (Dino was a captain in the Air National Guard.) Jerry later said, “That was the day he died.” Although Dean had seven children, Dino was, by all accounts, his special favorite (and his first born). At Dino’s funeral, a quiet, hidden figure turned up. It was Jerry Lewis, deliberately acting low-key, so as not to draw any attention. He stood at the back of the church and remained there quietly throughout the service.
Dean did not at first know Jerry had been present at the service. After the funeral, Dean got word his former partner had showed up for his son’s funeral. Touched, he told an aide to get Jerry on the phone. Late that night, Jerry received a phone call. “Hey Jer”, said the very familiar voice.
According to Jerry,
We talked for about an hour. He cried, I cried. I said, “Life’s too short, my friend. This is one of those things that God hands us, and we have to somehow go on with our lives. That’s what Dino would have wanted.”
At a loss for words, Dean kept saying, “Jer, I can’t tell you.”
After the funeral, Jerry told his wife what he knew in his heart, “Honey, it’s just a matter of time. Dean’s gone. That boy was the most important thing he had in his life.”
Jerry wanted very much to see Dean in person, but Dean preferred talking on the phone. Jerry respected that. He continued to call Dean whenever he could.
It was well-known that Dean was very careless in taking care of himself and his health after the death of Dino Jr. Jerry tried to get Dean to change his reckless ways. The conversations always began the same way: “Hey Paul, how you doing?” (Jerry often referred to Dean as “Paul”, Dean’s middle name). “I’m doin’ just fine, preacher.”- “Listen, you’ve got to take better care of yourself, stop the drinking and the crappy diet. Millions of people love you. You’ve got the world in your pocket.”- “Yes preacher.”
Dean and Jerry had run into each other four years previously, by complete accident. In 1983, Jerry and his wife, Sam, were dining together at La Famiglia in Beverly Hills (Jerry had no idea this was Dean’s favorite restaurant). He spotted a lone figure dining at a red leather booth by the front door.
As Jerry said, “My first reaction was a double take at how much Dean had aged… My partner had always looked so magnificently handsome and youthful… whether it was the effects of the sun for all those years, or the accumulated sadness of his life, or just the genetic luck of the draw, I don’t know. But it deeply saddened me.”
Jerry walked over to Dean’s table. “Wanna have a drink?” Dean asked. “I don’t drink”, replied Jerry, “I used to work with this guy who drank all the time and breathed on me- I’ve had all the booze I can take for one lifetime.”
“It was playful”, recalled Jerry, “but I felt that I was imposing on him. With age, his reserve had grown… He truly wanted to be alone. I touched his arm, gave him a wink, and went back to my table.”
Ten minutes later, a waiter brought over a champagne bucket, covered with a cloth napkin. “Compliments of Mr. Martin”, said the waiter.
Jerry removed the napkin and saw six bottles of Diet Coke sitting on ice. He laughed and brought his wife over to meet his ex-partner. They chatted briefly, but both Jerry and his wife felt and understood Dean wished to be alone.
In 1989, Dean was playing Bally’s in Las Vegas. On Dean’s 72nd birthday, a huge birthday cake was wheeled out by his ex-partner. Dean and Jerry hugged. The crowd went berserk as the band played Happy Birthday. “You surprised me”, said Dean, with tears in his eyes. “I love you and I mean it,” said Dean, as he hugged his old friend.
“Here’s to 72 years of joy you’ve given the world,” said Jerry, “Why we broke up, I’ll never know.”
On Christmas day 1995, the great Dean Martin passed on at the age of 78. Jerry did not attend Dean’s funeral. He did, though, appear at the memorial service. Jerry was asked to speak of his ex-partner and friend.
He told the crowd, “You are so lucky that you knew my partner and my friend. I will not fall into the drone of pain about death, but I will ask you to just yell ‘Yeah!’ that he lived… that he was with us for all that time. ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And that, my friends, is my celebration of his life. Long may he drink!”
After the service, Jerry saw Frank Sinatra. “Well, we lost the big gun, my friend”, said Frank. “We didn’t lose him,” replied Jerry, “God just placed him elsewhere.”
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