They’re often overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but back in the 1940s and 50s Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were a showbusiness phenomenon.
A rapid rise to fame led to TV appearances and movies, which kept them at the top for a decade.
What was the secret of their joint success? Martin and Lewis relied on each other like family, and were sometimes jokingly characterized as a married couple.
A combination of mutual admiration and aggravation created a chemistry that audiences lapped up, whether on stage at the Copacabana club in New York or wowing the nation during the Colgate Comedy Hour.
The double act was formed as much by accident than design. Lewis met Martin in 1945, as he was exiting his teens.
Crooner Dean was 9 years older and under contract to MCA. His assured style made an instant impression on Lewis and a younger brother/older brother dynamic was formed.
To get his attention while on the same bill, Lewis interrupted Martin’s performance with slapstick. Thankfully Dean got the joke and a template was formed for their otherwise improvised antics.
As described in the New York Times review of Lewis’s book Dean and Me in 2005, “The pair’s live shows were often pandemonium, bubbles of potential chaos in which both they and the audience ‘knew that at any minute absolutely anything could happen.’”
On the surface, the act appeared simple. A Guardian article from 2005 writes, “To look at them, they hardly made a natural pair: Dean with his leonine beauty and slow, assured touch with a song or a joke; Jerry gaunt and gangly and hysterical and screeching like a klaxon horn.”
It was a little more complex than that. Both men had a natural intelligence when it came to their showbiz persona.
In the days before political correctness Martin faked alcoholism, boosting his laid-back profile. Lewis was in awe of his ability to think on his feet, even when pretending to be legless.
As for Jerry, he harbored ambitions as an artist and fashioned the image of the pair in unexpected ways. The Guardian mentions that “Each stood about 6’1″, but Jerry added lifts to Dean’s shoes and had the soles and heels of his own shaved so that Dean appeared taller.”
With the younger man wielding control, it was only a matter of time before Dean lost interest. The increasingly explosive double act called it quits after 10 years.
Lewis and Martin’s affection for each other had been soured by the limelight, yet that love was reflected a thousandfold in the country.
The New York Times states “the Martin and Lewis bust-up devastated the team’s multitudinous fans more than the breakup of any Hollywood romance. In the days just before that last show, word got back to Lewis that there was a lot of ‘touchingly hopeful’ gossip around town that the two would patch things up, and afterward, both men faced hostility from a resentful public.”
Yet the damage was done and the “brothers” went their separate ways. Lewis developed his career, writing and directing his own movies.
Martin became forever associated with Frank Sinatra and his pals of The Rat Pack, as well as receiving acclaim for his acting and singing.
Sinatra played a key role reuniting the pair in a 1976 telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
With Lewis performing his usual hosting duties (as he’d been doing for a decade) Frank snuck Dino into the wings. Lewis’s surprise gave way to warmth and the old magic seemed to be recaptured, if only for one night.
Though Lewis and Martin as a partnership was largely defunct, the personal bond they had couldn’t be denied. It brought them together again in 1987 when Dean suffered an immense tragedy. After his son Dino Jr. died in a plane crash, Jerry reached out. Lewis went on to lose his son Joseph to suicide in 2009, though Dean had sadly passed away in 1995. Jerry died in 2017.
That same year, MEL Magazine wrote about Martin and Lewis, saying “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.”
In a sense what they had was a love affair, albeit a platonic one. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin’s relationship kept the world laughing in the post-war period and went on to inspire many with their genuine connection.