WASHINGTON — Jerry Lewis wants you to love Dean Martin as much as he did.
Lewis doesn’t think Martin got the credit he deserved for being half of the greatest comedian team of their day. So he’s written a book, “Dean & Me (A Love Story)” to set the record straight.
Martin usually played straight man to the zany Lewis in their act that went from stage to TV and film in the ’40s and ’50s, making them two of the most popular entertainers in the country.
But the pair, once inseparable, fell into a bitter feud that lasted for decades and on only a few occasions did they see each other before Martin died of emphysema in 1995.
In an interview with AP Radio, Lewis, who turns 80 in March, talked about their legendary 10-year run, the pressures that led to their breakup and how they finally patched things up late in their lives.
AP: Was it a relief for you to finally finish this book? I know you’ve been writing it for years.
Lewis: Ten years to be exact, Michael. It was kind of bittersweet. It was no different from when I finish a film. I get the baby blues. The same thing with the book. I was sad when it was done. ... I had written more than 2,000 manuscript pages for this book. I’m going to give you the scoop, I haven’t told anyone yet, the second book that I will do within this coming year is going to be all the stuff I couldn’t get in the first one.
AP: 1945. You meet Dean on the street. Is that fate?
Lewis: Yeah. I turn and I see this handsome guy in a camel’s hair coat. You can die from how handsome he was, sporting his new nose. And we became very friendly. He looked like he needed a friend and I certainly did. And that was really the start.
AP: A year later you performed together for the first time.
Lewis: We had pastrami sandwiches brought in after our show. I took the bag and ripped it in half and with a makeup eyebrow pencil I wrote a list of bits that I remembered that my dad did in burlesque. We had two hours before we did the second show. We went on and he didn’t miss a beat. We did everything we had talked about and wound up doing two hours and 20 minutes.
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AP: And you still have that pastrami bag?
Lewis: Yeah, I got it in my safe.
AP: With fame and fortune came women. Which was more thrilling to you?
Lewis: At that age? [He was in his early 20s] The money’s not important. I was doing three and four [women] a day. I was calling them out by numbers. Dean was considered the ladies man. He was watching Westerns in the suite. I was busily engaged in making relationships. God almighty I was like a kid in a candy store. But it’s a good thing I did it all, [slipping into his trademark Jerry Lewis voice] cause I can’t do it anymore, so I got great memories! Hee hee!
AP: When you got into movies things really got tough for Dean because you’d be called a genius and Dean would hardly be complimented at all.
Lewis: They said nothing about him in many cases. I don’t know to this day how he did it. Had the tables been turned, we’d have lasted 30 days. Without question.
AP: You couldn’t have handled it?
Lewis: No way! Absolutely not! It was he that was the center point. It was he who pulled me in when I got in trouble. It was he who watched that I breathed at a specific time and knew exactly when to go. He knew my timing, my breath, my body language. This was a very funny man, a naturally funny man with a great instinct for comedy. It was in his bones. He didn’t even know it. I felt terribly guilty for what they were doing to him.
AP: If you were constantly reassuring him that he was great and not to listen to the critics, how did it get to the point where he stopped speaking to you?
Lewis: We were finally divided by outside factions. Someone said to Dean, “You don’t need him. Why don’t you just sing and do films yourself.” And I was getting poisoned as well. “What do you need him for?” ... I hated him for allowing the split to happen. He hated me for allowing the split to happen.
AP: When you have an act that’s as hot as yours was, isn’t it inevitable that it would only last for so long?
Lewis: Of course. I had said to Dean when we knew it was over, it would’ve only been another couple of years and then we would’ve been knocked out of the ring like Joe Louis. Going now is going to sustain what we had. If it’s going to happen, let’s do it while we’re flying.
July 25, 1956, is the last time we’d ever stood on a stage together. We didn’t know where we were going, but we were at that place where men get to where they have no recourse. Twenty years we didn’t talk.
The night that Frank [Sinatra] brought Dean on the telethon [Lewis’ annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976], we were so thrilled to see one another. It’s all there on film for everyone to see. You can see it in his eyes, you can see it in mine. When he walked toward me all I thought was “Dear God, give me something to say.” So I looked at him and asked “Are you working?” That got a laugh. It relaxed him, it relaxed me. And we never talked after that for another 10 or 15 years.
When Dean’s son was killed, I knew that Dean was dead. I made myself accessible. I went to the funeral without his knowledge. Dean heard that I was there. He called me and we talked for a couple of hours. He sobbed for the first time I’d ever heard. He said “Don’t you understand? I just lost one of the only two male loves I had in my life. Him and you.” That was the first time he had said that or ever related to loving me. He showed it enough, it was just difficult for him to say.
AP: You write in the book that you still dream about him.
Lewis: Sure I do. He was in the room. Every time I wrote about us. I just felt him in that big chair in my office. And no, Shirley MacLaine had nothing to do with it. I wrote when I felt I wanted to be close to him. It took me 10 years to finally say, “I think I have enough.”
AP: When you would write, feeling Dean looking over you, did you get the feeling he appreciated what you were doing?
Lewis: I think he was not only proud of me for doing it, but I’d like to think that he had a huge sigh that the real story was finally told.
AP: You’ve been able to set the story straight about you and Dean with this book. When you’re gone, who’ll write the truth about you?
Lewis: I don’t care about that. I got a bunch of sons that’ll be there, I know about that. People say, “How would you like to be remembered?” I don’t want to be remembered. Gimme a break. What I want is to hear what’s great about me now. Let me hear it! In the box you don’t hear these eulogies.
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