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Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin’s 20-Year Rift Following 10 Years of Friendship & 16 Joint Movies

Camila Santiago
Oct 07, 2021
05:00 A.M.

From close friends to not speaking to each other for a decade, the famous comedy duo parted ways due to “creative differences” but they got back together on stage in a remarkable reunion, arranged by Frank Sinatra.

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In the ‘50s, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were the #1 world’s top box office earners. When they were on stage together, they’d cause a frenzy and drew laughter from the public. The singer once Steve Lawrance shared with People:

“When these two guys got together and opened at the Copacabana, you would not believe the pandemonium that existed in that club. It just went nuts."

Dean Martin (1917-1995), US actor and singer, with Jerry Lewis, US actor and comedian, smiling in a studio portrait, with Lewis holding a script while leaning against a step ladder, USA, circa 1952. | Source: Getty Images

Dean Martin (1917-1995), US actor and singer, with Jerry Lewis, US actor and comedian, smiling in a studio portrait, with Lewis holding a script while leaning against a step ladder, USA, circa 1952. | Source: Getty Images

LEWIS BEFORE MARTIN

Jerry Lewis is often celebrated as the king of comedy. He gave his first glimpse as a comedian at 12 years old and a few years later, he dropped from high school to perform in New York City.

Dean Martin came from a quite similar background — he also left school to pursue a career as a comedian in New York, and that’s how they met.

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WHEN LEWIS MEET MARTIN

Lewis spotted Martin performing at New York City nightclub. He got positively surprised by Martin’s talent — a raw and unique comedy style. They had the chance to finally meet each other playing the Havana-Madrid club on the same night in 1946.

American actor and singer Dean Martin (1917 - 1995, left) with his screen partner, comedian Jerry Lewis, circa 1955. | Source: Getty Images

American actor and singer Dean Martin (1917 - 1995, left) with his screen partner, comedian Jerry Lewis, circa 1955. | Source: Getty Images

When they met, there was instant chemistry between the two, so they decided to team up and began performing bits together. Lewis asked the owners of Atlantic City's 500 Club if Martin could join him.

What looked like an odd duo at first turned into a runaway success for both comedians, and that was just the beginning of the Lewis & Martin comedy duo. The popular nightclub’s initial act consisted of Martin singing and Lewis clowning.

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The combination of two different personas has called Paramount’s executives' attention. Their first film, “My Friend Irma,” was a huge success. That led the duo to perform many other movies together, including "The Stooge," "Living It Up," "Artists and Models," and "Hollywood or Bust."

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, entertainers and hosts of their own NBC radio show, react at the news that the presentation of Redbook magazine's 14th Annual Silver Cup Movie Award will be made on their show. | Source: Getty Images

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, entertainers and hosts of their own NBC radio show, react at the news that the presentation of Redbook magazine's 14th Annual Silver Cup Movie Award will be made on their show. | Source: Getty Images

They also went on to star in the Colgate-sponsored show “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” as well as a series of radio programs and television shows.

THE FALLING OUT

The much-publicized life and work of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin started their feuds. The duo started to argue frequently, leading them to dissolve the partnership and, ultimately, the friendship.

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The feud between them came into public dominion during the premiere of their 1954 film "Living It Up." They didn’t talk to each other neither, even during the final production of the film “Hollywood or Bust.”

Portrait of American actors Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti, 1917 - 1995) and Jerry Lewis (born Jerome Levitch, 1926 - 2017), both in plaid shirts, late 1950s or early 1960s. | Source: Getty Images

Portrait of American actors Dean Martin (born Dino Crocetti, 1917 - 1995) and Jerry Lewis (born Jerome Levitch, 1926 - 2017), both in plaid shirts, late 1950s or early 1960s. | Source: Getty Images

People were concerned about the first signs of a split. To calm the public nerves down, a Paramount executive told The New York Post:

“There’s no panic about it. These are two smart boys, too smart to give up a $5,000,000 operation because of a spat.”

Even critics got along with the money aspect of it. John Lester, their most perceived critic, believed that they would never break permanently because there were many people and too much money involved in their partnership.

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THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW: Host Dean Martin, Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim. | Source: Getty Images

THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW: Host Dean Martin, Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim. | Source: Getty Images

Despite popular belief, the comedy duo indeed decided to part ways. In another attempt to keep the comedy duo together, Daily Variety’s editor, Joe Schoenfeld, wrote a public "letter" directed to them:

“Since it isn’t so serious a matter as a split of the spoils, there can’t possibly be any breach in your personal relationship that can’t be repaired by the application of a lot of understanding and a little common sense.”

He went on to say that there were more reasons for them to remain as a team than to separate. The editor stated that he believed in both individual talents but argued that it wasn’t out of coincidence that the public made them top box office attractions together.

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American singer, actor and comedian Dean Martin (1917 - 1995), circa 1960. | Source: Getty Images

American singer, actor and comedian Dean Martin (1917 - 1995), circa 1960. | Source: Getty Images

Nothing changed, however. They had already made up their minds. According to the book “Side By Side: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis On TV and Radio,” Martin’s lawyer sent a formal letter to Lewis stating his desire for a solo show.

Martin was the one who told the public he was ready to do a single. Despite his contradictory statements to different reporters at the time — he’d say that he didn’t want to end the partnership to one, but then he'd say that their work “wasn’t a love affair,” and it was business to others.

Despite the estrangement, they made a final presentation at the Copacabana in New York City, ten years after their first routine.

American comedy actor Jerry Lewis, with his mouth open at the piano., circa 1966. | Source: Getty Images

American comedy actor Jerry Lewis, with his mouth open at the piano., circa 1966. | Source: Getty Images

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After the last show, according to the biographical writer Neil Daniels, fans felt like it was a sudden divorce. It shocked them because most people thought they’d go on forever.

A BEAUTIFUL REUNION

Twenty years later, an unexpected reunion would take the public by surprise again. During an annual Theleton in 1976, Frank Sinatra was performing live.

Sinatra had orchestrated an on-air reunion between the comedy friends and former partners. He hid Martin in one of the dressing rooms, and after finishing his live show, he presented Jerry with a couple of donations.

 Singers Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis perform during the 1976 telecast of The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

Singers Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis perform during the 1976 telecast of The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in Los Angeles, California. | Source: Getty Images

The singer told Jerry he would like to call a friend of his, who “loved what Lewis did every year” at the Telethon. Martin came to the stage, and they hugged, kissed each other while the audience stood for a standing ovation, which lasted over a minute.

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Nancy Sinatra revealed that her father kept his plan secret and no one knew about it. Jerry Lewis’ manager said that Sinatra would be the only one who could have achieved “something like that.”

Martin’s family, who was watching the show from home, couldn’t believe what they saw. Deana, Martin’s daughter “got chills and called her sister immediately.” Deana revealed that they loved each other.

US humorist, comedian, director and singer Jerry Lewis attends the Telethon, France's biggest annual fund-raising event of live television transmission, on December 6, 1991 at La Maison de la Radio, in Paris. | Source: Getty Images

US humorist, comedian, director and singer Jerry Lewis attends the Telethon, France's biggest annual fund-raising event of live television transmission, on December 6, 1991 at La Maison de la Radio, in Paris. | Source: Getty Images

In 1991, the duo made a comeback with the 5th Dimension after 17 years since their last performance at the Copacabana. Dean Martin died four years later at the age of 78. Lewis lived until he was 91 and passed away in 2017.

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