Spontaneous Combustion: Martin and Lewis in Two Acts

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were successful in the movies, but not really great—one of the authentic crazy acts was

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were successful in the movies, but not really great—one of the authentic crazy acts was reduced on celluloid to processed cheese, just like Elvis Presley. Martin and Lewis lived and died by spontaneity, and that’s tough to translate to film, what with plots, rewrites and retakes.

No, to understand what all the fuss was about, you have to watch them working live—I recommend the DVD’s of The Colgate Comedy Hour from the early 50’s. Live, they’re electric, rambunctious, funny and genuinely dangerous in that you’re never sure what’s coming next.

As Mr. Lewis’ memoir of his beloved partner proves, to a great extent they were what they played. Dean Martin was the Cat Who Walked By Himself—there but not there, apparently coasting on charm and a smile, but in reality rigidly controlling what he gave and what other people got. Attempt to draw him closer and he’d ease away. “The day you’re born, you get the pink slip on you,” Martin announced early on. “Outright ownership. You must only share that life with those that you, and only you, choose. We are not brought on this earth as an object of sacrifice.”

Jerry Lewis, on the other hand, was a grabby adolescent in permafrost. Jerry gave lavish gifts, Dean didn’t. Jerry was hot, Dean was cool. Jerry would do anything to be noticed, while Dean gave the impression that he couldn’t care less if you noticed him or not. (Can you imagine Dean writing a book entitled Jerry and Me?) Jerry worshipped Charlie Chaplin, Dean was content with comic books and westerns on TV. “I remember third shows at the Copa where he’d speed up so as not to miss the three a.m. showing of John Wayne in Red River or Stagecoach,” Mr. Lewis writes.

The disconnect in personalities was nearly total—the wonder is that the partnership lasted as long as it did.

Martin’s recessive, slightly mysterious quality explains why he’s experienced something of a renaissance since his death, including memoirs by two of his children, the overdone but emotionally accurate Nick Tosches biography and now this book. Meanwhile, Jerry Lewis is on his way to being the Danny Kaye of his generation—a period curio remembered as much for a general impression of Good Works as for his comedy.

Dean & Me is just about evenly divided between the road up and the road down. The road up was Kismet—they met and started working together mostly by accident—which makes the road down more interesting. As the team took off, as movies and TV and nightclubs all competed for their time, the audiences and the critics were all enchanted by Jerry. So was Jerry. Martin was regarded as nothing more than a competent straight man with a vocal style borrowed from Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. But his partner knew better.

“Dean’s ad lib had been not just fast but instantaneous,” Mr. Lewis remembers about an early nightclub appearance. “I’d already been in the business long enough to know how incredibly rare that was. Over the next sixty years, I would come to understand it better and better. The vast majority of comedians with good rhythm use beats— small hesitations, often with some comic business or other—to set up their jokes. Dean didn’t use beats …. Never once, in ten years, did he ever get in the way. Never once stepped on a line, spoiled a joke.

“He was, quite simply, impeccable at what he did.”

For a comedian, there can be no greater security than knowing your straight man can keep up, no matter what.

But Jerry never seems to have understood that what Dean most wanted was to be left alone. At one point, Jerry even went to the trouble of surreptitiously learning to play golf, and showed up on the tee to surprise his partner. According to Mr. Lewis, they played even for the round, but Mr. Lewis won a side bet. (Believing this story requires a leap of faith: Dean played around a four handicap and Jerry was only a beginner.) The point, however, is that Jerry was acting more like a clinging woman than a partner. Dean already had one wife—he didn’t need another.

Mr. Lewis is perfectly prepared to admit that he was insufferable. “Was my ego growing? Was I enthralled, enamored, enraptured by all that I was learning about film? Was I knocked out by the unlimited comic possibilities for the Jerry character onscreen?

“Yes, yes, and yes. It all happened silently, the way one week you can see perfectly and the next week you need glasses: I was developing a certain myopia about Dean. And since my partner feared and hated any sort of showdown, he wasn’t calling me on it. Yet.”

But when Dean had had enough, he’d had enough. At 3 p.m. he’d be ready to stop filming, saying “That’s all you’re gonna get from me.” If he came in late, he’d snarl, “Anytime you want to call it quits, let me know.”

“What would I do without you?” asked Jerry.

“Fuck yourself, for starters.”

Clearly, this was a man who wanted a divorce. (In fact, as Mr. Lewis describes it, the relationship was a lot like a marriage without sex, eerily close to Rupert Holmes’ 2003 roman à clef about the team, Where the Truth Lies.)

At the end—July 1956—the two men were Not Speaking, and Dean conspicuously failed to invite Jerry to his birthday party. That’s the way it stayed for 20 years, until Frank Sinatra stage-managed the awkward reunion during the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon. It was touching, but it was also too late. Jerry was headed downhill, physically and professionally—and, in a few years, so was Dean, devastated by the death of his son Dean Paul in 1987. There were phone calls, and a single accidental meeting in a Beverly Hills restaurant, but when the partnership failed, it took the intimate friendship with it.

For those of us who run counter to the French enthusiasm for Mr. Lewis, Dean & Me serves as a modest but welcome corrective. He spends a fair amount of time talking about “Me” but more time talking about his partner, the big brother he never had, a man that men wanted to be like and women just wanted.

Co-author James Kaplan keeps the narrative moving smoothly; the book always sounds like Jerry Lewis, but avoids most of the excesses of his personality. Mr. Lewis still has a tendency toward neo-rabbinical pronouncements—“A man that can’t have fun, can’t have love,” he says, apropos of Bing Crosby—and the occasional gaffe: “Henry Fonda never played a murderer in his entire career,” overlooking the not-exactly-obscure Once Upon a Time in the West.

Although Mr. Lewis confesses to egomania, giving the impression all that is in the past, it still slips through, as in the passage quoted above about Martin never getting in the way—as if Martin were the comic equivalent of Carol Merrill, just striking poses while showing off the new Lewis marvel behind Door No. 3.

Martin showed what he could do in Some Came Running (1958), Bells are Ringing (1960), Rio Bravo (1959) and the merciless self-parody of Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), among other movies. Eventually, the pose became reality and he actually did start coasting. But as his old partner knows, there was a great talent locked behind that perpetually smooth, smiling exterior.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon & Schuster) was published in May. He reviews books regularly for The Observer.

Spontaneous Combustion: Martin and Lewis in Two Acts