- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Comedians Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed together for a decade (1946-1956), during which time they starred in 16 hit films, appeared on numerous radio and television shows and became the highest-paid nightclub act of their time. Whatever magic there was between the two, however, existed only onstage.
"Martin and Lewis," tomorrow night's "CBS Sunday Movie," chronicles the tumultuous relationship between the entertainers. It airs from 9 to 11 p.m. and stars Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Sean Hayes ("Will & Grace") as Mr. Lewis and Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Jeremy Northam ("Gosford Park") as Mr. Martin.
Writing the script for the project required researchers to gather every bit of biographical information available on the men and their long careers, says John Gray, writer and director of the film. (Mr. Gray landed his first professional job as a director at the Educational Film Center in Annandale in 1980. He lives in New York City.)
"I knew a little bit about these guys, but I didn't understand how big they were," Mr. Gray says. "When they broke up, there was a national mourning."
Their partnership began in 1946 after Mr. Lewis abruptly interrupted Mr. Martin's performance at a New York club with his zany antics. The spontaneity thrilled the audience.
From the outset, their onstage chemistry offered a new brandof comedy, full of insanity and crazy jokes.
"It was just total chaos," Mr. Gray says. "If [the pair] were supposed to do a 45-minute show, they'd do a two-hour show. They played off each other, and the people seemed to eat it up."
Mr. Gray says the actors did a fabulous job portraying the real comedy team and even attempted to replicate their subjects' antics by dropping dishes, cutting off men's ties, drinking water from flower vases on dinner tables and grabbing steaks off plates and throwing them in the air. He says Mr. Hayes embodied the frenetic energy of Mr. Lewis, while Mr. Northam was able to capture Mr. Martin's voice cadence and body language.
"It doesn't make you feel like you're watching a mere imitation," Mr. Gray says. "It was really important that the film portray how great they were."
The comedy team was beloved by Americans, but there was a darker side to their lives and partnership that needed to be included in the story as well, Mr. Gray says.
Feelings of insecurity haunted Mr. Lewis. His need for validation from Mr. Martin which was never given pushed the two apart. In retaliation, Mr. Lewis often stole his partner's lines and curried favor with stagehands by showering them with gifts. Mr. Martin reacted by withdrawing into his own world, growing increasingly indifferent to the act.
Although both men's roles were crucial, critics tended to dub Mr. Lewis the comedic genius, referring to Mr. Martin as "just the singer," Mr. Gray says. Although Mr. Martin would never admit that this bothered him, Mr. Gray speculates that it may have strained the relationship beyond the mending point.
"When you'd call 'Cut,' they'd walk away and not talk to each other," Mr. Gray says, adding that he hopes viewers will be riveted by "what started as a friendship but was eventually ruined by fame."
After performing in July 1956 at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, the two separated professionally. They didn't reunite until more than 20 years later, in September 1976, during one of Mr. Lewis' annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons. Mr. Martin, longed plagued by bouts of alcoholism, died in December 1995.
Although watching the production may be difficult for Mr. Lewis, Mr. Gray says the comedian recognizes that there is truth to the way he and his one-time partner are portrayed in the film.
"We didn't expect Jerry to be our pal," Mr. Gray says. "We showed him the movie, and he called weeping. He said it was like having Dean back again. He paid me the ultimate compliment."
Even younger viewers who are unfamiliar with the story should appreciate it, Mr. Gray adds.
"They will be in for an interesting character study in music and comedy," he says. "You understand where Jim Carrey and Robin Williams got their stuff after watching Jerry Lewis.
"Dean," he adds, gave the audience a sense of being warm and easy. Women wanted to be with him, and men wanted to be him."


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