But when you watch Cinderfella or The Nutty Professor today, the laughs are too few and far between, and Lewis's antics can be off-putting. Part of the problem was that the self-important edge of Lewis the artist was beginning to show itself, most uncomfortably, in his screen persona. The character he created was a Modern Comic Hero, but in the solo films, his physical presence undermined that. He began to sport the oilslicked hair, the pinky rings, the long manicured fingernails, and other choices that suggested a prissy peacock -- the antithesis of the comic character he had created. It was as though he was no longer entirely comfortable playing the fool, and felt compelled to wink at the audience, reminding us that in reality, he was a wealthy and important cultural figure. He did this at the expense of a lot of laughs.
To understand the genius of Jerry Lewis, you have to go back to an earlier period, when he and Dean Martin were the most popular comedy team in the country, heirs apparent to the madcap anarchy of the Marx Brothers Themselves. In nightclubs, on television, and in seventeen films, Martin and Lewis made important contributions to comic art for more than a decade. Their filmography begins with supporting roles in My Friend Irma (1949) and its sequel; they went on to work with the great comic filmmaker Frank Tashlin on giddy capers like Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust. My favorite Martin and Lewis film -- also Jerry Lewis's favorite -- is their least typical, The Stooge (1953). As much a backstage drama as an antic comedy, The Stooge presents obvious biographical parallels by casting Martin as a vain, alcohol-addled singer who teams up with a frenetic young comedian (Lewis).
In real life, the breakup of Martin and Lewis was all about ego. Dean Martin never liked being seen as the straightman, and felt increasingly upstaged by his partner. Jerry Lewis was beginning his evolution into a self-important control freak, which Martin resented. In numerous, alcohol-fueled outbursts, Martin dismissed Lewis as "nothing to me but a fucking dollar sign," or "a meal ticket." But apparently, relations between the two men after the split were not generally as acrimonious as we believed. They briefly reunited onstage at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1960, and in 1976, Martin made a surprise appearance on Lewis's telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. This historic reunion was orchestrated by the duo's mutual friend, Frank Sinatra.
In 1989, Martin and Lewis were reunited for the last time at Bally's Hotel and Casino, on the occasion of Martin's 72nd birthday. Presenting his former partner with an enormous cake, Lewis exclaimed, "Why we broke up, I'll never know!" Five years later, Dean Martin died. In 2006, Jerry Lewis published Dean and Me: A Love Story, an affectionate tribute to their years in comedy together.