Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Book: Dean & Me, by Jerry Lewis (2005)

If the Gideons really want to change lives, they should leave copies of DINO by Nick Tosches in hotel rooms. This biography of Dean Martin is simply one of the greatest books in print. I was a Dean Martin fan before I read Tosches’ masterwork. Afterward, I was a disciple.

Naturally, I was interested in the perspective of the man who knew Dean better than anyone, or at least as much as any man could. Martin & Lewis were together for ten years, and became one of the biggest draws in comedy.

The book is subtitled “A Love Story,” and for once Jerry isn’t kidding. His affection for the man he still calls “my partner” is clearly evident, as is his respect for Dean’s skill as a performer. And not only as a singer; no less a name than George Burns called Dean “the greatest straight man I’ve ever seen.” Jerry analyzes Dean’s talent in a way that students of comedy will appreciate, pointing out how Dean subtly took over Jerry’s role as the cut-up when he appeared with Frank Sinatra, allowing Frank to score laughs as the straight man. Jerry also doesn’t pull any punches about Martin & Lewis’s very public break-up.

At its best, the book is a guide to a bygone era in show business. Performances that began at three AM, special late-night celebrity shows where Milton Berle gets heckled by the likes of Red Buttons, Jack Carter, Henny Youngman, Danny Kaye, Alan King and Joey Bishop.

My favorite story in the book: Jerry had to learn to quick-draw a pistol for Pardners. According to him, he was the fastest gun in Hollywood. Coming in at #2 ... Sammy Davis, Jr.

Jerry’s co-writer James Kaplan is the author of THE AIRPORT, a terrific look at life behind the scenes at JFK in New York. He does a remarkable job of keeping this book tightly focused on the Martin & Lewis relationship while retaining Jerry’s distinctive voice, with jokes and egomania in equal measure.