May 18, 2009 12:00 PM

Being everyone’s adorably silly pal didn’t stop once Dom DeLuise was offscreen. “I was always oh-so-cute,” he told PEOPLE in 1980. “People still pinch me on the cheek in elevators.” That probably remained a daily occurrence for the comic actor, best known as Burt Reynolds’ sidekick, who died in his sleep after a long illness on May 4, age 75.

DeLuise was a sort of rubber ball of comedy: a big-bellied man who bounced merrily through movies and television for more than four decades. The actor made his mark playing nutty parts in his friend Mel Brooks’ films, such as Nero in 1981’s History of the World Part I. “He was big in everything he did,” Brooks says. “Big in his size and big in the amount of laughter and joy he created.” DeLuise’s greatest success came alongside Reynolds in ’80s hits such as The Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit II, comedies piled with stars from Sally Field to Jackie Gleason to Jackie Chan.

The Brooklyn native, married since 1965 to wife Carol and father of three sons who all followed him into show business, had a second great passion—for food. Later in his career, he began writing cookbooks with titles like Eat This—It’ll Make You Feel Better! (His waistband was proof of his devotion: At one point he weighed 385 lbs.) Whether cooking, acting or goofing off, “Dom always made you feel better when he was around, and there will never be another like him,” Reynolds told PEOPLE on learning of his friend’s death. “I will miss him very much.”

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