“He was one of a kind. There are only a handful of people you can say are that unique and I don’t think we’ll never see the likes of him again,” Lawrence, 82, tells PEOPLE.
“He’s in the same class as people like Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles and Clark Gable, people whose popularity transcends decades. Their popularity stays the same even as the world and business changes around them.”
Lewis, whose manic style of comedy amused audiences for over eight decades, has died, his agent confirmed to PEOPLE on Sunday. He was 91.
Lawrence, best known as a member of the musical duo “Steve and Edydie” with his wife Eydie Gormé, remembers knowing Lewis long before he and Gormé were married in 1956.
“We were good pals. Eydie and I became friends of his a long time ago,” says Lawrence. “He was a big fan of Eydie’s, and when she had her first record out, he just fell in love with it. The record was called I Love Romance, and he took copies and went around to disc jockeys and radio shows all over town telling them, ‘You gotta listen to this, it’s the best record you’ll ever hear.’ He was like her publicist.”
After Lawrence and Gormé married, they continued to socialize with Lewis. “We became friendlier with Jerry over the years,” he explains. “We were all in the same business and people have a way of hanging around with other people who know what your life is about.”
When Lewis and Dean Martin first brought their “Martin and Lewis” act to New York’s Copacabana Club, Lawrence and Gormé were there.
“When he and Dean started, it was like an explosion,” he says. “When those two guys got together and opened at the Copacabana, you would not believe the pandemonium that existed in that club, it just went nuts. You couldn’t get in the joint after that, they broke every record in the house.”
By marrying Lewis’s slapstick, vaudeville routines with Martin’s singing and own comedic timing, the handsome duo created a comedy act unlike anything audiences had ever seen. “This was the first time there was a comedy act that looked like this,” Lawrence explains.
“They were very attractive looking guys, and before that you had duos like Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello and Olsen and Johnson. Then Martin and Lewis came along and they were just so different than any of those guys. They were coming out in tuxedos looking gorgeous, two tall, funny, gifted, talented guys. It was also the first time you had a comic like Lewis with a guy like Dean, who could sing and was funny. The two of them did everything.”
After Martin and Lewis’ “unfortunate” breakup in 1956, Lawrence and Gormé “remained friendly with both of them, because we really were friends and fans of both. We were there at their last show at the Copacabana and we paid our respects to both of them individually.”
In fact, when Lewis opened at the Palace Theater in New York shortly after the breakup, he tapped Gormé to join him onstage for the first act. “It was an incredible show,” Lawrence remembers. “The two of them got along famously and the business was fanstastic.”
Of course, Lewis’ talents extended far beyond the stage. “He was also extraordinarily gifted as a writer and as a director,” explains Lawrence. “He was also an innovator. I remember he never liked waiting for dailies [raw film footage], so he came up with this idea of taping a smaller camera under the main film camera, so that he and the producers could see what the scene looked like without having to wait until the next day for the main film to be developed.”
This process, now called video assist, “ended up becoming the standard bearer,” says Lawrence. “It was incredible and totally unheard of at the time. He had a very creative head and was a wonderful director. He did a lot of things people weren’t doing at the time, like breaking the fourth wall,” which is a term for when a character speaks to the audience.
Steve and Eydie Perform on the 1983 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon
Lawrence also remembers Lewis for his groundbreaking humanitarian work. “Being a spokesperson for muscular dystrophy became his life work, and nobody is sure how or why he started to do that. But he became one of the most successful fundraisers in history. People forget that he raised over 2.5 billion dollars for muscular dystrophy.”
Moving forward, Lawrence says Lewis “will be missed not only by the people who knew and loved him, but by millions of people who shared their lives with him and his great talent. And of course, for the wonderful things he did for people who suffered from muscular dystrophy.”
He added, “Jerry will be noted in the halls of show business because he was involved on every level, from television to records to motion pictures. He contributed as a director, as a writer, as a comedian and to arguably the best duo in comedy that every existed. I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of Martin Lewis again.”