The two men, different in almost every way except maybe stubbornness, refused to speak to each other for 20 years, until their mutual friend Frank Sinatra surprised them with a forced and uncomfortable onstage reunion in 1976. It would take another ten years after that before they were able to establish a more lasting reconciliation, which they maintained until Martin’s death in 1995.
When Lewis, who died Sunday at the age of 91, first teamed up with Martin in 1946, their act skyrocketed to fame at a rate the world had never seen before. Fueled in part by a boom in mass media, along with the country’s post-war desire for more light-hearted entertainment, Martin and Lewis became the kings of comedy on stage, television and in motion pictures.
Lewis, a skinny, goofball, slapstick comedian, was immediately taken by the cool, handsome crooner when he first saw him perform at the Glass Hat nightclub in New York City. Lewis was performing a lip-syncing routine at the time, and when he found himself on the same bill as Martin again at the Havana-Madrid nightclub in 1946, he made a point of introducing himself.
The duo began fooling around with bits at the club after hours, and later, when a singer dropped out of a set at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, Lewis convinced the owner to hire Martin. They performed their first act together that night, using the same routines they had practiced earlier at the Havana-Madrid.
The performance was a smash success and formed the basis of what would become Martin and Lewis. In the act, Lewis would play the clown, causing chaos onstage as Martin, always calm and collected, cooly sang his routine. Lewis would later describe the dynamic as “sexy and slaptick.” He told PEOPLE in 1995, “I don’t think we would have ever been heard of without the other.”
“When Jerry and Dean started, it was like an explosion,” singer Steve Lawrence told PEOPLE. “When these two guys got together and opened at the Copacabana, you would not believe the pandemonium that existed in that club. It just went nuts, and you couldn’t get in the joint after that. They broke every record in the house.”
Dean and Martin also brought a sex appeal to their act that had never been seen before in comedy. “This was the first time there was a comedy act that looked like this,” added Lawrence. “They were very attractive-looking guys, and before that you had duos like Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello and Olson and Johnson. Then Martin and Lewis came along and they were just so different than any of those guys.”
The duo were quickly signed to a movie deal, and ended up making 16 films together over the next ten years. The formula was usually the same: two unlikely friends are driven apart by some trouble — usually related to women chasing Martin’s character — only to have each other’s backs in the end. Almost all of their films became wildly popular.
Despite their success, problems began to creep into their relationship. Martin started to feel that Lewis was exerting too much control over their work and began to talk of returning to his solo career. Lewis, who still idolized Martin in many ways, felt betrayed, and before long the two stopped speaking.
They performed a farewell show at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956, exactly 10 years after they had first taken the stage together.
Both men continued to have success after going their separate ways. Martin’s popularity continued as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and Lewis scored a series of hits with films like The Bellboy, The Ladies Man and The Nutty Professor.
Despite their success and the passing of time, they continued not speaking to each other. The first attempt at reconciliation came during Lewis’s 1976 telethon fundraiser for muscular dystrophy. Facilitated by Sinatra, the surprise on-air reunion was awkward to watch.
“I don’t think it’s in the cards,” Lewis told PEOPLE of another possible reunion in 1983. “Our lifestyles and careers are separate and apart. But if you told me he was outside right now, it would be a joy to jump on his neck.”
But when Martin’s oldest son, Dean Paul Martin Jr. was killed in a plane crash in 1987, Lewis attended the funeral and officially made up with his old stage partner. They would continue to speak on and off until Martin died in 1995.
After Martin’s death, Lewis began talking more fondly of the crooner in public, even taking blame for their acrimonious breakup. “I broke up the act,” Lewis told PEOPLE in 2002. And despite Martin’s air of nonchalance over the years, Lewis claimed, “Dean hurt desperately. And I felt guilty of not seeing it sooner.”