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Jerry Lewis talks about his career and friendship with Dean Martin

Interview at BU promotes his newly-released memoir

Fans ranging in age from 15 to 85 filled the School of Management auditorium Friday night for a rare opportunity to see and hear legendary comedian Jerry Lewis, who was in town promoting his newly-released memoir, Dean and Me: A Love Story.

Lewis appeared for an on-stage interview with Robin Young, host of WBUR’s Here and Now. At 77 pounds lighter, the man who has brought laughter to audiences for decades said he feels terrific.

Lewis has battled a host of health problems over the years and had gained considerable weight as a result of a drug he took for a lung ailment. The slapstick comic of “Hey Laaa-dy” fame will turn 80 in March. He took questions from the audience seriously, but kept them laughing as he playfully bantered with Young between answers. He even appeared sentimental at times, speaking openly about the importance of love and about his “inner nine-year-old.”

Lewis called Boston “a special place,” because it is where he first saw his name lit up on a marquee. The sign at Steuben’s Vienna Room read Jerry Lewis — Good Steaks, he said, laughing. What was supposed to be a 2-week stay stretched to 47. “I practically lived on Boylston Street,” he said.

Lewis talked candidly about his relationship with pal and longtime sidekick Dean Martin — a man-crush, he called it, referring to Martin as the most handsome man he ever knew. He recalled the first time they met, on the corner of Broadway and 54th Street in New York City, in 1946: Martin, hair slicked and wearing a camel-hair coat, appeared tan, and, Lewis said, “I just remember thinking, God, I wish he was my friend.”

Dean, the Italian crooner, and Lewis, often referred to as “the monkey,” began their smash partnership at Atlantic City’s 500 Club. Young recalled the reaction to the show: “They didn’t get laughs. It was pandemonium. They were knocking over tables.”

The two went on to collaborate on what many say was the best vaudeville act of all time and to make 16 films. But on July 25, 1956, 10 years to the day after they met, their professional relationship and their friendship ended, after a final gig at Manhattan’s famed Copacabana. Martin increasingly was being pushed into the background, while Lewis stole the spotlight. Tired of playing second fiddle, Martin went his own way, and the two did not speak for 20 years.

When they were reunited onstage by their friend Frank Sinatra during Lewis’ annual Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethon, Lewis remembered panicking, pleading to God for something clever to say. “So, you working?” Lewis asked. The audience loved it, but even after that, Lewis said, the two did not talk. It was the death of Martin’s son, Dino, that connected them again. Lewis said that Dean phoned to tell him that in his life there had been two men he had loved, one his son and the other Lewis.

Despite Martin’s reputation throughout his career for drinking heavily, Lewis insisted that it was always apple juice in the glass at the piano. It wasn’t until Dino died that “Dean let himself go,” he said, and became reclusive and alcoholic.

Martin died on Christmas Day 1995. Lewis said he “took on the press” for often slighting Martin while lauding Lewis throughout their partnership. “I told them who he was,” he said. “I told them if he wasn’t there, I would have been a record act and nothing else.”

Asked what Martin would have thought of the book, Lewis said, “He would have loved it. I gave him every bit of credit he deserved.”