The Bootleg Files: The First Martin and Lewis Reunion

BOOTLEG FILES 772: “The First Martin and Lewis Reunion” (1958 segment from Eddie Fisher’s television show).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Uncertain if this was ever part of a documentary.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No one bothered to clear the rights.

We’ll discuss this below.

One of the most dramatic moments on 1970s television occurred during the 1976 broadcast of Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day weekend telethon on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Frank Sinatra was on stage with Lewis making a donation to the fundraiser and then he announced that he had a friend offstage that he wanted to have join him. The friend was Dean Martin and viewers were watching what they thought was the first reunion between the former comedy team partners in 20 years.

Except that it wasn’t their first reunion. Two years after the duo’s acrimonious split, they were together on camera for a very brief but highly amusing moment – but many people were unaware this occurred.

Martin and Lewis first paired in 1946 and experienced one of the most meteoric rises in show business history. They were guests on the first episode of Ed Sullivan’s long-running television variety show in 1948 (sadly, no copy of that broadcast is known to survive) and soon had their own regular TV gig via “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” plus their own radio show, a movie contract with Paramount Pictures and the ability to sell out any theater or club where they would do their act.

But as Martin and Lewis were hitting their peak in the early 1950s, tensions began to permeate their partnership. In their film work, Lewis was the dominant figure – to the point that Martin often seemed like a supporting character rather than an equal partner in comic crime. When the first draft of the script for their 1954 feature “3 Ring Circus” was presented, Martin reportedly threw it back in anger over what he saw as an insubstantial role.

Another matter complicated the relationship in 1954: Look Magazine did a photo shoot of the pair but cropped Martin out of the cover picture. Lewis would later acknowledge that his overbearing behavior during this time did not help matters, referring to himself as a “bully.”

The Hollywood tabloid press caught wind of the difficulties between the men and the entertainment news headlines were full of reports that Martin and Lewis were going to split up. Even Groucho Marx got into the act, sending public letters to the comics urging them to stay together. The “3 Ring Circus” script was rewritten several times before Martin agreed to the film, but the damage was made worse when an early script of “The Delicate Delinquent” was presented and Martin rejected the idea of playing a cop to Lewis’ title character as an unlikely juvenile.

By the time Martin and Lewis were shooting “Hollywood or Bust” in 1956, they were not speaking to each other off-camera. After finishing their run at New York City’s Copacabana on July 25, 1956, Martin and Lewis were over as team.

Lewis made “The Delicate Delinquent” as his first solo film, with Darren McGavin playing the cop role intended for Martin, and it was box office success, with more hit films to follow. Martin’s first solo film, “Ten Thousand Bedrooms,” was a commercial flop, but he quickly found his footing with films including “The Young Lions” and “Some Came Running” and hit recordings including “Return to Me” and “Volare.”

On September 30, 1958, Lewis returned to television as a guest on “The Eddie Fisher Show.” Lewis’ segment had him attempting to do a serious rendition of the song “Autumn Leaves,” but Fisher’s refusal to leave the stage while he’s singing flusters Lewis. Fisher complains that he could get a “singing guest like Mary Martin or Dude Martin or Tony Martin,” to which a mock-angry Lewis shrieks “You’re getting pretty close, big mouth” and blows a large puff of cigarette smoke in his face. Lewis ups his complaint about Fisher by wisecracking “I haven’t worked with a singer in years.”

Lewis insists that Fisher go off stage, stating, “Let me do what I have to do.” Then, with no warning, Martin emerges from the curtain behind them and exclaims, “Don’t sing! Do what you want, but don’t sing!” Fisher doubles over with laughter while Lewis covers his face to mask his laughing. Martin says something that cannot be heard over the audience’s laughter, but he makes a clapping gesture with his hands that looks like an oversized mouth yapping.

Suddenly, Bing Crosby comes out from behind the curtain to grab Martin and yank him offstage. Fisher and Lewis grab each other for physical support to prevent falling over in laughter. Lewis runs to check behind the curtain to see if Martin and Crosby are still there – they weren’t, and he runs back to center stage to sing from Martin’s hit tune “Return to Me” in an attempt to lure them back.

Martin was on camera for eight seconds (Crosby only had two seconds of airtime), but it was enough to create a brief flurry of speculation if Martin and Lewis would get back together. It didn’t happen and the footage disappeared for years. By the time Martin made his unexpected appearance on the 1976 telethon, most people forgot about “The Eddie Fisher Show” happening.

I don’t know if the footage from “The Eddie Fisher Show” was ever incorporated into a documentary. I am aware of a poor-quality unauthorized video with a time code is on YouTube. For Martin and Lewis fans, this blink-and-you-miss-it moment is a priceless post-script to a memorable pairing.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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