Hollywood has lost a comedy legend. On Sunday, Jerry Lewis died at the age of 91. Lewis' publicist issued a statement to Bustle, saying, "He died peacefully of natural causes at 91. He was surrounded by his family and loved ones at home." As fans mourn the actor and comedian, they will no doubt turn to Lewis' large body of work for comfort. But the one essential Jerry Lewis scene you need to see doesn't come from his impressive film career; it's a candid moment from his annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon that is one of the most sincere live moments in TV history.
In the late 1940s, Lewis and Dean Martin took the world by storm. As the goofball to Martin's crooning straight man, the two had an act that made them instant favorites on both the big screen and the stage. Together, they made a number of films including You're Never Too Young, Jumping Jacks, and Scared Stiff. However, off-screen their partnership became acrimonious. Shawn Levy, a non-fiction writer who has devoted tomes to both Martin and Lewis, delved into the meteoric rise and fall of the men's friendship for The Guardian in 2005.
Levy wrote that Lewis' desire to control and hone the act he shared with Martin clashed with the singer's more laid back style. Ultimately, both of them were surrounded by people insisting they could do better on their own, and they began to fight with one another on set and off. On July 24, 1956, exactly one decade after their first performance together, Lewis and Martin performed one last show at the Copacabana, and then barely saw each other again for two decades.
America's favorite comedy team went their separate ways until the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, when their mutual friend, Frank Sinatra, arranged for Martin to appear, unbeknownst to Lewis. Whether you are aware of their legendary friendship or not, their tearful reunion is bound to touch your heart. It's live TV at its best — unpredictable, moving, and raw.
Lewis' career is full of iconic scenes. Every frame of The Nutty Professor is a national treasure, and his high-pitched call of, "Hey Laaaaady!" in The Ladies Man remains a classic, and much parodied, film quote. The man was a true performer whose gift for physical comedy was unparalleled in his time. But those pratfalls were practiced and the lines were memorized. Seeing Lewis reunite with Martin is to see him caught truly unaware. That he can still crack jokes through his tears is the truest testament to his talent.
It would be wonderful if their 1976 reunion led to a new beginning for the two men, but they never did get their act back together. Although, they did keep in touch over the years, particularly after the death of Martin's son in 1987. Their lives took different paths, but at least for Lewis, the loved they shared never faded. In a 2016 interview with CBS' The Sunday Morning Show, Lewis said of his friendship with Martin, "You can't write love off, or put it on hold. It stays with you until death, and I don't know that it doesn't continue."
Watching Martin surprise his old pal on live TV will make you inclined to believe that Lewis was right. But more than that, it will allow you to see a moment in TV history that can never, ever be repeated, especially now that these two giants of the industry are gone. Perhaps, somewhere out there, Lewis is once again greeting his old friend by asking, "So, have you been working?" But this time there will be no cameras around to catch Martin's response.