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'Dean & Me' really is a love story

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A showbiz act every bit as big as what Elvis Presley and The Beatles were later to become, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis dominated movies, TV and nightclubs for 10 years until they broke up acrimoniously in 1956. Until Martin's death on Christmas Day in 1995, the two reunited on stage only twice -- each time a brief, surprise walk-on by one as the other was performing.

Both of those ambushes were publicly joyous affairs between Martin, the Neapolitan singing straight man, and Lewis, the Jewish whirling dervish nine years his junior. Between those times, the two reconciled in periodic phone calls, forging an even stronger bond after Martin's son, Dean Jr., died while on Air National Guard maneuvers in 1987.

So, as a title for Lewis' long-awaited team remembrance, Dean & Me: A Love Story isn't misleading -- though the relationship had to overcome Martin's lifelong tendency toward emotional withdrawal.

Because Lewis was never associated with such restraint, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that his book is quietly funny, almost terse in its prose style (it's co-written with James Kaplan) and much shorter than earlier rumored.

The book fractures time by hopping back and forth between the '40s and '50s, sailing over some major career events (including many of the team's 16 movies).

But when Lewis has a story to tell, he lets it breathe.

One of the stories involves the team's 1946 folkloric debut at Atlantic City's 500 Club: a gargantuan dud in the first show and -- following Jerry's frenzied creation, from scratch, of "routines" on a greasy dressing room sandwich bag -- a smash in the second.

And that episode set the pattern: The team's supposedly loony half ran the act, even if, off-stage, the more life-experienced Martin once saved his partner from the wrath of a mobster to whom Lewis had gotten jokey. It's no surprise, given M&L's long nightclub tenure, that the Mob is ubiquitous here.

Lewis says he even paid two A-list songwriters -- secretly, and out of pocket -- $30,000 to write Martin a huge pop hit the singer needed (That's Amore), a need indicative of a problem. Though Martin later proved to be very funny on his own, the brilliant straight man lauded by Lewis could never stop moviegoers from rushing the popcorn stand whenever he broke into a ballad.

A major rift came when Look magazine cropped Martin out of a photo promoting the 1954 film Living It Up while the team was shooting 3 Ring Circus, a movie that already was giving Martin hardly anything to do. They got through their final film, Hollywood or Bust (which Lewis says he won't watch to this day), without speaking. Lewis is upfront about his contributing ego problems, calling himself a "bully" during this period.

Dean & Me may not tell us everything, but its love is abundant. It also is mellow, not mawkish -- the kind of look-back you write when, like Lewis, you're 79.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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