Richard Lewis, comedian and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ actor, dies at 76


Richard Lewis, the comedian who first found fame in the 1970s and ’80s with his trademark biting, dark sense of humor, and who later parlayed that quality into an acting career that included films such as “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and a recurring role as himself on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 76 years old.

His publicist, Jeff Abraham, said the cause was a heart attack. Last year, Lewis announced that he had Parkinson’s disease.

Lewis was one of the best-known names of a generation of comedians that came of age during the 1970s and 1980s, marked by a sarcastic, world-weary wit that fit well with the urban malaise in which many of them practiced. your office. .

After finding success as a stand-up comedian in New York nightclubs, he became a regular on late-night talk shows, favored both for his tight routine and his casual, open affability as an interviewee. He appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” 48 times.

And he was at the forefront of the stand-up comedy boom that came with the expansion of cable television in the late 1980s.

Neurotic and self-deprecating, typically dressed all in black, Lewis walked around the stages of comedy clubs, bowing his head, pulling at his lock of black hair, talking about his struggles in life and love. He called himself the “Prince of Pain,” as did his legions of fans.

The titles of his numerous 1980s comedy specials say it all: “I’m Suffering,” “I’m Exhausted,” “I’m Doomed.”

He built some of his anecdotal pieces around the idea of ​​the worst possible version of an everyday figure: the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell. In 2006, the Yale Book of Quotations honored him with an entry for “the ______ of hell,” attributed to him.

He came to his art naturally (he couldn’t fake his misery) but also through astute attention to the anxiety-inducing, neurosis-triggering details of everyday life.

“I’m so crazy, I’m so obsessed with the show, but that’s who I am,” he told The New York Observer in 2007. “I’m so connected to the time I spend on stage, that my head is full of thoughts. “. images. It’s terrifying, but also exhilarating. I will never stop working like this.”

But it was not an act. Part of Mr. Lewis’s appeal was his willingness to delve into his own wounds, drawing on his unhappy childhood, his unhappy love life, and his daily bouts of enormous self-doubt.

If it caused him pain to be so open (and it clearly did), it also fueled his success. He was one of the best-known comedians of the late 1980s. He played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1989, receiving two standing ovations for two and a half hours of material.

“He didn’t take on a character when he came on stage,” Billy Crystal, who masterminded Lewis on the New York comedy scene in the 1970s, said in an interview Wednesday. “He just crawled up there. He was refreshing. Sometimes you could see that the audience just wanted to say, ‘Slow down.’ He will be well. ‘”

Mr. Lewis soon moved into acting. He played Marty Gold in the comedy “Anything but Love,” opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, from 1989 to 1992. The show earned him critical and popular praise and seemed to signal a step toward Hollywood stardom.

But his follow-up show, “Daddy Dearest,” in which he played the son of fellow comedian Don Rickles, was a bomb, and Lewis spent the next few years pursuing small movie roles and one-episode roles on TV.

He had a prominent role in the Mel Brooks comedy “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993), but otherwise had to settle for small roles in films such as “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) and “Hugo Pool” (1997). ).

After two years of struggling to get acting roles, he returned to stand-up and traveled the country with his show “Richard Lewis: The Magical Misery Tour,” which was seen as an HBO special in 1996. It brought him new attention from a new generation of comedy fans and a new opportunity to land small roles on television.

Many of his best television roles were in shows that shared his vision of the world with dark and humorous overtones, such as the animated series “The Simpsons” and “BoJack Horseman.”

Mr. Lewis spoke openly about his struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression. He became sober in the mid-1990s and wrote about his experience in his 2000 memoir, “The Other Great Depression: How I Am Overcoming, Every Day, At Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and How to Find a Spiritual Life (a times). .”

He revised the book, with a new foreword, and republished it in 2008. He also wrote “Reflections from Hell: Richard Lewis’s Guide to How Not to Live” (2015).

Beginning in 1999, he had a regular role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as a good friend and golf buddy of Larry David, the show’s star and creator. He played a semi-fictional version of himself, a stern Eeyore who made Mr. David’s cranky self look like Christopher Robin.

Mr. Lewis did not appear in every episode, but he appeared regularly, including in the current season, the show’s last.

Richard Philip Lewis was born on June 29, 1947 in Brooklyn, in the same hospital as his friend and future co-star, Mr. David, and just three days before him. His family soon moved to Englewood, New Jersey. His father, Bill Lewis, owned a kosher catering business and his mother, Blanche (Goldberg) Lewis, acted in community theater, specializing in the characters of Jewish mothers in the plays of Neil Simon.

As Mr. Lewis often recounted in his stand-up act, his family life was turbulent. His father was never home and died when Richard was still young. His mother was emotionally distant and she had her own problems.

“I owe my career to my mother,” he told The Washington Post in 2020. “I should have given her my agent commission.”

He attended Ohio State University and, after graduating with a degree in marketing, returned to New Jersey. While trying his hand at late-night comedy and writing material for other comedians, he worked during the day as a copywriter and clerk at a sporting goods store.

He was miserable. One day he was in a delicatessen with his friend and mentor, comedian David Brenner, complaining about his lack of success and his lack of sleep.

“He said, ‘What do you need to be a full-time comedian?’” Lewis told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995. “I said a thousand dollars. He took out a check and gave it to me. “I left my job and never looked back.”

He made his stand-up debut in 1971, at a Greenwich Village club, and over the next decade he could be seen sharing the bill with comedians such as Jay Leno, Richard Belzer, Elayne Boosler and Robert Klein.

He made his acting debut in 1979, starring in the television movie “Diary of a Young Comic,” which appeared on NBC as a replacement for “Saturday Night Live.”

As his career took off, Lewis moved to Los Angeles, although he returned to his hometown frequently.

“New York is my homeland; I have a lot of friends in Manhattan,” he told The New York Observer in 2007. “And, tragically, a lot of family.”

He lived alone in a huge house on the Sunset Strip and was proud of not having any long-term relationships until he met Joyce Lapinsky, who worked in music publishing. They dated for several years before Mr. Lewis, considering marrying her, took her to her psychiatrist. “This is the best thing ever,” he often remembers the therapist saying.

They married in 2005. She survives him, along with her brother, Robert.

Lewis first met David when the two went to the same summer camp in upstate New York, although they did not get along. (“We hate each other,” Lewis told the Washington Post.)

They reconnected a decade later, when they were both struggling comedians in New York. This time, their friendship remained. When David, who helped create and write “Seinfeld,” decided to make a show based on his life, he asked Lewis to come along.

Lewis said yes, as long as it was a recurring role. He then appeared in 41 episodes, introducing him to yet another group of fans.

“Thanks to ‘Curb,’ I have three generations coming to my shows,” he said in a 2014 interview with the website Street Roots. “The demographic aspect: There will be a 13-year-old kid and then there will be a guy on a stretcher who will say, ‘I wanted to see you before I died.’”

Mr Lewis suffered a series of injuries in the late 2010s, requiring surgery on his back and rotator cuff. He performed his last stand-up show in 2018 at Zanies in Chicago.

In 2023, after filming the final season of “Curb,” he announced that he had Parkinson’s disease. In a video statementHe said he would continue writing and acting as long as he could.

“I’m hopeful that this doesn’t define me,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair published on February 18. “I’m a recovered drunk who has Parkinson’s, but I’m a comedian and actor. and an author and a writer. So I have it and I use it that way. Of course, when I finish this interview, I will break down, cry, and start screaming. But why show you everything?

Orlando Mayorquin, Alex Traub and Michael S. Rosenwald contributed reporting.

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