Remembering comedian Richard Lewis

Remembering comedian Richard Lewis

Dark prince of Jewish neurosis grew up in Bergen County

Comedian Richard Lewis relaxes a few years ago.(Photo by Jon Levi)
Comedian Richard Lewis relaxes a few years ago.(Photo by Jon Levi)

Comedian Richard Lewis, who was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Englewood, and whose father was the owner of an iconic kosher catering hall in Teaneck, parlayed what he played up as his neurotic Jewish personality and self-deprecating humor into a 50-year career as a standup and actor.

Mr. Lewis, who died on February 28 at 76, was so representative of the edgy, nervy, acerbic, normatively Jewish comics of his generation that the New York Times wrote not one, not two, but five obituarial think pieces about him in the days after his death.

Mr. Lewis had been in ill health for a number of years. Last April, he announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years earlier. Although he considered himself retired from standup, he appeared again as a regular in the current season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” playing a version of himself in the HBO show created by and starring his childhood friend Larry David.

“Richard and I were born three days apart in the same hospital and for most of my life he’s been like a brother to me,” Mr. David said in a statement released by HBO. “He had that rare combination of being the funniest person and also the sweetest. But today he made me sob and for that I’ll never forgive him.”

Mr. Lewis’s sensibility, in clubs and on screen, could be as dark as the funereal suits he often wore. In a signature joke, he spoke about an uncle who was so depressing that he would sit at home listening to the soundtrack of “The Pawnbroker,” the grim 1964 film about a Holocaust survivor.

He also is credited with the tagline “from Hell,” as in “the ex-wife from Hell.” When the “Yale Book of Quotations” gave him credit for the catchphrase in 2022, he tweeted, “Where is my Nobel Prize?”

Ms. Lewis also appeared in a number of films, including “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody, in which he played an extremely Jewish-seeming Prince John.

Mr. Lewis’s father, Bill, owned Ambassador Caterers in Teaneck. “My father was so well known as a caterer and so booked up that he was actually booked on the weekend of my bar mitzvah, so I had to have my party on the Tuesday,” he once told an interviewer.

His mother, Blanche Goldberg Lewis, acted in community theater; her specialty was Neil Simon’s often distasteful Jewish mothers.

His parents both were colorful, but his father spent more time at work than at home, and his mother was distant. Mr. Lewis mined his emotionally difficult, stereotypically midcentury Jewish childhood for comedy. As a result, “I owe my career to my mother,” he told The Washington Post in 2020, as the New York Times reported in his obituary. “I should have given her my agent’s commission.”

Philip Osoff of Harrington Park first met Mr. Lewis at the Englewood JCC that since has morphed into the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Mr. Lewis went to Franklin, on Englewood’s East Hill, for elementary school, while Mr. Osoff, who also grew up in Englewood, went to Cleveland, in the city’s lower east side. But students from the city’s elementary schools came together for junior high, so the JCC buddies deepened their friendship, Mr. Osoff said.

During high school summers, Mr. Lewis went to basketball camp on the grounds of the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson. That’s where he first encountered Mr. David, although that meeting must have been entirely unnoteworthy since neither Mr. Lewis nor Mr. David remembered it. But the next year, when Richie’s mother asked Phil’s mother if Phil would consider going to basketball camp, she said yes.

Richie Lewis and Phil Osoff spent a summer together in basketball camp.

The two boys roomed together. “We slept in that room — his bed was on one side of the room, and mine was on the other,” he said. “For 60 nights we were in that room together, just two 14-year-olds talking about everything. We really got to know each other.” They remained friends for the rest of Mr. Lewis’s life.

Mr. Osoff remembers Ambassador Catering too. “My older sister, Leonore, was 10 years older than I am, and Richie’s father catered her wedding. It was on the gym floor in the JCC in Englewood, on Tenafly Road. My sister, Judy, is seven years older than I am; it was at the Ambassador. And when I got bar mitzvaed, Bill Lewis catered it. I remember joking with Richie that my family paid for his college tuition.

About a month after his bar mitzvah, Mr. Osoff said, he had a sleepover at Mr. Lewis’s house. Both his family and Mr. Lewis’s were members of Temple Emanu-El of Englewood (now it’s of Closter), led by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Mr. Osoff’s father was a serious Jew; he davened every morning. When he was a little boy, Mr. Osoff said, he loved emulating his father, so he’d tie string around his head and arm as make-believe tefillin as he enacted his father’s time at Shacharit in shul.

So that morning in Englewood, Mr. Osoff woke early, as he always did, put on the tallit and tefillin that he’d brought with him, and began to daven.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Lewis asked his friend, his voice rising in disbelief.

That question haunted Mr. Osoff, who used it as the reason to stop the davening that morning.

Why indeed? Was it just to honor his father?

That turned out to be the last time that Mr. Osoff joined the morning minyan.

Jon Bittman, who also grew up in Englewood, was Mr. Lewis’s closest friend during their childhood. Mr. Bittman remembers his friend not only for his wit and intellectual quickness, but also for his kindness.

In a reminiscence, Mr. Bittman wrote: “In 1989, when our mutual friend Mal Fine suddenly died on his way home from a basketball game, Richard called me from Los Angeles because he didn’t want me to learn of Malcolm’s death in the newspaper.

“Richard had gotten the news that day from his close pal, Mal’s brother Kenny. His call to me on that Sunday morning was a mitzvah of major proportions. I will always be grateful for being spared the shock of finding Mal’s obituary in the pages of the Bergen Record.”

Both Mr. Bittman and Mr. Osoff talk about Mr. Lewis’s love for basketball, which he retained throughout his life.

After he graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, Mr. Lewis earned a degree in marketing at Ohio State University. Then in the early 1970s, he began to write and do standup. The Jewish comedians Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce were obvious role models for him. Later, “Comedy Central” ranked him 45th on its list of “100 Greatest Standups of All Time” in 2004.

In the 1989 sitcom “Anything But Love,” which ran for four seasons, Mr. Lewis establishes his character as Jewish in the first minutes of the pilot. In 2011 Lewis told a British weekly, the Jewish Telegraph, that he was not a synagogue-goer but that he consciously infused his Jewish identity into his comedy — and that he viewed comedy as a deeply Jewish act.

“I have a tremendous love affair for being a Jew,” he said then. “I’m so proud to be part of this people. I don’t want to be part of anything else.” He added, “Because of what the Jews have gone through since literally Day One, one of the survival mechanisms was to talk about all the hell that we’ve been through. It’s so much funnier being a Jew than anything else. If we don’t find humor, then we’re in deep trouble.”

Lewis struggled with addiction issues for years, proudly explaining in 2016 that he was “22 years sober” and that he mentored people in the recovery community.

That year, Lewis acknowledged that his health had taken a toll on his performing, but that he would continue to write, act, and do the occasional standup gig.

“I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m not like I used to be,” he said. “I try to stay healthy and sober and to give back. I’ve received a lot of help. I’ve lived through a lot of tsuris. The art of aging is being grateful for being alive and having some laughs and helping other people.”

Mr. Lewis’ survivors include his wife, Joyce Lapinsky, his brother, Robert, nephews, friends, and cousins, including Jon Levi of Teaneck, some of whose photographs of Mr. Lewis accompany this report.

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