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Remembering Richard Lewis: Entertainment reporter recalls interviews, performances by friend, actor and comedian

Richard Lewis believed he almost died shortly after being born, thanks to his longtime pal, Larry David.

“Our issues started at birth,” Lewis said, during a typically lengthy interview. “We’re three days apart, and we were both born in the same Brooklyn hospital. I’m convinced that Larry tried to strangle me with my mother’s umbilical cord.”

Lewis, who was one of the most underrated comics of all time, passed away Feb. 27 at his Los Angeles home after suffering a heart attack. A week prior to his death I spoke with his publicist, Jeff Abraham, about setting up an interview with one of my all-time favorite subjects. Abraham noted that Lewis wasn’t up for much, since he was in considerable pain due to Parkinson’s and back and shoulder issues.

I thought that might prevent a reconnection, since I knew of Lewis’ health issues. Six months ago I had a dream Lewis died and it prompted me to check in with Abraham, who said to reconnect when the final season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” premieres.

Abraham said that due to our relationship Lewis would speak with me about his career and his late brilliant comic friend, David Brenner.

Lewis, who along with Sandra Bernhard, said I reminded him of fellow journalist Bill Zehme, would often offer invitations, “We should break bread.” He asked me to play stickball in the Pacific Palisades, as if I lived in Malibu or some other enviable Los Angeles ZIP code. But Lewis was often elusive. It was rare that we met in person. The last time we hung out was at the club Helium, where he performed in Philadelphia in 2017.

My daughter, Jillian, and I attended. Lewis said to pop in between sets. We slipped in during the opener’s slot and Lewis emerged from the shadows like a vampire, clad in black. We joked around for 15 minutes and he was still speaking with us after he was introduced by the emcee. “And now Richard Lewis…”

“So how is it that your son hit a home run,” Lewis said. “I never hit a home run. I can’t imagine how that feels.”

The crowd was roaring in anticipation.

“You probably better go,” I said.

Off Lewis went to kill. The opener stopped us before we returned to our seats.

“Who are you?” the opener asked. “I’ve been on the road with Richard for more than 20 years and this is the third time he’s met with someone during a show. Richard just comes in and goes out and doesn’t talk with anyone. Who are you?”

I didn’t realize until then how significant it was to hold court with Lewis at a comedy club. I’ll never forget that conversation, which was our last. So a few days ago I looked forward to the interview that will never happen, since I listened to our past chats, which were unlike any other interviews I’ve ever conducted.

After a 30-plus year career, there was no one like Lewis, who was a relentless conversationalist. Our interviews would often eclipse two hours. It was such a joy to be able to joust with Lewis’ brilliant mind.

Lewis was a hero of mine, since I caught him during college days delivering stand-up on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Lewis’ humor was deep, quirky, hilarious and unique as our conversations.

Who else would be in mid-sentence when I answered the phone for an interview? “I can’t believe how much this conversation is going to cost me,” Lewis said. “I’m 8 minutes late because my Grandfather clock is broken.”

No hello. It was just a stream of consciousness rant.

Lewis was the king of relationship humor but one two-and-a-half hour conversation turned dark. I was in a turbulent relationship a generation ago. I flew back and forth to a girlfriend, and it just didn’t work out. Who could relate but Lewis?

“It’s like you keep putting your hand on a hot stove,” Lewis said. “I know. I’ve been there. I’ve been there flying back and forth when everything turned bad.”

However, my ill-fated relationship was so rough that I received a surprise from Lewis.

“I’m really sorry about what you’re going through,” Lewis said. “This is worse than anything I ever experienced.”

That response frightened me, coming from the author of the exceptional autobiography, “The Other Great Depression.” During the 1990s, I would ask iconic figures, such as James Brown, Bob Newhart and Michael McKean as Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, to leave outgoing voicemails, which I still possess. Lewis delivered the most brilliant on the spot messages. “Hi, this is Richard Lewis. Ed, who is the Gandhi of friends, can’t come to the phone right now. I don’t know where he is. I think he and his wife are in Rome. I’m here taking care of his kids and if you can – ‘Alright, kids, I’ll be out in a minute’ – please leave a message and I’ll be sure Ed gets it when he returns.”

No wonder Lewis was so great laying down improv on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Lewis was at his best when he opened up. I asked the former star of the amusing sitcom “Anything But Love” about his catch phrase, “I was raised by wolves.” How awful was his childhood?

“It was pretty bad,” Lewis said. “I didn’t see my father much. My dad was such a successful caterer that he was booked on my bar mitzvah – and I had my party on a Tuesday. Talk about low self-esteem. My father died young and my sister and brother moved out by the time I was in junior high. So it was me and my mother, and we didn’t get along too well. She didn’t get me.”

What didn’t she get about Lewis?

“Everything,” Lewis said. “Before I played Carnegie Hall in 1989, I performed at the Plaza Theater in Englewood. I did a two-hour show. My mother showed up early in the lobby and said to fans, ‘I’m Richard’s mother.’ During my set I joked that my father had 12 heads. My mother stood up and said, ‘That’s a load of crap.’ ”

When he made his Carnegie Hall debut, his mother was banned from the famous venue.

“I had to make a tough call,” Lewis said. “I told her that her presence would interfere with how I thought, since I would visualize her there. I told her that she couldn’t come, and she didn’t. She stayed back in Jersey.”

Lewis’ mother wasn’t the only person who got on his nerves. The star and creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” bugged Lewis.

“We were archrivals as teenagers at a summer sports camp,” Lewis said. “I was a good athlete. Larry was a gangly, obnoxious asshole. I hated him.

“We became friendly years later as young comics in New York, but I noticed something one night. ‘There’s something about you I hate,’ I told him. ‘Wait, you’re that Larry David from summer camp.’ And he said, ‘You’re that Richard Lewis.’ We nearly came to blows.”

The comics became close friends. Lewis became tight with his childhood idol, Mickey Mantle, who he met as a child on his street.

“Many Yankees rented houses on our block, Van Nostrand Avenue,” Lewis recalled. “The most surreal moment was when Mickey Mantle drove up, and I was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers shirt, and he said, ‘Hey kid, why are you wearing that shirt?’ I walked away shamefaced, but as an adult I became good friends with Mickey.

“You look at who I became friends with and it’s pretty amazing. I never could have guessed it would have turned out this way. As a child I stood on the roof of my house and looked out at Manhattan and wondered what was going on there. I went down on the street and kids were selling lemonade, and it hit me that there’s got to be more to life than this. I was right.”

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