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Richard Lewis, comic who ‘redefined how to make neuroses funny,’ dies at 76

The famously self-deprecating Jewish comic played a fictionalized version of himself on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for nearly 25 years.

Richard Lewis
Richard Lewis at the Los Angeles premiere of “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.” Credit: s_bukley/Shutterstock.

Following years of health problems, actor and comedian Richard Lewis died from a heart attack on Feb. 27. He was 76 years old.

Lewis appeared in 41 episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with the show’s creator and star, Larry David. In the show’s debut episode, “The Pants Tent,” which aired Oct. 15, 2000, David fiercely offends his friend Lewis’s girlfriend in a movie theater.

“He was the most honest comic I have ever seen,” the comedian and author Mark Schiff told JNS. “Like Richard Pryor. who also bore his soul, I related to Lewis more because he was Jewish.”

Daniel Lobell, a stand-up comedian and co-host with Schiff of the podcast “We Think It’s Funny,” told JNS that Lewis was “very supportive” of young comedians like him.

“Richard Lewis was one of the funniest comics of all time,” Lobell said. “He was neurotic, but he redefined how to make neuroses funny.”

“He was incredibly prolific, and he inspired an entire generation of comedians that went on to be the most famous comedians we know today,” Lobell added.

Chris Yogerst, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studies film and popular culture history, told JNS that he has always admired how Lewis “bears his soul on stage in his standup routines or as a semi-fictional version of himself in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’”

“He perfectly embodies that self-deprecating humor so common in Jewish comics,” said Yogerst, author of the 2020 book Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures.

It’s easy to see why Lewis and David, who also bears his soul in his art, were lifelong friends, according to Yogerst, who added that Lewis “couldn’t have had a better send off” than starring in the recent episode of “Curb.”

He noted that Lewis was very upfront about therapy amid his psychological struggles.

“He was a model of how recovery is a daily task,” Yogerst said. “Richard showed strength in his humor through his willingness to put his struggles out there for humorous examination. He was the kind of comedian that all other comedians respected.”

Lewis was born on June 29, 1947, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a Jewish family that he described as not very religious. “I was always proud to be a Jew and what Jews had to fight for from the get-go,” he told the Jewish United Fund. “I take great pride in keeping my Judaism alive and well-respected.”

He called his father William Lewis a “god of kosher catering” in New York and New Jersey. “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 told the Jewish Telegraph.

“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,” David said, in a statement that HBO provided to Variety. “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.”

While Lewis was most visible in recent decades starring with David in “Curb,” the comedian first made an impression in the 1980s, with appearances on “The Tonight Show” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.” He also filmed three HBO comedy specials from 1988 to 1997.

In the 1990s Lewis made the transition to acting, appearing in 56 episodes of “Anything But Love” from 1989 to 1992, and as Prince John in Mel Brooks’s 1993 satire “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” 

Known for his longtime struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse, Lewis appeared in the 1995 dark drama “Leaving Las Vegas,” for which Nicolas Cage won an Oscar playing a doomed writer committed to drinking himself to death. 

Daniel Lobell Richard Lewis
Daniel Lobell with the comedian and actor Richard Lewis (right). Credit: Courtesy.

From 2002 to 2004, Lewis guest starred as a rabbi on nine episodes of the Christian family drama “7th Heaven.” 

Lewis also appeared in “The Simpsons,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Two and a Half Men,” among many other shows. 

Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Kentucky, wrote on social media that Lewis had the zechus, or merit“to bring joy to millions.”

“An incredibly proud Jew, he often introduced Judaism into his act and raised money for Chabad and other Jewish causes,” Litvin added.

Cheryl Hines, who starred as David’s wife on “Curb” and who is married to presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., wrote that Lewis “would take time to tell the people he loved what they meant to him.”

“In between takes on ‘Curb,’ he would tell me how special I was to him and how much he loved me,” she wrote. “To be loved by Richard Lewis. A true gift.”

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