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Richard Lewis, comedian and actor much-loved as Larry David’s pal in Curb Your Enthusiasm – obituary

Richard Lewis, left, with Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm
Richard Lewis, left, with Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm - Home Box Office Enterprises

Richard Lewis, who has died after a heart attack aged 76, was a former stand-up comedian who achieved success poking fun at his neuroses and hypochondria; known for his dark humour, and darker clothing, he played a version of himself in Larry David’s long-running sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm and was a neurotic Prince John in the Mel Brooks spoof film Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), sporting a mole that moves around his face.

Curb Your Enthusiasm was first seen in 2000 and is inspired by Larry David’s life as a semi-retired TV producer (he is co-creator of the sitcom Seinfeld). Lewis is one of Larry’s best friends and they (Larry in particular) are preoccupied with the minutiae of everyday life, magnifying them until what began as trivial dominates everything.

The exchanges between Lewis and David reflect their real-life relationship – in which a deep friendship going back to their Brooklyn youth was masked by abuse, often targeted at Lewis’s myriad anxieties. In one Curb episode, Lewis says: “A lot of people call me who are suicidal.” Larry replies: “I don’t think you’d be my suicide call.”

Larry David and Richard Lewis: they had attended the same summer camp as children
Larry David and Richard Lewis: they had attended the same summer camp as children - Home Box Office Enterprises

But the affection underneath was palpable. David and Lewis had been born three days apart at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and went to the same summer camp. When they met again in their 20s as stand-up comics in New York, they bonded for life.

Lewis knew that every setback in his life – his addictions; even his Parkinson’s diagnosis – would be harvested for comic material by Larry David, and was delighted at the prospect of it all appearing in the next Curb series. Lewis said of David: “I can’t tell you how loving he is – the best friend you could ever imagine.” He described their on-screen exchanges as “a ping pong match between two neurotics”.

On his death, David said of Lewis: “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.” Curb Your Enthusiasm, which was partly ad-libbed, was shown on BBC Four in 2003 and then on Sky Comedy. Many of the scenes are sourced from reality, for example the restaurant disagreements. On one occasion David, who is rich, arrived late for a meal, but left early, leaving the impecunious Lewis with a $250 bill. Afterwards he called Lewis from his car with a fake apology.

Richard Lewis in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Richard Lewis in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) - Alamy

On the big screen, Lewis played a former doctor struggling to settle in the Wild West in John Candy’s final film, the flop Wagons East (1994), and appeared in Mike Figgis’s alcoholism movie Leaving Las Vegas (1995), starring Nicolas Cage. On television Lewis portrayed the eccentric magazine columnist Marty Gold in the sitcom Anything But Love (1989-92) with Jamie Lee Curtis.

He is credited in the Yale Book of Quotations (2006) with creating the phrase “from hell”, as in “the date from hell”. Other dictionaries disagreed, but he was adamant: “I coined it. In fact [the Curb episode] ‘The Nanny from Hell’ was based on that. I totally popularised the phrase in the late 1970s. If you go on YouTube, you can see on [David Letterman’s chat show], David would cut me off, and go, ‘You mean it was the Bar Mitzvah from hell?’ ”

Richard Philip Lewis was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, on June 29 1947, the youngest by some margin of three children. “I am still convinced I was a mistake,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

He was raised (“or, as I would say, lowered”) in Englewood, New Jersey, where his workaholic father, Bill Lewis, owned Ambassador Caterers. His mother, Blanche, née Goldberg, was an actress from whom he inherited “every hypochondriacal notion, every obsession”. She was banned from his shows after heckling him with: “Your father didn’t have three testicles.”

Of meeting Larry David at summer camp, he told The Spectator: “He was cocky, he was arrogant. When we played baseball I tried to hit him with the ball: we were arch rivals. I couldn’t wait for the camp to be over just to get away from Larry.”

As “the class clown”, Lewis was thrown out of Dwight Morrow High School and took a marketing degree at Ohio State University. Returning to New Jersey, he held several jobs at the same time, including advertising copywriter and librarian.

In 1971 he turned up for an open-mic night at a Greenwich Village comedy club. Soon he was a fixture on the circuit, though low self-esteem was never far away. He insisted on keeping the house lights up so that he could see the audience. “There’s got to be at least 10 to 20 who were dragged there by somebody,” he said.

He was soon invited on to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, later appearing 48 times on Late Night with David Letterman. He performed at Carnegie Hall and got so drunk afterwards that he had to ask his sister how many ovations he received.

Calling himself the “Prince of Pain”, Lewis had a series of comedy specials in the 1980s with titles such as I’m in Pain, I’m Exhausted and I’m Doomed, and in 1989 he featured in GQ magazine’s list of the 20th-century’s most influential humourists. His addictions to stimulants and alcohol led to rehab, though for 30 years he had been clean. Last year he announced that he had Parkinson’s disease.

His final appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm was in the episode “Vertical Drop, Horizontal Tug”: he joked about death, telling Larry that his friend had been added to his will. “I don’t need it. Give it to someone who needs it,” Larry protested. But Lewis told his friend: “When I die, I want you to know how much I care about you.”

Lewis married, in 2005, Joyce Lapinsky, a music publisher, who survives him.

Richard Lewis, born June 29 1947, died February 27 2024