Richard Lewis’s Final Interview: “I’ve Had Such an Amazing Life. I’m a Lucky Man”

Before his death at 76, comedian Richard Lewis spoke to VF about the end of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Parkinson’s, and his mom.
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Bonnie Schiffman Photography/Getty Images.

Update, February 28, 2024: Richard Lewis has died, Variety reports. The comedian was 76 years old.

Richard Lewis has never been anything less than an open book. To watch the self-proclaimed “Prince of Pain” onstage was to feel as if you were trapped inside his brain and being exposed to every last one of his neuroses. From his struggles with depression and anxiety to his eating disorder to being a recovered alcoholic and addict, we got to know the man very well.

After nearly 50 years, Lewis hung up the mic on January 20, 2018, at Zanies in Chicago. I met him the night before his swan song, thanks to a mutual friend, the late author and journalist Bill Zehme. We spent half an hour backstage, Lewis wearing sunglasses and lying on the couch with his head tilted back, as though we’d come to analyze him. Thanks to the sunglasses, we never knew if his eyes were opened or closed.

For the following conversation, we met via Zoom. Once again Lewis was hiding behind the shades, though he wasn’t being pretentious, he was just protecting himself from the California sun beaming through his window. Behind him, there were framed photographs featuring some of his heroes—Lenny Bruce, Muhammad Ali, and Jimi Hendrix. Those greats all come up in casual conversation with Lewis, but perhaps nobody comes up more frequently than Larry David.

Larry David and Richard Lewis on Curb Your Enthusiasm.John P. Johnson/HBO.

Their paths were destined to cross. They were born three days apart at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital in 1947. They attended the same summer camp, then met again in their 20s as comedians in New York. Since then, they’ve been fixtures in each other’s lives, which is why David asked him to be part of Curb Your Enthusiasm nearly 25 years ago. “I can’t tell you how loving he is—the best friend you could ever imagine,” Lewis told me. “The show gives me another vehicle to express my feelings to Larry, because we are the oldest of friends.”

Lewis and I met to talk about the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the conversation went far and wide. The past few years have been difficult for him, because of a series of surgeries and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Despite it all, he struck me as vibrant, sharp—and hilarious—as ever.

Vanity Fair: Your first appearance this season has you and Larry in a golf cart. You tell him you’re going to leave him money in your will, and he dismisses the notion, saying he doesn’t need it. Does that kind of sum up your relationship with him? You offer up a nice gesture and it turns into a whole thing?

Richard Lewis: It’s almost like lunch. On many episodes, I would beat him to the host at the restaurant and say “It’s on me.” So when this scene came up, I jumped on this thing. This would be the ultimate thank you: I’m leaving him money, even though he wouldn’t need it. And he goes on to say he doesn’t, but I don’t care. Then it provokes a fight. He goes, “Fuck you,” and I go, “Fuck you.” It goes back-and-forth like a ping pong match between two neurotics.

Larry says what he does onscreen is what he wishes he could say in real life. Does the same go for you?

I’m different than Larry on this note. I don’t really see a difference with me on screen, except for an occasional time when I might be a little harsher than I might be in general. Generally speaking, though, I’m myself.

What was the genesis of you using your own name on Curb?

Well, that was Larry David’s conception of it. He came over to my house and he said he wanted me to play myself. He wanted to have this relationship. It’s spectacularly unique to be able to be in a scene where other actors are not themselves and I’m myself. It’s a strange feeling. It’d be like in Spielberg’s Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis is Abe Lincoln, and I go, “Hey, Mr. President, it’s Richard Lewis! I’d like to discuss something with you.”

You even get to wear your own clothes

[Laughs.] Yeah. The wardrobe person comes in and I go, “Hey, get out of the trailer. I don’t need anything.” They’re sweet when I need something, like an extra pair of black socks. Or if my underwear is white by mistake, I’d have to change and put on black underwear. They understand that I’m fragile.

Another key role to the “Richard Lewis look” is your incredible hair. Even to this day at 76, it still looks great.

Well, it’s getting higher and higher. It’s trying to find the middle ground. But I had good hair. In the 80’s, I was legendary. It looked like I had a pound cake on my head. I looked like a roadie for Foreigner.

Lewis performing on The Tonight Show, 1977.NBC/Getty Images.

Would you use any product?

No, now it just falls into place. I just hope it falls into place rather than falling out. I was at a party once and Rod Stewart was there. Out of the blue, he says, “You know how my hair looks so great?” I went, “Rod, how does your hair look so great?” And he goes “Here’s the secret. I don’t shampoo my hair maybe more than once a week!” I went, “That’s it? We were waiting for this?” “Yup. That’s it.” Dirty hair is the secret, according to Rod Stewart.

Did you know that this would be the last season of Curb? Was there talk of it beforehand?

Well, there were rumblings. There was behind-the-scenes gossip that “Larry sort of feels that this would be it.” I never asked him from year one if he’s coming back. The truth is he never knows. He has the luxury of being able to tell HBO, “I’m not sure. I’ll tell you in a couple of months.” And they’ll say, “Fine.” They’ll just put him on hold until he says yes or no. I don’t know what his plans are after it wraps.

It's been about five years since you last did stand-up onstage. Do you still find yourself getting ideas for things or wishing you could do it again?

On my last tour, I knew it was my last. It was the best I’ve ever been onstage. I said, “This is it. Fifty years. I’m exhausted.” I did about six cities. People showed me how much they care about my work. And I would never go on again. Not to mention, my body’s been beaten up by four surgeries.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a couple of years ago. So far so good. I’m going to PT three times a week, but it sucks. It’s another progressive disease that I’m fighting, and I’ll do the best I can. I certainly wouldn’t go on the road. Doing physical training for four surgeries and Parkinson’s, you don’t want to be doing radio at 9 for PR for gigs near the equator.

You hadn’t gone public with your diagnosis yet when you were shooting Curb last year. How aware was everyone ahead of time?

Larry knew, and I’m sure Jeff Schaffer and other executive producers knew. I’ve got to tell you how he took care of me this year. The cast and a crew—just as I’m diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease—made sure that everything was right for me on the set. They assigned a third AD to me [to clear the path]. “Richard is coming!” Everybody was so lovely on the set. It was all really heartwarming.

You’re someone who has always been so vocal onstage about your struggles. What made you decide to go public on Twitter with the diagnosis when you did?

I decided that I couldn’t stay in the closet with this. And I thought for what it’s worth, I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic in recovery almost 30 years. That helped some people. Maybe I could go public on this and they’ll say, “Gee, I didn’t know Lewis had this!” And maybe it’ll give them some encouragement.

I’m hopeful that this doesn’t define me. I’m a recovered drunk who happens to have Parkinson’s, but I’m a comedian and an actor and an author and a writer. So I just own it and I wear it that way. Of course when I finish this interview, I’ll break down and cry and start screaming. But why show you everything?

At this point, how much is Parkinson’s affecting your ability to go out and do things?

I went out to dinner with Larry and one of his daughters. We go to this Italian restaurant. It looked like a scene out of Curb. I wasn’t thinking about Parkinson’s. I was thinking about how much fun we were having. I excuse myself to the bathroom. I walk down this little thin restaurant path. I get in there, I do what I have to do. And as I walk out, I freeze. I think it was the anxiety of seeing how far my table was. And the longer I stood there, it looked like I was waiting to take selfies with people. So I got a busboy to get my wife and she came and walked me down to the table. We paid the check and we left.

I said to Larry, “We’ve got to do this again.” We did, but it was two months later. I wasn’t that excited about going out to dinner after that for a while. That’s not what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to go fight this disease, because the disease wants you to give up. It wants you to get lazy, not exercise, not go out, to lie in bed, put on the television, try to read. It’s out to get you unless you fight back.

Lewis and Elaine Boosler at Radio City Music Hall.Robin Platzer/Getty Images.

I want to take it back to the beginning of your career. You’re starting out in comedy in the 1970s. I’m always so amazed at what a small tight-knit group it was. Do you ever reflect on those days?

I think about it a lot. I always tell comics, “Hang out with people on your level and those just above you.” You’ve got to see the craft that’s good, and you have to be able to feel less alone if you’re with a group of people that are still trudging along to try to find a way onstage. I hung out with comics who were successful and my friends—Elayne Boosler, Larry David, Jimmie Walker, Michael Preminger, David Brenner, and Steve Landesberg. Those six people, we really cared about each other’s sets. We’d go to the club and listen to the sets. We didn’t think twice about going, “Hey, you know, instead of that joke, what about this?”

Rodney [Dangerfield] was like an amazing great uncle to me. Phyllis [Diller] was like the mother I never had who loved my work, saw my shows, called me. My wife and I would go to her house often, and she’d take me out to dinner. The last ten years of his life, I would drive to Jonathan Winters’ house in Montecito, take him out to lunch at the Biltmore at the time, and it was heaven. I’m with one of my childhood idols. Like, “Oh my god. I’m with Jonathan Winters!” His brain was Picasso in stand-up.

Getting “passed” at a club is a major victory for any comic. What was it like for you?

Budd Friedman walked onstage after I auditioned at the Improvisation, which meant you could go up any night of the week and work. He put his arm around me, and he says, “I think we found the all-star of 1971.” And that was a big deal.

You’ve been in show business for 50 years, but you still seem to have this disbelief that you’re part of this world. Is that fair to say?

Some people will think it’s false humility, but it’s not. Look, my upbringing wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for me. My father was never home, [then] died young. My mother emotionally had a lot of problems—I guess like her son. This is just me playing shrink. I’ve gone to enough of them. She had such low self-esteem that she overcompensated with trying to be funny. She became an actress, but not professionally. My father was like the Lenny Bruce of caterers. I think my mother, by comparison, felt like there was nothing going on for her as a person. I think she was very threatened ultimately when she got into her 30’s and 40’s about my father’s fame, basically. And consequently, with me.

I was doing Carnegie Hall in 1989. The week before, I played a theater in my hometown. I wanted to go over as much new stuff as I could before Carnegie Hall. She comes to the venue about an hour before. She stood in the lobby and introduced herself to about a thousand people, saying, “I’m his mother.” So when I got onstage—not knowing this—I would have these crazy images. Whatever I would say–let’s say I said, “My father had four ears and two penises and he lost his ear in a blender”—my mother would shout out, “Oh, your father never lost an ear in a blender.” She was debating my stand-up.

I called her and I said, “Mother, you’ve been acting for the last couple years. You’re doing very well. But I’m doing Carnegie Hall, the biggest night of my career as a stand-up, and I can’t have you there. As a Method actor—and you know a little bit about this—I would feel the vibes of you there. And let’s face it, you don’t understand me, you’re outspoken about it, and I don’t want you there.” And she started to tease me: “Oh, I’ll be there. I’ll wear a disguise.” I said, “No, I don’t want you there.” So she didn’t come. It saddens me that I had to go to that extreme to ask my mother not to come.

Before she died in the hospital, I held her hand and I said, “I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m sorry. If you’re sorry, squeeze my hand and hold it tight.” And she squeezed it. I’m convinced that she was just not trying to sabotage my career, but she felt so unworthy and so insecure after living with a husband that was so well-known, and then with a well-known son, that she just tried to be famous herself. But her fame was trampling on mine.

I felt that I was very fortunate to have the tenacity and the fortune to get into the world of the arts and to make a mark in it. In print, that would sound egotistical. But remember where I was coming from and knowing how hard the business is generally speaking for comedians – you have to make your own break and if you get a break, you better score or you’re out, man. And I did.

Because I had to overcome so much negativity, I think the Prince of Pain was an apt phrase. Because I was always working from pain. Emotional pain.

Lewis and David arrive at the Paramount Theater in 2009 for the premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm.FilmMagic/Getty Images.

You wrote an amazing memoir about overcoming addiction, The Other Great Depression. Have you thought about writing about what you’ve been through during the last four years with the surgeries and Parkinson’s?

It has crossed my mind. I remember shooting an episode this season—I was in a golf cart with Larry. He said, “You have a story to tell.” And he’s right. I have a story to tell. I’ve tried to enter into the world of writing again, in terms of non-fiction. But I wasn’t ready emotionally to fully go back into the beginnings of Parkinson’s and before and after and now. But the book would be something I think would be most valuable.

I think what’s in my future is speaking engagements, where at least I can be live and feel the rush of an audience and share being humorous and being funny. I haven’t lost my funny bone. To be a drug addict and an alcoholic with Parkinson’s, I’m teed up to be as funny as I possibly can to get over that. I think I can do it. To get laughs with that would be really rewarding for me and really inspiring for other people.

Do you think you’ll want to do more acting?

It would depend on what the role is. People would have to know that I’m not going to be doing a war film. “Go to the trenches!!” If Larry David directs me, I’m in great shape. Or if some other director who's been a fan of mine for 45-plus years says, “No, no. You’ll be fine. We’ll take care of you. We know you can nail this role.” I intend to do some more acting. It has to just be the right situation.

You’ve always been so open. Has Parkinson’s changed your overall outlook at all?

It changed my outlook in that it’s been a combination of forcing myself to look back and be grateful. I’ve had such an amazing life. I still do. I’m a lucky man. I got in touch with more gratitude and also acceptance. It’s imperative that I accept the fact that I have Parkinson’s. If you don’t accept it, then it lingers around your brain and you get morbid and depressed. You lose energy.

I always used to be like a Duracell comic. Running around onstage. I was just all over the place, but in a good way. Now I have to slow down physically. I’m trying to connect up my physical qualities—or lack thereof—with my brain. It’s really a dopamine problem, too. So I take meds—typical ones for dopamine. I’ve got to make sure I do it at the right time every day. And as long as I keep my dopamine level up, and keep my gratitude and acceptance in place, I’ll weather this storm for the rest of my days.