Latest: Richard Lewis, Acerbic Comedian and Character Actor, Dies at 76

Richard Lewis, the stand-up comedian who first achieved fame in the 1970s and ’80s with his trademark acerbic, dark sense of humor, and who later parlayed that quality into an acting career that included movies like “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” and a recurring role as himself on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 76.

His publicist, Jeff Abraham, said the cause was a heart attack. Mr. Lewis announced last year that he had Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Lewis was among the best-known names in a generation of comedians who came of age during the 1970s and ’80s, marked by a world-weary, sarcastic wit that mapped well onto the urban malaise in which many of them plied their trade.

After finding success as a comedian in New York nightclubs, he became a regular on late-night talk shows, favored as much for his tight routine as for his casual, open affability as an interviewee. He appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” 48 times.

And he was at the forefront of the boom in stand-up comedy that came with the expansion of cable television in the late 1980s.

Neurotic and self-deprecating, typically dressed all in black, Mr. Lewis paced the stages of comedy clubs, hanging his head, pulling at his shock of black hair, riffing on his struggles in life and love. He called himself the “Prince of Pain,” and so did his legions of fans.

The titles of his many comedy specials from the 1980s tell it all: “I’m in Pain,” “I’m Exhausted,” “I’m Doomed.”

He built some of his anecdotal bits around the idea of the worst possible version of an everyday figure: the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell. In 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations honored him with an entry for “the ______ from hell,” credited to him.

He came by his art naturally — there was no faking his misery — but also through astute attention to the anxiety-inducing and neurosis-triggering details of everyday life.

“I’m such a madman — I’m so obsessed about the show, but that’s who I am,” he told The New York Observer in 2007. “I’m just so wired by my time onstage, my head is filled with images. It’s terrifying, but it’s also exhilarating. I’ll never not work like this.”

But it wasn’t an act. Part of Mr. Lewis’s appeal was his willingness to poke into his own wounds, drawing on his unhappy childhood, his unhappy dating life and his everyday bouts of gaping self-doubt.

If it caused him pain to be so open — and it clearly did — it also fueled his success. He was among the best-known stand-up comedians of the late 1980s. He played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1989, receiving two standing ovations for two and a half hours of material.

“He didn’t assume a character when he walked up onstage,” Billy Crystal, who came up with Mr. Lewis on the New York comedy scene in the 1970s, said in an interview on Wednesday. “He just kind of dragged himself up there. It was refreshing. Sometimes you could see audiences just want to say, ‘Slow down. It’s going to be OK.’”

Mr. Lewis soon moved into acting. He starred as Marty Gold on the sitcom “Anything but Love,” opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, from 1989 to 1992. The show won him critical and popular acclaim and seemed to signal a move to Hollywood stardom.

But his follow-up show, “Daddy Dearest,” on which he played the son of his fellow comic Don Rickles, was a bomb, and Mr. Lewis spent the next several years seeking out bit parts in movies and single-episode roles on TV.

He had a prominent role in Mel Brooks’s comedy “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” (1993), but otherwise he had to settle for small roles in films like “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995) and “Hugo Pool” (1997).

After two years of struggling to get acting roles, he returned to stand-up, traveling the country with his show “Richard Lewis: The Magical Misery Tour,” which was seen as an HBO special in 1996. It brought him new attention from a new generation of comedy fans, and a new shot at bit parts in television.

Many of his best TV roles were on shows that shared his dark-tinged, humorous take on the world, like the animated series “The Simpsons” and “BoJack Horseman.”

Mr. Lewis was open about his struggles with alcohol, drugs and depression. He became sober in the mid-1990s and wrote about his experience in his 2000 memoir, “The Other Great Depression: How I’m Overcoming, on a Daily Basis, at Least a Million Addictions and Dysfunctions and Finding a Spiritual (Sometimes) Life.”

He revised the book, with a new foreword, and republished it in 2008. He also wrote “Reflections From Hell: Richard Lewis’ Guide on How Not to Live” (2015).

Beginning in 1999, he had a regular role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as a good friend and golf buddy of Larry David, the show’s star and creator. He played a semi-fictionalized version of himself, a dour Eeyore who made Mr. David’s otherwise prickly self seem like Christopher Robin.

Mr. Lewis did not appear in every episode, but he appeared regularly, including in the current season, the show’s last.

Richard Philip Lewis was born on June 29, 1947, in Brooklyn, in the same hospital as his friend and future co-star, Mr. David, and just three days before him. His family soon moved to Englewood, N.J. His father, Bill Lewis, owned a kosher catering business, and his mother, Blanche (Goldberg) Lewis, acted in community theater, specializing in the Jewish mother characters in Neil Simon plays.

As Mr. Lewis often related in his stand-up act, his family life was troubled. His father was never home and died when Richard was still young. His mother was emotionally distant, with issues of her own.

“I owe my career to my mother,” he told The Washington Post in 2020. “I should have given her my agent’s commission.”

He attended the Ohio State University and, after graduating with a degree in marketing, returned to New Jersey. While trying his hand at comedy at night and writing material for other comedians on the side, he worked day jobs as an advertising copywriter and a clerk at a sporting goods store.

He was miserable. One day he was in a delicatessen with his friend and mentor, the comedian David Brenner, complaining about his lack of success — and his lack of sleep.

“He said, ‘What do you need to be a comic full time?’” Mr. Lewis told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1995. “I said a thousand dollars. He whipped out a check and gave it to me. I quit my job and I’ve never looked back.”

He made his stand-up debut in 1971, at a club in Greenwich Village, and could be seen for the next decade sharing billings with comics like Jay Leno, Richard Belzer, Elayne Boosler and Robert Klein.

He made his acting debut in 1979, starring in the made-for-TV movie “Diary of a Young Comic,” which appeared on NBC as a fill-in for “Saturday Night Live.”

As his career took off, Mr. Lewis moved to Los Angeles, though he returned to his hometown frequently.

“New York is my home turf — I have so many friends in Manhattan,” he told The New York Observer in 2007. “And, tragically, so many relatives.”

He lived alone in a sprawling house above the Sunset Strip and remained proudly averse to long-term relationships until he met Joyce Lapinsky, who worked in music publishing. They dated for several years before Mr. Lewis, considering marriage, brought her to his psychiatrist. “This is as good as it gets,” he often recalled the therapist saying.

They married in 2005. She survives him, along with his brother, Robert.

Mr. Lewis first met Mr. David when the two went to the same summer camp in upstate New York, though they didn’t get along. (“We hated each other,” Mr. Lewis told The Washington Post.)

They reconnected a decade later, when they were both struggling comics in New York. This time, their friendship stuck. When Mr. David, who helped create and write “Seinfeld,” decided to make a show built around his life, he asked Mr. Lewis to join him.

Mr. Lewis said yes, as long as it was a recurring role. He went on to appear in 41 episodes, introducing him to yet another cohort of fans.

“Because of ‘Curb,’ I’ve got three generations coming to my shows,” he said in a 2014 interview with the website Street Roots. “The demographic: There will be a 13-year-old and then there will be a guy on a gurney saying, ‘I wanted to see you before I die.’”

Mr. Lewis suffered a series of injuries in the late 2010s, requiring surgery on his back and his rotator cuff. He performed his last stand-up show in 2018 at Zanies in Chicago.

In 2023, after shooting the final season of “Curb,” he announced that he had Parkinson’s disease. In a video statement, he said he would continue to write and act for as long as he could.

“I’m hopeful that this doesn’t define me,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair published on Feb. 18. “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?”

Orlando Mayorquin, Alex Traub and Michael S. Rosenwald contributed reporting.

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