Richard Lewis Was the Conscience of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

Richard Lewis, who died Feb

Published Time: 29.02.2024 - 02:31:20 Modified Time: 29.02.2024 - 02:31:20

Richard Lewis, who died Feb. 27 at 76, had a long career as a comic, but has lately been particularly well-known as a part of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — something close to its heart.

On “Curb,” Lewis’ frequent appearances needled star and protagonist Larry David in a manner no one else in the ensemble quite could. Playing a version of himself, just as David does, Lewis was perhaps David’s most sophisticated sparring partner, presenting to the curmudgeonly star of the show points-of-view he couldn’t just dismiss with an expletive (try though he might). The rest of the cast, from foul-mouthed Susie (Susie Essman) to hazy idealist Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), end up in head-on collisions with Larry. Lewis approached his character with an observational comic’s twisted but methodical logic, and a willingness to go anywhere to find the joke. In this, he became an important comic foil for a show whose star exerts a powerful gravitational field.

Lewis is a part of the show’s DNA, appearing in its very first episode — in which Larry’s antics jeopardize a nascent relationship to which Richard has attached a great deal of significance. Over the course of “Curb’s” run, Richard cut a similar figure to “Seinfeld’s” Jerry, running through a series of girlfriends — but the crucial difference to Jerry was Richard’s sentimentality. He was the show’s true romantic, and saw in the perpetual romantic saboteur Larry the inevitable and constant agent of his own heartbreak.

It was this particular distaste for Larry that added a new color to the show’s palette. Susie could curse him out over social slights and Cheryl could grumble over ways he’d made her lose face, but Richard felt Larry’s tactical social ineptitude more deeply. These were characters with a history, one that found its voice in the fact of their addressing diametrically opposed social worldviews in precisely the same comic tone.

The question of what Richard and Larry owe one another haunts the series, not merely because Larry is the kind of friend who takes and takes and takes. Midway through the show’s run, Richard needs a kidney transplant, and Larry donates his own — perhaps his most unambiguous act of altr -

uism, albeit one done under social pressure and with a half-season’s worth of grumbling.

In manner, Richard presented a sort of photo-negative of Larry: Perpetually clad in New Yorker-in-exile black to Larry’s sunny leisurewear, outwardly sour to Larry’s geniality-with-teeth, brutally neurotic while Larry was perpetually assured of his own correctness. And the performance represented a sort of clever excavation of a certain personality type — Richard’s addiction to falling in love came with a certain lecherousness, an ogling quality that suggested an avarice beneath the idealistic shell. (Lewis made no secret of his own real-life struggles with substance addiction.) But there was one thing Richard was not: cynical. All the other non-Larry characters on “Curb” object to his behavior, in the main, because Larry behaves in a way that is simply not done in polite society: He’s breaking the rules. Richard suggests that Larry’s willingness to toss aside manners and common sense can, also, be a betrayal of friendship. Including him is a daring thing, and is one of many reasons that the show Lewis was a part of for 24 years will be remembered as one of the greats.

Ailing in recent years — with an announcement last year of his Parkinson’s diagnosis — Lewis appears in the current, final season of “Curb.” On a recent episode, he tells Larry that he has made a big decision: He’s written Larry into his will. Larry’s disgust is palpable: It’s a ploy, he argues, a maneuver to ensure that Richard will stand to inherit Larry’s own estate, should Larry succumb to implied social pressure and rewrite his own will to benefit Richard. The pair, interrupting their golf game to have it out, rage at each other. But David, as a performer, seems to find a joy in the cut and thrust of fighting he hasn’t always had in the show’s later seasons. And behind his dark glasses, Lewis’ eyes are twinkling.

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