Alas, Poor Richard!

updated 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/16/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOR ONCE IN HIS ANXIETY-RIDDEN LIFE, Richard Lewis ought to be happy. A stand-up comic who dresses in black—his favorite color—and whose trademark gesture is to put his hands to his temples as he woefully catalogs his hypochondria ("When I was a kid, I used to take M&Ms one at a time with water"), his various other neuroses and his troubles with women, Lewis, 46, currently has his angst working double-time—and quite profitably. As the nebbishy Prince John in Mel Brooks's Sherwood Forest send-up, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, he gets dissed by the Merry Men. This fall, two seasons after his last sitcom, the critically acclaimed yet low-rated Anything but Love, bit the dust, Lewis is bouncing back with a new FOX show, Daddy Dearest. He plays the divorced son—and roommate—of newly separated insultmeister Don Rickles.

So committed is Lewis to acting that he has put his 15-gig-per-month stand-up act on hold. That, he says, has reduced a lot of the stress in his life. Result: Lewis, a longtime psychiatrist's couch potato, has even cut back his therapy sessions. "I'll always go in for tune-ups, though," Lewis warns. "My therapist offers a 50,000-problem guarantee."

Nevertheless, says Gail Miller, a freelance journalist and close friend who met Lewis in group therapy some 20 years ago in New York City, "he really is, at this moment, a very happy man. The only thing he doesn't have," she adds, "is a wife and family."

That is readily apparent as he conducts a frenzied tour of his Hollywood Hills bachelor pad, with two of its three bedrooms converted into offices. The place, which Lewis bought three years ago after "living like a gypsy," he says, is overflowing with kitsch: A backlit 3-D picture of Dean Martin and Jem Lewis sits on a shelf; a four-foot inflatable doll modeled on the nightmarish figure in Edvard Munch's painting The Scream peers from behind a shower door; and a wooden clog, its head bobbing eerily, guards the living room. "If I have it, I want to see it," explains the eclectic collector.

What Lewis doesn't have—but would like to, he says—is "a nurturing relationship" with a marriageable woman. But, he confesses, "I don't know if I'm even capable of having one." He mostly dates actresses but eventually breaks up with them, he says, "because most don't get work, and just to go through that torment vicariously is debilitating."

It's a curious rationale, considering Lewis's past. In the late '70s he embarked on what he calls a wonderful relationship with the then-better-known Nina Van Pallandt, a Danish-born singer and actress 15 years his senior whose claim to fame was her liaison with Clifford Irving, the Howard Hughes biographer-hoaxer. Lewis admits, "Nina might have been the one for me." They split up, though, because, he says, he wasn't ready to help raise her two daughters and a son from a previous marriage. Now, Lewis says, "I feel happier that I've accomplished certain things in my life, so I haw more time for children."

Lewis himself is the youngest of three children of Bill Lewis, an Englewood, N.J., caterer, and his wife, Blanche. To his classmates at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, Richard was the class clown. Even after graduating from Ohio State with a marketing degree in 1969 and returning to New Jersey to work as a copywriter, Lewis couldn't resist slipping jokes into his ads. Nor, when he jumped into stand-up full-time in 1971, could he keep his family out of his act—especially his mother (now a regional-theater actress), with whom he remains close. That same year, his father died, and Lewis entered analysis. "He was always intense in therapy and onstage," recalls Miller. "The more he talked about his family in his act, the more response he got."

Now that he has arrived professionally, it may be time to work on the personal front. Lewis admits that he still may not have all the tools for real-life parenthood. One day his manager, Howard Klein, dropped by Lewis's house. In tow was Klein's 18 month-old daughter. Jordan. And the only toy Lewis had for Jordan to play with was...his electronic pulse monitor. "I have to run out and buy more medical supplies for my other friends' children," says Lewis. "Maybe some therapist Uncle Richard dolls with couches. Then maybe they'll learn how to take care of me when I'm old."

ROB MEDICH
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Hollywood

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