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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jerry Lewis wanted a word with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who were at work on a television movie about Lewis' early, ill-fated partnership with Dean Martin.

``Neil and I put off calling for weeks because we thought, `We don't want to get screamed at,''' recalled Zadan. ``We thought he'd blast us.''

Turned out they were unduly concerned about Lewis, who had gotten hold of a copy of the script for ``Martin and Lewis'' (airing 9 p.m. EST Sunday on CBS).

``He loved it. He was incredibly emotional,'' said Meron. ``To have that happen, what better validation is there?''

The producers and CBS could find further assurance in solid ratings for the two-hour movie that stars Sean Hayes of ``Will & Grace'' as Lewis and British actor Jeremy Northam (``Enigma,'' ``Emma'') as Martin.

Will viewers, especially younger ones, respond to the lushly produced story of the suave pop singer and manic comedian who achieved success in the 1940s and '50s as an unlikely nightclub and movie act?

Yes, say Zadan and Meron. They argue that Martin, who died in 1995 at age 78, and Lewis, still going strong at 76 with his Labor Day telethon, each have their own contemporary cachet.

Frank Sinatra's fabled ``rat pack'' of buddies, including Martin, has become a retro symbol of cool for new generations, the producers said.

``There's a cognizance of who he was, his songs and that style that Dean represents,'' Zadan said of the crooner whose ``Everybody Needs Somebody'' was one of the few non-rock hits in 1964.

When it comes to Lewis, promotional spots for the movie have touted his influence on today's most popular comic actors, including Jim Carrey and Robin Williams.

The producers say they would throw in Adam Sandler and Hayes himself, who was their first and only pick to play Lewis, a role that combines the broad comedy of his ``Will & Grace'' character, Jack, with wrenching drama.

``We always thought if he played this role it would open up the door and people would see him as an actor and not just as Jack,'' said Zadan. ``Also, who that age could play Lewis, could do physical comedy? We almost felt as if Sean didn't do it, we couldn't do the movie.''

Hayes was immediately enthusiastic about playing a well-known figure.

``It scared me half to death,'' he said. ``But as an actor it's always interesting to figure out where a character is coming from.''

To prepare, Hayes watched ``hours and hours and hours'' of Martin and Lewis' appearances on ``The Colgate Comedy Hour'' variety series and several of their films (there were more than a dozen, starting with ``My Friend Irma'' in 1949 and ending with ``Hollywood or Bust'' in 1956).

``In doing so, I got even more scared ... just because most of the comedy is improvisation. So my problem was how to recreate the spontaneity and the improvisation that rolls off of Jerry Lewis,'' he said.

Northam's casting as Martin seems a less obvious choice. A critically lauded dramatic actor, he's best known to American audiences for period movies including ``Possession'' and ``Gosford Park.''

``Who knew?'' said Meron. ``He had to show us, basically. He kindly agreed to come in and do a work session with Sean, which is different than an audition. ... In order for a movie like this to be any kind of a success, it all depends on the chemistry between the two actors.''

He added the chemistry was ``instantaneous.''

Northam, who calls himself ``perennially frustrated'' by the pigeonholing of actors, was glad for the chance to go afield playing a modern American celebrity.

He worked to match his voice to Martin's deep, distinctive drawl, especially since the singer's recordings are used throughout the film.

Northam had shown his musical talent in ``Gosford Park,'' in which he portrayed British entertainer Ivor Novello, but the producers felt Martin's voice was too familiar to try to duplicate.

``Part of me hoped I'd be able to do the singing, too _ not that I fancy myself being able to do a good impersonation of Dean singing,'' Northam said by telephone from his home outside London. (So he lip-synched Martin's songs.)

Zadan and Meron, who are well-versed in the Hollywood biopic _ they produced the Emmy-winning ``Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows'' _ say they've stretched the genre's boundaries with the CBS film.

``This is not the Dean Martin story, this is not the Jerry Lewis story. This is a story about a 10-year relationship, a friendship,'' Zadan said.

The pair split because an insecure Lewis tried to lean on Martin as a big brother but found the singer unwilling to give him emotional support, according to the film.

Writer-director John Gray extensively researched the duo's rise and fall. A scene in which a frustrated Lewis sabotages the act by embarrassing Martin on-camera recreates a final ``Colgate Comedy Hour'' appearance, the producers said.

Meron pointed out they went on to separate success in film and television, adding: ``If they had never met, they probably would have disappeared. But I think it was that energy between them that allowed them to have great individual careers.''


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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber``at``ap.org