Our story begins in November of 1950, when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were making one of their appearances on the popular weekly variety show The Colgate Comedy Hour. At the end of one of their comedy sketches on the show, a 16-year-old kid named Sammy Petrillo made an appearance as a baby Jerry Lewis, in a crib. Sammy was paid "around $600" for the gig -easy money- he had no lines. A few weeks later, Sammy made another guest appearance as a Jerry Lewis clone on Eddie Cantor's Colgate Comedy Hour turn (the show featured rotating guest hosts).
Actually, our story began 16 years earlier, when Sammy Petrillo was born in the Bronx, in 1934. Like Jerry Lewis, Sammy was born into a show business family. And also like Jerry, Sammy began performing at a very early age and would sometimes join his father onstage when he was performing in the Catskills.
Already bitten by the show biz bug, as a teenager, Sammy enrolled in the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. The turning point of Sammy Petrillo's life occurred one innocent day- when he was getting a haircut.
Sammy: “One day I went down to the Annex at the High School of Performing Arts. The Annex was a trade school and they had people who were learning how to cut hair. And so I got a freebie haircut and the guy cut my hair and he started to laugh. And I said, 'Whatta ya laughing at?' and he said, 'You look just like that Jerry Lewis!' And I said, 'Get outta here!' And everywhere I walked, people laughed and asked me if I was Jerry Lewis, it was unbelievable. And Jerry Lewis at the time, I guess, had made his second motion picture, My Friend Irma Goes West. I really didn't know that much about him. I kinda caught some glimpses of the movie and I saw he went, 'Ack! Ack! Ack!' And he talked kinda high... And I said, 'Gee, maybe I do resemble that guy and I can do that kind of a laugh, I could do that kind of a voice."
Sammy's father became his manager. After the 16-year-old Sammy's two Colgate Comedy Hour appearances, his dad somehow inveigled a meeting with comedian Milton Berle. Berle arranged for Sammy to meet Jerry Lewis personally at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York. Regarding the meeting, according to Sammy, "Jerry said a couple of derogatory things to me." He recalled Jerry saying, "'Don't sign any checks and tell people you're Jerry Lewis.' He wasn't being funny, he was being serious," added Sammy.
But Jerry arranged for Sammy to sign a contract with his agency, MCA. Although initially excited, Sammy soon realized that Jerry had his agents put him under contract and were "keeping me on the shelf because he doesn't want me working." Sammy's father got Sammy out of the MCA contract, but Jerry had already put the word out on Sammy.
When Sammy was hired to do work on The Colgate Comedy Hour with hosts Abbott and Costello, he was in rehearsals when he noticed one of Jerry's cronies spotting him. Sammy's suspicions were confirmed when he saw Lou Costello taking a phone call and approaching him. "I'm sorry, but you're off the show, you can't appear," Lou informed him, "But I can still pay you."
Jerry had, indeed, blackballed the teenager, but Sammy wouldn't be working as a single much longer. It was comedian Joe E. Ross who came up with the idea of teaming up Sammy (a Jerry Lewis lookalike) with a suave straight man/singer named Duke Mitchell (a Dean Martin lookalike)
It was the early '50's, and Martin and Lewis were the hottest act in show business, drawing record crowds with their nightclub act and movies and garnering huge rating every time they appeared on TV. According to comedian Dick Martin, at the time, because of Dean and Jerry's success, "Everyone (every comedy team) was doing a 'Martin and Lewis.' One guy would sing and the little guy would jump around." But the most successful and legendary ersatz Martin and Lewis had now officially been formed.
The comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo played at various clubs in the L.A. area and in Las Vegas. A man named Maurice Duke took the reins and managed Mitchell and Petrillo. It was Maurice Duke who got Realart Studios co-owner Jack Broder and his assistant, Herman Cohen, to see Mitchell and Petrillo perform their nightclub act in Culver City. After seeing their act, Broder thought the team "hilarious," while, in Cohen's opinion, "They stunk." But the die was cast and a movie starring Mitchell and Petrillo was soon in the works.
Written by Tm Ryan, the film's original title was White Women of the Lost Jungle. But Jack Broder had seen a recent interview with Bela Lugosi, where Bela had said that he'd like to do more comedy. A brainstorm hit Broder and he signed the once-great star of Dracula on to play the boys' foil. At the time, Bela Lugosi was fairly down-and-out and was addicted to morphine.
Assistant producer Cohen decided that since they had the legendary Lugosi under contract it would be foolish not to exploit his name and the title was soon changed to the catchier Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. The gorilla title was actually thought up by Jack Broder's 10-year-old son.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla was filmed at Hollywood's General Service Studios (now the Hollywood Center Studios). The film was directed by legendary schlock director William "One Shot" Beaudine. He was given the nickname because of his propensity for filming only one take of any scene he directed, no matter how good or bad.
Filmed on a budget of $50,000 or thereabouts ($12,000 according to one source) production on the film was completed in six days (or nine days, depending on which source you wish to believe). According to all sources, Bela Lugosi was very nice and easygoing during filming, although he continually called Sammy "Jerry."
Besides Duke and Sammy, and the world-famous Lugosi, the film featured a cast of unknowns including Charita as Nona, Murial Landers as Saloma, Al Kikume as Chief Rakos, and lest we forget, Milton Newburger as Bongo the Witch Doctor. Actually, the film did feature one other genuine celebrity besides Bela Lugosi. The role of Ramona the chimp was played by "the" cheetah of Tarzan movies fame.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla premiered in New York on September 4, 1952 (the film went national on October 8, 1952). The film was also released under the title The Boys from Brooklyn.
When Dean Martin had originally heard about Mitchell and Petrillo, he took his usual light-hearted, easygoing approach and said, "Let 'em make a buck." But the volatile Jerry decided to attack- with a vengeance.
Jerry knew Jack Broder from the Beverly Hills Friars Club. Jerry stormed into Broder's office one day. The two got into a screaming match and Jerry stormed out shouting obscenities.
Hal Wallis, the Paramount Studios producer of the Martin and Lewis films, also knew Broder from the Friars Club. According to Herman Cohen, Broder had a meeting with Wallace to sell him the negatives of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla so he could have the movie destroyed. Wallis and Broder could not come to terms, but the two never spoke again.
Gary Lewis, Jerry's son, recalled the effect of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla slightly differently. According to Gary, "When Sammy and that other guy played in that gorilla movie, I remember my dad and Dean saying, 'We gotta sue these guys- this is no good.'" Whatever Dean's actual intentions, Jerry Lewis did eventually sue Sammy Petrillo for plagiarizing his act. The lawsuit was later dropped.
Mitchell and Petrillo actually got some "grade A" bookings at nightclubs across America, including the Copacabana and the Paramount Theater (both of which frequently featured Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). The two were no Martin and Lewis (obviously) but they had a cute, rather enjoyable little act, where Duke would sing and Sammy would clown around and the two would do various impersonations. Then, at the act's conclusion, they would inform the crowd they were going to now impersonate Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis- and Duke would imitate Jerry Lewis and Sammy would do Dean Martin, much to the crowd's surprise and laughter.
But Jerry Lewis soon threatened to boycott any club that hired the doppelgänger team and Mitchell and Petrillo soon ran out of steam, disbanding in 1954. Duke and Sammy re-teamed the following year, but after the high profile break-up of the real Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1956, Mitchell and Petrillo seemed irrelevant and passé. Like Dean and Jerry, Duke and Sammy began working again as singles, albeit never with the same degree of success.
Reputedly, many years later, Sammy Petrillo tried to go to a Jerry Lewis concert and Jerry refused to allow him to attend. In 1991, when Jerry was scheduled to make an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, the show's producers called Sammy and asked him to be a surprise guest. Sammy declined.
Duke Mitchell died in 1981. Sammy Petrillo, the world's most famous Jerry Lewis impersonator, died in 2009.
When Martin Landau was hired to play Bela Lugosi in the 1994 film Ed Wood, he watched Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla three times in order to prepare himself for the role. According to Landau, the film was so bad, "it makes Ed Wood's films look like Gone With The Wind.
Famed movie critic Leonard Maltin lists Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, facetiously, in his annual movie guide as "an all-time great."
The original plan, when Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo signed their contract with Realart Studios to star in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, was to make a series of Mitchell and Petrillo movies, in the mold of Martin and Lewis. But alas, the box office failure of the film ended any such hopes and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla remains the only record we have on film of Duke and Sammy working together.
After the film was released, Jerry Lewis had a personal screening of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla arranged. While watching, Jerry was fairly silent, until near the end in the film, where Sammy Petrillo is shot. According to another viewer present at the screening, when he saw the scene, Jerry Loudly said, "Thank God!"