Hollywood restaurateur and actor Harry Lewis passed away of natural causes on June 9, and last weekend, he received a proper send-off from friends and family at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Lewis’ son, Adam, said the only way the event at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater could have been any better was if his father could have sat in the first row and witnessed first-hand the outpouring of love.
“It went just beautifully,” he said.
Harry Lewis, who died at the age of 93, appeared in numerous films and TV shows in an acting career that spanned four decades, beginning in 1941. He was also well known for founding Hamburger Hamlet with his wife, Marilyn.
A Los Angeles native, Harry Lewis graduated from Hollywood High School in 1938 and joined the Army before getting his first acting gig. Adam Lewis said his father was “basically” discovered by Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar, who helped him land a role in a stage play, “Winged Victory”, that aimed to boost the morale of troops in various cities.
In 1941, Harry Lewis signed a contract with Warner Bros., which turned “Winged Victory” into a film in 1944. After signing with the company, he would perform in “Always in My Heart”, “Busses Roar”, “The Last Ride”, “The Unsuspected”, “Key Largo”, “Joe Palooka in the Counterpunch”, “Bomba on Panther Island”, “Gun Crazy”, “Blonde Dynamite” and others.
When asked what his father’s most notable role was, Adam Lewis didn’t hesitate: Edward “Toots” Bass in “Key Largo”. The film starred Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor, among others. Bacall is the only surviving cast member, Adam Lewis said.
“It was an amazing role, an amazing cast,” he said.
Adam Lewis said his father began the transition into restaurants when the studio system fell apart during the blacklist era. While Harry Lewis wasn’t blacklisted, he was indirectly impacted, his son said.
“The contracts went away, and the studios were trying to save money,” Adam Lewis said.
In 1949, Harry Lewis met Marilyn while doing a stage play. After seeing her several times, he finally inquired as to how a person could go about reaching her. She said something to the effect of, “You put your finger on the dial and call.”
“And that’s how it happened,” Adam Lewis said.
On their first date, Marilyn asked Harry Lewis what he wanted to do with his life. He told her that he wanted to open a restaurant that would cater to his acting friends, and if they couldn’t pay their bill, “God bless them, let’s help them out.” That night, they began scouting possible locations.
They named the restaurant Hamburger Hamlet — after Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a role that every actor wanted to play — and opened it at Sunset Boulevard and Hilldale Avenue. The couple got married later that year.
Within seven years, the family moved to Beverly Hills and built the restaurant business up to 24 locations. Celebrities frequented the businesses, which served an array of items that some people still discuss today, such as the hamburgers, lobster bisque and onion soup fondue.
“It wasn’t just about burgers,” Adam Lewis said. “And whatever they did, it was a trend-setter.”
The family sold the chain in 1987, and essentially swapped the business for another, Kate Mantilini Restaurant. Adam Lewis said his father was tired, and was ready to be relieved of running the chain. But Harry Lewis inevitably regretted parting ways in the business that he and Marilyn started from the ground up.
“He was heartbroken after he sold it,” Adam Lewis said.
However, the family had success at Kate’s, which still operates at 9101 Wilshire Blvd. Adam Lewis and his brother, David, operate the restaurant, using skills their parents taught them.
“I think the thing about Kate’s is they taught us how to run a successful restaurant. We didn’t change anything,” Adam Lewis said, adding that people thank him for keeping the restaurant as good as it was when his parents ran it.
Even when Harry Lewis was confined to a wheelchair later in life, he still greeted customers, still said hello, his son said.
Adam Lewis said his father has been described as being “kind, loving and gracious,” which sounds “one-dimensional.”
“But that’s how he was,” he said, adding that his father was a good man, and knew thousands of people. “That’s why it was a really big deal when he died.”
During the event last weekend, Marilyn Lewis read some of the Shakespeare-like prose from the back of the Hamburger Hamlet menu, and she alternated stanzas with Adam. That, along with a 20-minute tribute to his father’s film career, was a “delight,” Adam Lewis said. Many family members also spoke, including cousin Diane Merrick, who Harry Lewis helped raise as if she was his daughter.
“It was just pretty wonderful,” Adam Lewis said.
The actor and restaurateur was laid to rest in the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary in June. To view the video tribute to Harry Lewis, visit www.katemantilinirestaurant.com.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.