He is best known for his roles as Inspector Cyril “Blakey” Blake in the LWT sitcom On the Buses, Clem “Smiler” Hemmingway in Last of the Summer Wine, and Harry Lambert in BBC Television’s Oh, Doctor Beeching!.
Lewis made his West End debut with the transfer of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage in 1958.
In 1960 he wrote Sparrers Can’t Sing with the Theatre Workshop, which was made into the film Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963), starring Barbara Windsor, Roy Kinnear and Lewis himself.
He used the name Cato in his early stage career, but after writing Sparrers Can’t Sing, he was urged by his agent to use his real name.
From 1969 Lewis starred in his best remembered role as Blakey in the British sitcom On the Buses, which ran for 74 episodes and spawned three films: On the Buses (1971), Mutiny on the Buses (1972), and Holiday on the Buses (1973).
He co-wrote 12 episodes with fellow star Bob Grant. Lewis was made up to look much older than his actual age, being only 42 when the programme began.
A spin-off series, Don’t Drink the Water 1974-1975, ran for two series. This featured Blakey retiring to Spain with his sister, Dorothy.
In the 1990s, Blakey (or a very similar-looking character) appeared regularly on Jim Davidson’s version of The Generation Game on BBC One. He also appeared in Manhunt in a rare villainous role.
His other films include A Prize of Arms (1962), Negatives (1968), Staircase (1969) with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, Some Will, Some Won’t (1969), The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), Personal Services (1987), and The Krays (1990).
He also appeared in two British sex comedies, Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1975) and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (1978). In 1988, he took on one of his longest-running roles, playing the ironically-named “Smiler” Hemingway in the BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. The character recurred in occasional episodes for 17 years before ill health forced Lewis to leave the series in 2007.
In 1995, Lewis played Harry Lambert, the signalman in the BBC pilot of sitcom Oh, Doctor Beeching!, which ran to two further series.
Lewis also appeared as a guest in sitcoms such as One Foot in the Grave, 2point4 Children and Father, Dear Father. He also played the character of Alf, a comedy writer, in the second series of The All New Alexei Sayle Show 1995.