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Sensational Steve Martin

20 minute read
Richard Corliss

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 89th annual Academy Awards to honor the best films of 2017. I’m your host, Drew Barrymore, and I’m pleased to begin the evening by presenting the Irving G. Spielberg Award to a man who, some say, has long deserved an Oscar as best actor. Perhaps for his starring debut, in which he courageously demolished racial stereotypes by playing a poor black child ((clip from The Jerk)). Or for the holy rage he summoned as he renounced Kathleen Turner with a ferocious “Into the mud, scum queen!” ((clip from The Man with Two Brains)). And who can forget his transsexual transcendence as a man inhabited by a woman ((All of Me)), or his searing indictment of painful dentistry ((Little Shop of Horrors)), or the role that was commonly judged his best performance of 1987, as the eloquent romantic with a canary on his nose ((Roxanne))? It may be that each of these turns deserved an Oscar — indeed, that the academy, in its myopic preference for drama over comedy, has ignored generations of superb actors, from Charlie Chaplin to Cary Grant. Tonight, perhaps, we could honor them all by paying tribute to the greatest comic actor in film history . . . Steve Martin!


Comedy is the original no-respect art form. Primitive man knew that if he were to be hit over the head by his fiercest rival, then stumble around and yell “Aarrggh!,” he would be acclaimed as a great tragedian. But if he were to do ten minutes of witty stand-up, then bash himself with a club, he would be accused of doing shtick. It is ever thus. At the movies, comedy may be king at the wickets, and most of Hollywood’s nouveau novas — Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Tom Hanks, Dan Aykroyd, Robin Williams, Bill Murray, Pee-wee Herman, Martin Short — may have won their early stardom cadging laughs on TV or in the burgeoning comedy-club scene (see following story). Yet the Motion Picture Academy continues to lay laurels on lesser mortals whose roles require that they cry over the phone, commit suicide or speak with an English accent.

No emotions are easier to evoke than fear and pity. But comedy is hard. It takes Astaire timing and kamikaze cojones to stand on a stage or a sound stage and do this: wear a novelty-store arrow on your head; blow up balloons, twist them into animal shapes and announce the resulting sculpture as “venereal disease!”; tap-dance maniacally when seized with an attack of “Happy Feet”; then build a movie career running variations on a character you might call the suburban jerk. And mainly this: wait bravely for years until your public gets the comic point.

Steve Martin perfected this persona in the early ’70s. Then he waited until they got it. And suddenly, in 1976, they went crazy over his silver hair, his B-movie-star face, his phosphorescent white suit — the whole look so neat, so sensible, so . . . Phil Donahue — and the sublimely silly uses to which he put them. Phrases like “Well, excuuuuuse me!” and “Naaaah!” became schoolyard mantras, and his concerts were eliciting rock-idol squeals. “He was performing to audiences of up to 20,000,” recalls David Letterman, the late-night commissar of ’80s comedy. “I think that’s a record for a stand-up comedian in peacetime.” In 1978 Martin recorded a gag disco tune called King Tut; it sold more than a million copies. The next year he published a slim volume of short stories, Cruel Shoes; it topped the best-seller list. When he appeared as a Saturday Night Live guest host, the show’s ratings would jump by a million homes. His first starring movie, The Jerk, was the third biggest hit of 1980.

“Starting out in movies,” Martin says, “I felt very confident that I could act, because I was too dumb to know better.” Well, to start out, he could act, and he did get even better. Yet the Hollywood establishment has been his toughest audience. With All of Me in 1984, he proved that he could locate the soul of a character while surrounding it with spectacular physical comedy. The New York Film Critics Circle cited him as the year’s best actor, but the academy did not even nominate him. His twisted turn as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. (Drop Dead Sadist), in the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors should have won him a supporting-actor nod. After all, he was playing a deranged Elvis impersonator who loves his mama, tortures his girlfriend and dies of a nitrous oxide overdose. It was as if Martin were living out a line from the Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid trailer: “He’ll do anything in the quest for the elusive Academy Award!” Still, nada.

O.K., Mr. and Mrs. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, try ignoring Roxanne. It is a sleeper summer hit, Martin’s biggest since The Jerk. It is based on an honorable property, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. It dares to plump for the supremacy of two old-fashioned notions: romantic love as the meeting of true minds and the English language as a tool for wooing and wonder. The script challenges its star to be at once noble and fatuous, strong and swooning, utterly in control and desperately in love — all of which Martin handles as gracefully as if he’d written it himself (which he did). And in case you forgot, the last film fellow to play Cyrano, Jose Ferrer in 1950, got a best-actor award. “I hope he wins an Oscar,” says Martin Short, Steve’s co-star in last year’s Three Amigos!, “because he has prepared a tremendously funny acceptance speech. If the academy members want to hear it, they know what to do.”

Will they? In the Los Angeles Times, Industry Analyst Jack Mathews has predicted that Martin will be nominated for best screenplay, not best actor. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Roxanne is not the peak of his pop artistry, it is one of many, with more to come: a John Hughes comedy this fall, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, co-starring John Candy; a David Lynch project called One Saliva Bubble; a comedy with German Director Volker Schlondorff. Anyway, why should Martin, who turns 42 this week, worry about winning the approbation of Hollywood geriatrics? It is their loss if they have forever typecast him as stand-up’s wild and crazy guy rather than as this decade’s most charming and resourceful comic actor.

Ask those who know him well, and their testimony will be, “Steve Martin is not a wild and crazy guy.” He is a shy guy, a serious guy. When he is not onstage, he is not on. “To spend time with him is like being alone,” says Tommy Smothers, for whose TV show Martin wrote (and won an Emmy) in the late ’60s. “Except when he is being funny.” Says Letterman, in defense of Martin’s reserve: “If you go to the home of a guy who shines shoes all day, you are probably not going to get your shoes shined when you walk in the door.” So you will get neither cruel shoes nor happy feet when visiting Steve Martin. He is polite and distant with strangers. During an interview, he compulsively applies Chap Stick to his lips (“Do you have chapped lips?” “No, I have a habit”). He is fiercely protective of his privacy. “I don’t want the way I live to get out to the world,” he says. “Once private things get into print, everybody knows exactly who you are, and it makes you dull.”

Never dull, Steve. His early life is archetypal — for a stockbroker or a coupon-redemption mogul, if not for a comedian. Born in Waco, Texas, of English-Scots-Irish ethnic weave. Today Glenn, the father, is a retired real estate agent; Mary Lee, the mother, brags about her famous son in restaurants; his older sister Melinda is a California housewife. Steve says he had an ordinary childhood. “No beatings, nothing bizarre. I didn’t grow up in a whorehouse,” as Richard Pryor did. “We were not close-knit — not a lot of hugging and kissing, not vocal or loud. We were middle class. When frozen food came in, we were right in there buying frozen food.” In 1955 the Martins moved to Garden Grove, Calif., two miles from Disneyland, which had opened that summer.

Kismet! “I just loved the idea of Disneyland,” he says. He was not alone. Indeed, at a time when the Disney dream was supposedly losing its hold on American youth, it was in fact stamping its values on a cadre of future superstars. Steven Spielberg would be charmed by Disney’s marketing of an eternal Edenic childhood; Michael Jackson would find refuge in the sanitized wizardry of its theme parks. But Martin would learn, firsthand, other Disney lessons: the relentlessly cheerful huckstering, the belief that the business of America is show business. From ages ten to 18 he worked at Disneyland summers and after school. His first job was to stand at the entrance wearing a straw boater and a bow tie, selling guidebooks. The vendor netted 2 cents a book. “The norm was about 50 books a day,” he says. “One day I sold 625. I think it was the record.”

At 15 Steve was promoted to Merlin’s Magic Shop, where he worked for three years. “I had loved magic tricks from the time I was six or seven,” he recalls. “I bought books on magic. I did magic acts for my parents and their friends. I was aiming for show business from early days, and magic was the poor man’s way of getting in: you buy a trick for $2, and you’ve got an act. So Merlin was my dream come true, because I got to perform magic for people. We sold rubber vomit, shrunken heads, finger choppers, nails through the head, skulls that glow in the dark. We’d make jokes with the customers and spray them with snake cans. We had thousands of gags we would pull, and I used to write them all down on 3-by-5 cards. I still have them. And I have incredibly detailed notes on magic shows I did at Kiwanis clubs when I was 15 or 16. Later I worked at the Bird Cage Theater in Knott’s Berry Farm. I’d appear in a skit or do my magic act or a banjo thing. Four shows a day, five days a week. Basic training.”

The banjo thing was a big thing for Steve. When he was 18, he heard an Earl Scruggs record and “went crazy.” He would put a bluegrass record on the turntable, slow it to half speed and methodically pick out each note. At night he would practice in his ’57 Chevy, so as not to disturb anyone. William McEuen, Martin’s longtime pal and for many years his manager, attests that “Steve is an original and gifted five-string banjo player. He could have been great.” It was while playing banjo in a folk club that he met the guitarist Mason Williams (Classical Gas), who hired him to write for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Later Martin quit the banjo “because I wasn’t getting any better. It’s like I reached the end of it.” In 1980 he gave up stand-up for much the same reason. “I figured: I did it, I know I can do it, and when I was doing it, I did it as well as anyone.”

While working at Knott’s, Steve met a girl who changed his life, or at least his act. “Her name was Stormie Sherk. She later became a Christian singer and wrote her autobiography. In it she says that her relationship with me was the only one she ever had with a man she didn’t end up hating. At the time, I didn’t have a clue about this. All I knew was she got me interested in college, made me read The Razor’s Edge, things like that. Now I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could.” He majored in philosophy at California State University, Long Beach (which Steven Spielberg would attend a few years later). On his 1978 Wild and Crazy Guy album, Martin would joke, “If you’re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all . . . but philosophy, you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.” In the mid-’60s, though, he was dead serious: “I was romanticized by philosophy. I thought it was the highest thing you could study. At one point I wanted to teach it.”

And then along came Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus redefined and reduced the scope of the discipline. Says Martin: “As I studied the history of philosophy, the quest for ultimate truth became less important to me, and by the time I got to Wittgenstein it seemed pointless. Then I realized that in the arts you don’t have to discover meaning, you create it. There are no rules, no true and false, no right and wrong. Anyway, these were the musings of a 21-year-old kid.” A 21-year-old kid who was ready to put his theories into his act by breaking the comedian’s first rule: tell funny jokes and make the audience laugh. “I thought that if I didn’t tell jokes — if the audience had no place to laugh — they might find a place to laugh by creating their own tension. It was a rebel position in comedy.”

In the Viet Nam years, there was not much to laugh at, and comedy was ripe for revolution. The first generation of kids raised on TV, which gobbled up comedy material and spat it out as pabulum, had reached their majority just as the evening news was topping their grisliest nightmare jokes. To be an angry young comic was, it seemed then, to engage psychotic adults on their own terms. The only answer was to drop out of the comic’s traditional adversary relationship to power and, instead, parade an anarchic childishness. Their banner might have read HELL, NO, WE WON’T GROW UP. In Britain, Monty Python’s Flying Circus tossed music-hall bawdry into a Dada format, and at home National Lampoon updated sick humor with a stinging Wasp edge. They were vicious; they were silly; they couldn’t care less. And now someone had to shatter the lulling cadences of stand-up too. Who better than the child of Disneyland and Wittgenstein?

Martin’s scheme was absurdistly simple. He would put ironic quotation marks around his nightclub act, as if cuing the audience to wonder, “Does this guy really think he’s funny doing this tired stuff? Well, I don’t think he’s funny. In fact, he’s so unfunny . . . he’s funny!” But the act was largely the one he had honed for years in other venues. He developed Happy Feet in his living room. He learned juggling from the court jester at Disneyland; Steve practiced at home with croquet balls and badly bruised his fingers. Or take the hat-with-the-arrow routine (please). “It was a thing we used to sell at Disneyland,” Martin says. “It goes back to the theory, ‘God, these gags are so dumb!’ By the end of the act I was wearing the hat with the arrow, the balloon animals, the nose glasses and the bunny ears. I wanted to look as ridiculous as possible. It was like anticomedy.” And a lunatic ad for Merlin’s Magic Shop.

At first Martin took his act anyplace that would take him. He worked one San Francisco club where, to attract potential customers, he would perform at a window facing the street. “I had to start my act with nobody in the audience. When people would come in, they’d find a comedian and an empty room.” At California’s Russian River Resort, he recalls, “I stood on a stage outdoors and played to a parking lot of cars and campers, like at a drive-in. If people liked something, they’d honk.” At Harrah’s in Nevada he followed an elephant act, whose trainers did not always clean up after their star. Playing Vegas was the worst. “People would have their faces in their food and never look up. Thirty minutes of material would last twelve minutes, because there’d be no laughs.”

As his stand-up career blossomed, Martin found a plethora of laughs, partly because his act was defiantly antipolitical — indeed, postpolitical. “Steve was never interested in the polemics, the controversy, the scene in the streets,” Mason Williams notes, “To this day he is not.” Partly because Martin seemed reactionary, the firebrands at Saturday Night Live were reluctant to have him host the show. But with his first visit, in 1976, Martin reached a turning point, maybe a flash point. King Tut was born on SNL, and Martin teamed with Aykroyd to develop the Festrunk brothers, those wild, crazy, dim-witted guys. “Steve can play dim better than anyone,” says Lorne Michaels, producer of SNL and Three Amigos! “It all happens on his face. It is rare that people can play stupid without being insulting.” In his career, of course, Martin was playing it smart. He was the biggest comedy star of the ’70s.

But — funny thing — not of the ’80s. The Jerk had pulled in $43.3 million in rentals. His next five pictures — Pennies from Heaven, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, The Lonely Guy and All of Me — earned a cumulative $38.2 million. “When you have the No. 1 record or become No. 1 at the box office,” he says, “it’s very easy to fall into the trap of seeing yourself as a number. My problem is that I don’t get the same exhilaration from success as I get depression from failure.” The reception of Pennies from Heaven, a musical drama about small people with oversize dreams, would have depressed anyone: it netted less than a tenth of The Jerk’s take.

In his later movies, Martin leavened the jerk character with turns of endearment. He was a private eye in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, in which he co- starred with Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and other famous dead people via interpolated clips from ’40s film noir. He was a cuckolded surgeon in The Man with Two Brains, a parody of ’50s mad-scientist movies and still Martin’s bust-a-gut funniest picture. In All of Me, Martin played his best scenes with himself as a lawyer the right half of whose body is possessed by Tomlin, his dead client. In the lovely Lonely Guy, he gave another master class in informing light farce with passionate precision. And after shining in his Little Shop solo number, he cedes the spotlight to Bill Murray for a fabulous four minutes as a thrill-goofy masochist. “Steve’s very generous as an actor,” notes John Hughes. “Comedy can be a wicked playground, but he’s totally secure, happy to step aside and let someone else shine.”

Wondrous bits speckled all his movies. The Jerk: Steve, adopted son of a black sharecropper, discovers the forbidden delights of big-band Muzak. The Man with Two Brains: conniving black widow Kathleen Turner, lying in a hospital bed, suddenly sucks on Dr. Steve’s finger, and when a nurse intrudes he removes the finger and studiously shakes it like a thermometer. The Lonely Guy: Steve makes slow, sad, beautiful love to a pillow. All of Me: during a divorce hearing, the female half of Steve must pretend to be the male half and does so by spitting on the floor and scratching his-her crotch. Three Amigos!: Steve, Chase and Short harmonize on a cowpoke lullaby as critters from a Disney zoo sway and sing along. But for Martin, great movie bits were not enough. He wanted more: to write and star in his own modern version of Cyrano.

“Conventional wisdom said it was a folly,” he observes. “But I liked its emotion, its heart and its strong story line. Then David Goodman, a screenwriter friend of mine, gave me a reason to update the story: ‘Cyrano gets the girl.’ I also thought about using some other feature than the nose, but nothing else had its sweetness. A big nose is a friendly handicap. It’s not like the Elephant Man.” In 1981, for a TV special, he had played John Merrick as a deliciously sleazy show-biz freak with a pachyderm’s snout. Roxanne’s C.D. Bales is the sweet side of disfigurement. Though the role skirts smugness — C.D. is the first Martin character to spend more time humiliating others than being humiliated by them — the performance locates frolic and pathos in a wry, romantic, slightly aloof soul.

It cannot be far from Martin’s own. Even in the swinging ’70s, he was no party animal. “He had girls who were crazy about him,” recalls Chris Bearde, Steve’s producer on the Andy Williams and Sonny and Cher shows and, for two years, his roommate, “but he was almost totally dedicated to his career.” At the end of the decade Martin was linked with Bernadette Peters, his co-star in The Jerk and Pennies from Heaven. They broke up in 1981. Five years later he married Victoria Tennant, the English actress who starred in TV’s The Winds of War and appeared in All of Me. The two women seem polar opposites: champagne and claret. Peters, the Medusa-coiffed dervish, was an effervescent partner; Tennant, 33, is a protective one, as smart and tart as a Wilde witticism. She shares Martin’s aversion to opening emotional arteries in public. She says only that “he is interesting to live with, and he makes me laugh.”

( Their Beverly Hills home is just the place for a man whose comedy conceals, not reveals, and for a woman who appears comfortable in her role as a swan in the moat around the castle of her husband’s privacy. It is a one-story L- shaped building with no front windows; Martin calls it the “house that says, ‘Go away.’ ” Inside the mood is cool, elegant, high-tech. His home office boasts identical Hewlett-Packard Vectras on which he and Victoria work. The word processor is Martin’s latest obsession; “It has probably replaced the banjo in his life,” McEuen notes. The white walls hold works by Picasso, de Kooning, O’Keeffe, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Franz Kline, Jennifer Bartlett — the hoard of a thoughtful connoisseur. Two cats, a white Persian named Mary and a calico alley cat, Betty, patrol the doorless rooms like silent security guards in the museum of Martin art.

“Collecting art is my biggest hobby,” he says. “I don’t love paintings the way I love my wife. I mean, I love them in a different way. And I love them at least partly because this art is so different from what I do that it’s an escape for me. Paintings exist in space; show business exists in time. I like to sit down, alone or with Victoria, and look at the paintings. Sometimes I feel so lucky to own them. It’s like, good grief, these things are so beautiful — how did this happen?”

Imagine this painting: Portrait of a Man on Top. He sits alone in a white suit, in a white room, staring ahead, perhaps at another painting. The silhouette of a devoted woman shimmers to one side. At his feet are neat piles of scripts, art books, 3-by-5 cards from a pristine youth. His face shows no emotion or thought; all the wild wit and inquiring intellect are hidden inside. It is the face that says, “Go away.” But some mad fan has tampered with the portrait. On the man’s head he has drawn nose glasses, bunny ears and a hat with an arrow through it. The fan’s graffito is almost poignant: he wants this man to be . . . Steve Martin!

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