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5 minute read
Richard Corliss

DID ANYONE EVER CARE LESS about being in show business than Dean Martin? Singing, acting, hosting a TV program, headlining in Las Vegas–these were just things people paid Dino to do when he wasn’t on the links. His old partner Jerry Lewis said that in preparing for their ’50s TV show, “we had this great arrangement: he played golf and I worked.” There, and in movies, and on the long-running Dean Martin Show, the drill was the same. He would show up when the camera had to roll. Rehearsal was for wimps. To practice meant you cared. And, as director Vincente Minnelli said, “Dean would rather die than have you believe he cared.”

Audiences cared for him, though. He had been a star since 1946, when he and Lewis teamed up in a musical-comedy act. For a decade they dominated nightclubs, concert stages, films and TV, while Dean’s record–That’s Amore, Memories Are Made of This–went gold. When the duo split, Martin rebounded as a solo movie star and, for a few years, a fine actor. He had more hit tunes in the ’60s and ’70s, anchored a nine-year TV franchise, appeared whenever he felt like it in casinos with his Rat Pack pals. Last week, after he died at 78 of acute respiratory failure, lights on the Vegas Strip were dimmed for 10 minutes in his memory.

Martin lasted so long by embracing show-biz contradictions, then shrugging them off. For a start, he was a traditional crooner who learned intonation from Crosby and salesmanship from Jolson. Yet there was a hint in his gestures (eyes closed in ecstasy, arms stretched out imploringly) that he was parodying the very idea of crooner; he was a mellow modernist. You could also peg Dino as an anachronism, a Joe E. Lewis saloon-lush type, the party animal in a tux. Or maybe he was the first slacker, elevating sloth to a Zen art. The stupefaction he radiated on his TV show–the Golddiggers dancing around him as wildly as Jer used to, Dean standing there like a lamppost after a car wreck–made him the ideal m.c. for the years when American industry and entertainment stumbled into decadence.

Dino Paul Crocetti stumbled into eminence. Born in Steubenville, Ohio, he left school in the 10th grade, boxed for a while, dealt cards at the local gaming houses, sang a little. His progress was slow until he met Lewis, then just 20. “I was in love with him immediately,” Lewis said in a 1992 TV retrospective of their partnership. What Lewis saw in Martin was the first sexpot straight man, a perfect complement to Jer’s goony girly-boy. The two clicked immediately.

In eight years they made 16 films, most of them labored and plot heavy. But as a live act, Martin and Lewis were awesome. Their appearances on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour made the viewer a co-conspirator in their anarchy; they broke the “fourth wall” as blithely as if it were a cardboard prop, and incorporated their famous arguments into gag lyrics for their duets. They worked literally nose to nose: Jerry would lick Dean’s face; Dean would flick his cigarette ashes in Jerry’s mouth (and lick Jer’s face). It was primal therapy on the 12-inch screen, stripping bare a volatile marriage in all its grotesque intimacy–a bizarre comic display of love and resentment. No way it could last.

“He was schlepping me through life,” Lewis said in 1992, “and I was his luggage.” That’s very sweet. But to think that Dean carried Jerry is the biggest joke of their career. Lewis, a genius at playing an idiot, was the brains of the act, Martin the gonads. So it surprised some that when the crooner went solo in 1956, he not only could get movie roles but could fill them handsomely. They were, to be sure, tailored to his talent–alcoholics and playboys–and in them he moved easily: as the cowardly G.I. in The Young Lions or the sodden gambler in Some Came Running. He spends most of 1959’s Rio Bravo, his best film, staring mournfully at a whiskey bottle he’d like to suck dry. Defeat glazes his eyes; it’s the rare movie portrait of an alcoholic that skirts both sensation and sentiment.

After that, Dino coasted. He became a Southerner on record, with countrified hits like Everybody Loves Somebody and Houston, and a Westerner onscreen–he loved to sit on a horse and ride to Nogales, or nowhere. Perhaps nowhere was his chosen destination. To Nick Tosches, his biographer, Martin was a nihilist hero. Instead of seeing mankind surrounded by a void, Tosches argued, Dino found the void within himself, and called it home.

Maybe something could touch him; the 1987 death of his son Dean Paul in an Air National Guard plane crash cued more drinking in Martin, more severe solitude. With three marriages far behind him, he spent his final years dining alone nightly at an Italian eatery in Beverly Hills. At home this past Christmas Eve, he was attended only by a nurse. She gave him a last drink–water!–and he died. No grieving, please: the cowboy crooner finally rode off into the oblivion he always seemed to crave. And, as Dino might have observed, it beats working.

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