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Steve Martin: wild and serious guy.


Steve Martin is sitting with three friends at an umbrella-shaded table in a Southern California restaurant. He sips from his cup of coffee and listens to the bubbling water of the patio fountain. Then, Martin feels one coming--a Steve Martin fan. He hunches over, pulls the collar of his leather jacket around his neck, and shifts his eyes warily behind the jet-black sunglasses.

A large woman in a print housedress jiggles up to him. She giggles and thrusts a napkin and a ballpoint pen in front of Martin's face. He smiles wanly and scribbles his autograph on the napkin. She blabs happily and then wobbles away across the patio flagstones. Returning to her table, she whispers to her husband, "He didn't even say anything funny."

That is difficult for Steve Martin. He doesn't carry around a stock of one-liners like Bob Hope or George Burns, nor can he "turn on" at the drop of a straight line like Jonathan Winter or Robin Williams. Yet because he was the most phenomenally successful comedian of the 1970s, he is expected to "say something funny." To his fans he will always be that happy "jerk" onstage, that "wild and crazy guy" with the childlike comedy, the happy feet, the rabbit ears, and the balloon animals.

Unlike his stage and screen persona, Martin is a very serious man. "Steve really is bright and sophisticated," says Shelley Duvall, who starred with him in the hit movie Roxanne. He is also a very private man. His personal life and his past relationship with Bernadette Peters are taboo, as is the time he spent with Linda Ronstadt. When his busy moviemaking schedule permits, he and his wife, Victoria Tennant (War and Remembrance), travel to their weekend retreat in Santa Barbara, a home built like a concrete bunker, more ominous than inspiring. Martin's obsession is collecting 19th-century art. He is a serious collector, and the walls of his home are filled with paintings by such artists as Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.

Other than improving his art collection, Martin wants to secure his niche as a serious comedy actor in motion pictures. "After I gave up the stand-up comedy routines, I really wanted to be successful in motion pictures," Martin says.

It hasn't been easy. The comedian had creative problems transferring his own wacky brand of '70s humor to the movies of the 1980s. His first starring film, The Jerk, which came from Martin's fertile imagination, set him off toward his goal. It was a resounding success--with his fans, if not the critics.

Then Martin's next movie, Pennies from Heaven, an art-deco musical fantasy, confounded audiences and bombed at the box office. The comedian did a little better with Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, whose gimmick was to intersperse the new scenes with old black-and-white footage of Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd. But the movie was not well-received by Martin fans.

In The Man with Two Brains, the jokes were zany and Martin thought he was almost on track. He and the producers were stunned when it did poorly at the box office. The Lonely Guy followed next and died quickly. "It was sort of a stinker," Martin admits.

Martin's search for his kind of movie, a mix of serious comedy with burlesque bits, began to jell with the 1984 release All of Me (costarring Lily Tomlin), which made use of his gifts for physical comedy. "I was very happy with All of Me," Martin says. "It's the first film I have done that is funny without having to think about being funny."

In 1987 came Roxanne, a contemporary version of Cyrano de Bergerac. The reviews were great. When Time magazine praised Martin with a complimentary cover story, he felt his move dreams had come to fruition.

Martin's recent portrayal of a worried father in the guise of a goofball in Parenthood has secured his place on the cinematic scene. In this rich role as the father of a modern nuclear family (Mary Steenburgen plays the mother), Martin is able to balance his serious maturity with his wild and crazy instincts--this time in a logical way. At a party, Martin, in a makeshift cowboy outfit, fills in for an absent clown. The comedian is able to play a jerk--but not be one.

The movies Roxanne and Parenthood made Martin a serious screen comedian--not just a fad like Hula-Hoops or pet rocks, not just a flash from the '70s. He would never have to go back to being that wild and crazy guy on stage again.

The Steven Martin comedy that came out of the '70s was, well--weird. It was labeled silly, brainless, and Disneyesque. Newsweek called Martin the "ultimate West Coast wacko."

Carl Reiner once told Martin that he looked like a guy who looked at Fred Astaire and said, "Hey, I can do that--watch." The critic Pauline Kael said it more succinctly: Martin's stage act, she said, was a guy acting like a comedian and the audience acting like an audience.

"I always looked at my solo stage comedy as a success of timing," Martin says. "I had the right act at the right ime. During the '60s I started formulating my comic ideas--I knew that the seriousness of the social '60s would eventually pass into the silly '70s, and I was getting ready for it. When it came, I was ready. I was silly, but I was avant-garde.

"If I had to categorize myself at that time, I would say I had sort of--I wouldn't say a gift--but rather a supply of energy on stage. I was real energetic--and real dumb."

Dumb? He'd stand in front of audiences of 20,000 and turn balloons into animals or sing his one-million-selling ditty, "King Tut." He'd say: "Now, the nose-on-the-microphone routine," and he'd put his nose on the head of the microphone; then he'd say, "Thank you"--and the audiences howled.

"If I just start talking funny-type things and never give the audience a punch line, eventually their tension is going to grow so much they will start laughing on their own," Martin says. "They'll start choosing things to be funny, which is the strongest kind of humor. they have determined what is funny, not me. The laugh I like to get is 'What? I don't know why I am laughing.'

"Beside laughs there is the real thrill of timing. That's the greatest fun of all. When you're resting, waiting, and you've got the next line in your head and you're just waiting for that little intimate moment . . . things are really flowing. Charged. Like a ballet."

How did Steve Martin, a basically shy, almost introverted "nice guy," become the goofball who paraded before thousands of peole with bunny ears on his head?

"You're not going to get into my past, are you?" Martin responds when told it is time to talk about his background. "Nobody cares where I grew up. Even I don't care. When I read an interview and it gets to the part where a person grew up, I turn the page."

Martin's fascination with performing evidently began when he was ten. He was hired to sell guidebooks, Mouseketeer ears, and Davy Crockett hats at Disneyland. Then at Knott's Berry Farm, he was given the opportunity at Birdcage Theater to do his newly developed magic act and try out a few comedy routines.

From there he enrolled in philosophy at UCLA. By his senior year he had switched his major to theater arts and taken a TV-writing course. In 1968, when he was only 23, he was hired to write comedy for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." "If I wrote anything it was: 'Here's Burl Ives,'" Martin says. "It was no big deal." Writing worked for him, and at a weekly salary of $1,500, paid the bills. but he wanted to be a performer.

"Writing for TV was like learning to swallow swords," he remembers. The closest he got to being a performer on "Smothers Brothers" was the night he played a human head on a silver platter and spouted off with several one-liners.

He was signed with the William Morris Agency as a writer. "I went in and told them I was leaving television writing to be a performer," Martin says. "The said, 'Don't do it, you'll never make it.' Well, I've heard that line in a dozen movies, so I knew I could make it. Rejection is one of my accomplishments."

After "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" was axed by CBS, Martin wrote for Soony and Cher, then Glen Campbell. He still wanted to perform, and he finally began to get on the talk shows, including, of course, "The Tonight Show."

"I guess I've been on television a lot," Martin says. "Probably 500 times; 'The Tonight Show' 35 or 40 times. I did a lot of crazy things on that show. One was reading a phone book to make people laugh. I'd pick up a phone book and read: 'Aaron Adams, 717 South Remington.' Of course, there wouldn't be a laugh, but I'd go on--'Bill Black, 982 Montrose Avenue.' Still no laugh, then Ihd take out my arrow and put it on my head and read a sillier name, like 'Mary Ann Pinball. . .' By the time it was over, I'd end up waving a rubber chicken, and then finally say: 'Don't look at me, I didn't write this junk.'"

Martin didn't write his own material for his stand-up comedy routines. "I don't know if I could sit down and write a routine that would be funny," he says. "My original act came out of a philosophical point of view. A new point of view. I was just a guy up on stage acting like a comedian."

Martin admits it was a marvelous feeling to play to audiences of hystericaly laughing people. "Yeah, that was a thrill," he says. "But there is still the thrill of looking back and saying--'I was the biggest comedian in the world.'" He pauses and reflects, "I will be very happy, if when I'm 60, I can look back and say, 'I was a very funny person in this world.'"

Steve Martin has packed away the arrows through the head, he has deflated his balloon animals, and no longer has happy feet. After all, that really wasn't Steve Martin. It wasn't even close. The real Steve Martin is a "wild and serious guy."
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Millner, Cork
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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