Some thoughts today on the late Dean Martin (Dino Paul Crocetti, 1917-1995). Do you know anyone who doesn’t like him? I don’t. I think of him as the embodiment of a certain kind of show biz, with so much charisma that he transcended trends and fashions, yet so low-key and subtle that it wasn’t shoved down your throat. Unlike Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr, Martin was never obnoxious. For ten years, he didn’t need to be; he had Jerry Lewis to be obnoxious for him.
The Steubenville, Ohio native began as a boxer and worker in an illegal casino before he began singing with local big bands in the early 1940s. He gradually developed a crooning style patterned on that of Bing Crosby and Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers, as well as a persona patterned on Crosby’s as well, sort of cool, relaxed, affable, and hip. But there were a lot of guys like that gigging around in the big band era; Martin had yet to find anything to give his act a distinctive edge.
By 1946 he had worked his way east to the Glass Hat Club in New York, which is where he first met Jerry Lewis. The two debuted their new comedy team at Atlantic City’s 500 Club later that year, and then to the Copacabana in New York, where they were a held-over smash. Their largely improvised act consisted of Martin trying to sing his set, while the monkey-like Lewis caused disruptions. People ate it up.
From thence it was on to the movies, where the team had a string of hits from 1949 through 1956. As I mentioned in Chain of Fools, Martin and Lewis were an interesting mix of Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby. Because Martin was not just the straight man but a crooner, their films were doubly bankable, not just comedies, but semi-musical romances as well. Yet, the critics loved Jerry, and generally dismissed Martin, who was essentially thrust into a thankless Zeppo role, lacking color, personality or a chance to shine…just the boring plot filler between Jerry’s funny bits. Demoralized, he began phoning it in and eventually broke with Lewis.
Seemingly uncharacteristically for such a laid-back guy, he attacked his solo career with gusto, and shone in ways no one could have anticipated. As with Lewis, Martin’s solo films are vastly more memorable than anything the team had done together. Some Came Running (1958) first teamed him with Sinatra and Shirley Macclaine, fortuitous in that these three (along with Sammy Davis Jr, Joey Bishop, and, improbably, Peter Lawford) became what was essentially Martin’s next “comedy team”, the so-called “Rat Pack”. This gang collaborated not only on live shows in Vegas, but also films such as the original Ocean’s 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), and The Cannonball Run (1981) and The Cannonball Run II (1984). Martin made fun of his own swinging image in films like Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), and the Matt Helm spy spoofs (1966-69). For an Italian nightclub singer, he made a surprising number of Westerns, and they were among his most successful performances, including Rio Bravo (1959), Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Texas Across the River (1966), Rough Night in Jericho (1967), Bandolero! (1968) and 5 Card Stud (1968). The balance were light comedies and dramas. His last well-remembered starring picture is Airport (1970); his last starring vehicle was Mr. Ricci (1975).
All this while, he was also cutting records, many of which are still popular, e.g. That’s Amore” (1953), “Mambo Italiano” (1954), “Memories Are Made of This” (1955), “Volare” (1958), “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” (1960),and “Everybody Loves Somebody” (1963). His status as a recording artist is surely one of the reasons Martin chafed at playing second fiddle to Lewis in the movies.
And we haven’t even gotten to his television career. This is how your correspondent first knew him (didn’t discover his films with Lewis really until I was a teenager). From 1965 through 1974, The Dean Martin Show was one of the top variety series on television; then after that there were the even more indelible Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts from 1974 through 1984. Thus, ironically, just as Lewis’s career was winding down in the late 60s, Martin was becoming more and more of a presence in American households.
By the late 80s and 90s, his recording, television, and movie careers had all wound down, and he was down to occasional live performing. He passed away in 1995 of lung cancer, which will surprise no one familiar with his career. The iconic image of Martin is in a tuxedo, with a cigarette and a drink.
To find out about the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc