Steve Martin Biography
He was born Stephen Glenn Martin on the 14th of August, 1945, in Waco, Texas. When he was 5, the family (of English/Irish/Scottish descent) moved to Inglewood, California, where his father, Glenn, an aspiring actor, performed at the local playhouse, and sold real estate.
One of Steve’s earliest memories is of seeing his father, as an extra, serving drinks onstage at the Call Board Theatre on Melrose Place. During the war, in England, Glenn had appeared in a production of Our Town with Raymond Massey. Years later, he would write to Massey for help in Steve’s fledgling career, but would receive no reply.
Yet he was not always so helpful. Expressing his affection through gifts of cars, bikes etc, he was not emotionally open to his son. He was proud of the boy but extremely critical, Steve later recalling that in his teens his feelings for his dad were mostly ones of hatred. Martin’s thus inflamed need to please and be loved must surely have fuelled his early career, if not all of it.
Steve’s mother, Mary Lee, looked after the kids. It was in Inglewood that young Steve became interested in magic, buying books, learning tricks and performing them for his parents. It would serve him very well later. So would his gift for comedy. Watching the likes of the Red Skelton Show, Steve would learn the skits, then perform them for the kids at school next day.
After another 5 years, the family moved on to Garden Grove, near Anaheim. It was 1955 and, vitally, the year Disneyland opened nearby. From the age of 10 till 18, Steve would work there after school, at weekends and during the summers. First he sold guide-books at the gate, dressed in a straw boater and bow-tie. He’d take 2 cents per book sold, with the norm being 50 books a day. But, quickly learning the relentless cheeriness necessary (something else that would serve him well later), Steve far outdid the norm. One day he sold 625.
Then there was Wally Boag. Wally was an old vaudevillian entertainer plying his trade at Disneyland, telling (clean) jokes and making balloon animals. Steve watched his act every day, committing it all to memory.
At 15, Steve’s education in magic intensified. Promoted to Merlin’s Magic Shop, he sold plastic vomit, shrunken heads, silly disguises, nails-through-heads, all the greats. Joshing around with the staff, he learned all the tricks, and collected all the jokes, writing down the best of everything said. Now ready to face the public, he began performing magic shows at Kiwanis clubs.
And there was more learning to do. In his late teens, Steve first heard an Earl Scruggs record. Completely blown away by the finger-pickin’ banjo, he was madly inspired. Playing the record at half-speed, he taught himself to pick along, soon becoming more than proficient. At night, so as not to wake the household, he’d practise in his ’57 Chevy.
Having graduated from Garden Grove High School in 1963, he took work at the Birdcage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, near Disneyland. Using all his talents, he did skits, magic tricks and played banjo – four shows a day, five days a week. Martin calls it his “basic training”.
He could have continued his showbiz career, but that would have far too simple for a complex fellow like Martin, always keen to challenge himself, to learn more. At Knott’s Berry Farm, he met a girl named Stormie Sherk, with whom he enjoyed a platonic romance (Steve has an intensely romantic side to him). She convinced him of the importance of academic schooling, got him reading – he recalls being taken by Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge – and encouraged him to enroll at college.
Which he did, at Long Beach State University, where he majored in philosophy. Yet even this deep study couldn’t quell his desire to make people laugh. In fact, it fed it. After a period immersed in philosophy and logic, Martin decided that there WAS no logic, and began to come up with truckloads of bizarre, hilarious non-sequiturs. Being Steve Martin – conscientious and organised – he wrote them all down, saved them for later.
He just couldn’t leave showbiz alone. Transferring to UCLA in 1967, he changed his major to Theatre, and wrote comedy in his creative writing classes, quickly building up reams of material. At night, he’d work the LA clubs. And then came his first lucky break. His girlfriend at the time was a dancer on the very popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
She passed on some of Steve’s material to the head writer, Mason Williams, who loved it and began to use Steve’s stuff, at first paying him out of his own pocket. Soon, he was on the team. The series lasted for just one season, but it was riotously funny, winning the writers an Emmy. Not bad for your first job.
Massively encouraged, Steve kept writing, for Glen Campbell’s show, and Sonny and Cher’s, amongst many others, earning as much as $1,500 a week. But, really, he wanted to perform himself, and finally, against the advice of all his friends, decided to throw himself onto the club circuit. At first it was tough. Most comics, in the politically riotous days of the Sixties, were following the line of Lenny Bruce – they were harsh, sharp and angry.
Martin, on the other hand, with his banjo and balloons, was playing on childlike innocence and illogic. His one nod to contemporary culture was to grow his hair and a beard. Slowly, his act came together. There were a few TV spots, and he toured as support for pop acts, including the Carpenters and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In San Francisco, he performed in a club window to get punters inside. In Nevada, he followed an elephant act that left mounds of dung all over the stage.
By 1973, he was tired of smoggy LA, and unwell. To get up to speed for his performances, he’d been drinking before the shows, waking up in mid-afternoon with terrible hangovers. With his then girlfriend Iris, he took off for Santa Fe for a year, then, having split from Iris, moved on to Aspen, Colorado. Here he began to ski, got himself into shape. He also cut his hair and took to wearing those famous white suits. And, crucially, he decided never to be the support act again. Once more, he took to the clubs.
Aside from the tricks and the zany non-sequiturs, he took to drawing the audience together as a group and leading them out of the venue. The first time, he led them into an empty swimming-pool and “swam” lengths as they held him aloft. Once, he took them all to McDonald’s and ordered 274 burgers, at the last moment changing his order to “one fry to go”. Eventually, when the audiences got bigger, these crazy excursions had to stop.
1975 brought the breakthrough. After major success at San Francisco’s Boarding House, he began to get some serious attention. The next year was even better. Invited onto Saturday Night Live, appearing alongside John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray , he introduced a vast TV audience to The Ramblin’ Guy. He was awarded an HBO special and made numerous appearances on The Tonight Show. It didn’t all go smoothly. Host Johnny Carson was incensed when Steve stood there reading names from the phone book and told jokes to four dogs onstage, demanding that Steve appear only when there was a guest presenter. But Steve redeemed himself, by 1977 making 35 appearances on the show.
Now Steve was a big star. His debut album, Let’s Get Small, sold a million and won a Grammy. On SNL, he introduced the notion of cat handcuffs (he claimed his cat was embezzling from him) and, with Aykroyd, formed the Festrunk Brothers, Czechoslovakian playboys who claimed to be “wild and crazy guys”. A second album, called (naturally) A Wild And Crazy Guy, sold a million, too. A short movie, The Absent-Minded Waiter, featuring Buck Henry and Teri Garr, with Steve as a completely hopeless waiter, was Oscar-nominated. His disco-style single, King Tut, was a huge hit.
With disputes over Vietnam raging, Steve’s anarchic childishness was an antidote to the anger and the pain, or at least a brief escape. Monty Python had set the ball rolling, Steve gave it a hefty boot. Wearing bunny ears, nose glasses and an arrow through his head, prancing insanely across the stage with an attack of Happy Feet, and with neat catch-phrases like “Well, excuuuuse ME!” he was clutched to the heart of the nation.
He played in front of crowds of over 20,000 (and this is a COMEDIAN). His two-month, 50-city tour in late 1977 grossed over a million. In fact, the only downer was a review in a local paper stating one of his SNL appearances was so poor it had set his career back 5 years. The author? Glenn Martin.
Incredibly, it got even better. He made his film debut proper in Robert Stigwood’s ill-fated Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, performing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. There was another excellent cameo as an insolent waiter in The Muppet Movie, and another in the Who documentary, The Kids Are Alright. AND he had a best-selling book, Cruel Shoes.
And then came both love and The Jerk. Incorporating much of Steve’s stand-up act, The Jerk (originally titled Easy Money) had been written with Carl Gottlieb, an old friend from the Smothers Brothers writing team. Steve would receive $100,000 as writer, $500,000 as star and 50% of the profits. Made for $4.5 million, it grossed over $100 million. It was the third biggest picture of its year. Unsurprising, really, as it’s one of the funniest films ever made.
Steve played Navin R Johnson, the adopted son of a poor black family in Mississippi who goes off to make his fortune. Joining a circus, he’s seduced (actually more raped) by Patty Bernstein, a macho motorbike stunt rider, but falls for pretty little Marie, played by the Broadway star Bernadette Peters. Their duet of Tonight You Belong To Me, in which Peters bursts suddenly into a trumpet solo, is a classic. So Navin goes from poverty to huge wealth and back to poverty – with a bundle of laughs in between.
And there was Bernadette Peters. Aside from being supremely talented and stunningly attractive, she was also a hard-working star, and understood Steve’s desire to focus on his career. After all, she had her own. They would see each other until 1981.
As it happened, this period would be one of the most important in Martin’s life. Having pushed back the envelope in terms of comedy success, he’d had enough of the life he was leading. He no longer enjoyed stand-up because the huge crowds had turned his shows into “events” where everyone would wear bunny ears and attempt to participate. “Wait a minute,” he was thinking, “this is my little joke. Why are you waving balloons at me during my little joke?” He was also exhausted, occasionally collapsing onstage. In Tennessee they even had to call the paramedics. Beyond this, people were comparing him to Jerry Lewis, something the philosopher in him did not appreciate.
What he wanted was to step away from it all, and he did so in no uncertain terms. In the mid-Seventies, he’d seen Dennis Potter’s 6-part, 9-hour imaginative feast Pennies From Heaven and considered it one of the greatest productions he’d ever seen. When Hollywood came to make the movie, he went for it.
Set in Chicago during the Depression, Pennies From Heaven concerned one Arthur Parker (Martin), a sheet-music salesman, married to dull Joan (Jessica Harper). While lying, cheating and double-dealing his way through life, he falls for school-teacher Eileen (Peters) and everyone – most of them terribly deluded – is dreaming of a better life, many of the dreams manifesting themselves in glitzy, old-school musical numbers. Steve danced, he sang, he did everything but comedy. And it was hard work. He spent months learning to tap-dance and received acting lessons from the director, Herbert Ross.
Pennies From Heaven, featuring a now-legendary bar-top dance by Christopher Walken (that’s right, he didn’t make his dancing debut in that Fatboy Slim video), did not do well. Indeed, like Heaven’s Gate and One From The Heart it was a big-budget failure. But it was ambitious, and mad, impressive and beautiful and, like those other two flops, deserves rehabilitation. Steve moved on to Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, directed by Jerk-helmsman Carl Reiner (father of Rob).
This was another ingenious effort, a comic tribute to film noir with Steve as private dick Rigby Reardon who, investigating the murder of the father of a mysterious femme fatale (Rachel Ward), gets into serious bother. Cutting techniques allowed slices of old movies to be spliced in, so Martin appeared beside the likes of Bette Davis, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and James Cagney, with Humphrey Bogart appearing as Martin’s assistant. Brilliant stuff.
Though they weren’t huge hits, Steve’s next run of movies was unbelievably fine. In The Man With Two Brains (like Dead Men%u2026 co-written by Martin), he played Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr, a widower and brain surgeon who’s invented the famous screw-top technique. After saving the life of Kathleen Turner, he marries her and she turns out to be a voracious gold-digger, out for his cash. Visiting mad scientist Dr Necessiter (David Warner), he falls for a talking brain named Ann Uumellmahaye (the voice of Sissy Spacek) and, well, suffice to say it’s out-there and extremely funny.
Next came The Lonely Guy, a more morose piece where, having found his girlfriend in bed with someone else, he teams up with fellow dumpee Charles Grodin and comes up with various tactics for picking up women, all of which fail. Then came another classic, All Of Me, once more with Carl Reiner. Here Lily Tomlin played a dying millionaires who tries to have her spirit implanted in the body of a younger woman, Victoria Tennant.
Unfortunately, it instead enters the body of her lawyer, Martin, who proceeds to give a stunning performance as a man and a woman battling for control of a man’s body. He was rightly nominated for a Golden Globe, as he had been for Pennies From Heaven.
He also found love again, with Tennant. The star of Winds Of War, she came from a cultured English family, her godfather being Laurence Olivier, was well-travelled and spoke several languages. As well as being beautiful, she appealed to the highbrow cosmopolitan in him. In 1986, they eloped and were married in Rome.
That year brought more success onscreen. There was the comedy cowboy flick Three Amigos, directed by John Landis and co-starring SNL buddies Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Then came a classic star turn in Little Shop Of Horrors, directed by Steve’s old Muppet-mate Frank Oz. Here he played a sadistic, motorbike-riding dentist, a crazed Elvis impersonator who worships his mama, abuses his girlfriend and ODs nitrous oxide. His grotesque surgical tools would later show up both in Batman and in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.
Martin had often co-written his movies, adding his peculiar brand of comedy. But now he went for something more ambitious, adapting Cyrano de Bergerac for the screen in Roxanne. Here he played fire-chief CD Bales, a man with poetry in his heart and an enormous schnozz on his face. Falling for siren Daryl Hannah, he finds himself wooing her on behalf of dopey but hunky employee Rick Rossovich. It was a great success, and that continued.
In John Hughes’ Planes, Trains And Automobiles, he was Neal Page, a nice guy just trying to get home to spend Thanksgiving with his wife and child. His misfortune begins with a superb sequence where he races a sublimely smug Kevin Bacon for the only taxi in town. And then he meets shower-ring salesman John Candy and is forced to travel with him, even sharing a bed (remember the early morning shriek of “Those aren’t PILLOWS!”?). It just gets worse.
After this came two more brilliant movies. First Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, once more with Frank Oz. Here he was Freddy Benson, a small-time con-man who, plying his trade on the Riviera, comes into competition with high-grade rip-off merchant Michael Caine. Working together, double-crossing each other constantly, they cause extra-merry hell. The same year, 1988, Steve made his Broadway debut in Mike Nichols’ production of Waiting For Godot. His co-star was another highly intelligent clown with a penchant for philosophy – Robin Williams.
Next came Ron Howard’s Parenthood. This saw Steve as Gil Buckman, married to the wonderful Mary Steenburgen and trying to make the best of a dysfunctional family, including a fear-paralysed son, a dominating father (Jason Robards), a wastrel brother (Tom Hulce), an education-obsessed brother (Rick Moranis) and a sister (Dianne Wiest) who can’t stop her daughter seeing Keanu Reeves. One of the finest feel-good movies of all time, it allowed Martin to once more play many of his party tricks, and included a fantastic scene where Steenburgen, wanting to relax a ludicrously stressed Martin, does something she perhaps shouldn’t. At least not while he’s driving.
The hits kept coming. In My Blue Heaven, written by Nora “Sleepless In Seattle” Ephron, he played a Mob informer protected by FBI agent Moranis but unable to keep a low profile. Next he returned to writing with LA Story, where he played weatherman Harris K Telemacher. Cuckolded by girlfriend Marilu Henner, he takes up with Valley Girl sexpot Sarah Jessica Parker, then falls for Brit journalist Victoria Tennant. Not unakin to the work of Jacques Tati, it, like The Lonely Guy, was all about the pursuit of happiness in a cold, modern world.
1991 was an odd year for Martin. Aside from LA Story, there was the roustabout hit Father Of The Bride, a remake of the Spencer Tracy classic, where Steve played George Stanley Parks, a man unable to cope with his daughter’s impending nuptials or her extravagant reception. Martin Short provided the overblown cameo here, as the event co-ordinator. And then there was the angsty, reflective Grand Canyon. Directed by Laurence “Big Chill” Kasdan, this dealt with the social and spiritual emptiness of Los Angeles. Hardly a barrel of laughs.
1992 was interesting, too. First there was Housesitter, yet again with Frank Oz, where he played a rich guy who proposes to Dana Delany but is turned down – a shame as he’s built a house for her. And it gets worse when, having had a one-nighter with Goldie Hawn, she finds the house, moves in and tells his friends, neighbours and family that they’re married. He wants her out, but everyone likes her so much he has a very hard time doing so.
Also in 1992 was the terribly under-rated Leap Of Faith. Here Steve delivered a mighty turn as Jonas Nightingale, a fake faith healer with a travelling show. Trapped in a small town, he falls for Lolita Davidovitch, a waitress with a crippled son, while his partner-in-crime Debra Winger gets it on with Liam Neeson, a local sheriff who’s sworn to bust Martin’s ass.
1993 was much, much worse. Victoria Tennant had always encouraged Steve in his work, particularly his writing, and now he’d penned a play, Picasso At The Lapin Agile. This was an intellectual comedy, concerning a meeting between the young Picasso and Einstein, which drew together all of Steve’s main interests – philosophy, art, science and magic. It opened at the Steppenwolf in Chicago and, a great success, would move on to LA and New York. But, before it opened, Tennant had gone. While filming a miniseries, she’d fallen for a hunky Australian TV star and returned only to tell Steve she was leaving. The divorce was not friendly.
When questioned, Tennant claimed that she found Steve to be “emotionally unavailable”, and this distance has caused him many problems. Some performers switch off when not on stage, and even Steve’s friends say that he switches off more than most. He’s polite to people, but uninvolved. Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers even said that “To spend time with him is like being alone”. And, though he’s bright, curious and hilarious with his closest friends, he finds it impossible to be that way on dates. It may have been nature, or nurture, as his family were far from close that way. He recalls many a silent dinner-time in his childhood.
Even so, with Tennant gone, Steve stepped straight into another relationship, with the actress Anne Heche, co-star in his next picture, A Simple Twist Of Fate, an update of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. If the Tennant break-up was bad, the Heche one two years later was a disaster (Steve’s friends still refer to her as The Heartbreak Kid). It really couldn’t have been more high-profile and embarrassing. The whole nation was fascinated by comedian Ellen DeGeneres declaring herself to be a lesbian on her own hit TV show.
And Heche left Martin for DeGeneres. A bad, bad scene. Now 50, he was plunged into a desperate mid-life crisis. He saw women, mostly much younger than himself, but there was no one to love. But, with hindsight, he was probably better off without Heche. She’s since claimed to have heard voices in her head during their relationship. Never a sign of happy days to come. And the break-up inspired him to write another play, Patter For The Floating Lady.
His time with Heche saw another couple of movies. There was Mixed Nuts, directed by Ephron, where he ran a crisis hotline with Madeline Kahn, surrounded by various oddballs played by Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler and Rob Reiner. And there was a sequel to Father Of The Bride, which earned him another Golden Globe nomination, to go with the ones for Parenthood and Roxanne. Really, considering his fantastic performances down the years, it’s amazing that Martin has never won any major acting prize.
Now came a dark period. Steve was fine as Sgt Bilko in the movie adaptation, but the film was a big flop. On top of the Heche experience, this was a bad blow. He lost confidence and took an extended time-out. He made a low-budget return as mysterious stranger Jimmy Dell in David Mamet’s slow, convoluted The Spanish Prisoner. Then came The Out-Of-Towners, a reunion with Goldie Hawn, and a remake of Neil Simon’s earlier effort, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. Here Steve and Goldie played a couple who’ve fallen out of love over 25 years, and suffer every possible tourist-nightmare on their way to a job interview in New York. Planes, Trains and Goldie Hawn, really.
Those in the know reckoned Steve Martin, without a big hit for nearly a decade, was finished. Then up popped Eddie Murphy, old mucker Frank Oz and Bowfinger, the first script Steve had written in years. Here Steve played a producer desperate to get his sci-fi picture made. Big star Murphy won’t get involved, so they rope in Murphy’s poor brother (also played by Murphy), a super ambitious Heather Graham and a drama queen of a stage actress, secretly film the star Murphy going about his everyday business, and attempt to splice a feature together from the dodgy footage. It was funny, clever and a big hit. Steve was back.
For a while, Steve concentrated on writing. He released a novel, Shopgirl, concerning the sweet but wallflowerish Mirabelle, who charms a wealthy businessman twice her age, the pair of them struggling to come to terms with this odd relationship. It was tender, thoughtful and wise – Steve did, after all, have experience.
After this, there was a cameo in Stanley Tucci’s Joe Gould’s Secret, and an appearance as host of the 2001 Oscars, for which he was Emmy-nominated. And then came Novocaine where, for the second time, he played a dentist. This time, however, he’s the hard-done-by one, being conned by patient Helena Bonham Carter into prescribing her drugs. After this, his whole life falls slowly and hilariously to pieces.
Sadly, his real life did, too. During filming, Steve began a relationship with Helena which he was very keen to continue. But, aside from being 21 years younger than him, she had just split from Kenneth Branagh after 5 years and was in no mood to enter another serious relationship. They split after a few months, Steve the lonely guy once more. And he’d take that persona into his next big role. After a cameo in Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch, he starred in Disney’s Bringing Down The House where he played a rich but lonesome wretch trying to meet women on the Net.
Unfortunately, the one he gets on with is jailbird Queen Latifah who breaks out of pokey to be with him, bringing utter chaos to his nice middle-class life. It was another enormous hit for Martin, the first of two in 2003. After popping up as Mr Chairman, head of the ACME mega-corporation in Joe Dante’s half-cartoon, half-live action Looney Tunes, he’d take on Cheaper By The Dozen, playing a busy football coach dad who finds himself looking after his swarm of kids when his wife is called away on a book tour.
It’s a famed cliche that actors should avoid working with children but, after Parenthood, Martin had no fears and was proved right as Cheaper By The Dozen was yet another $100 million hit.
Movies aside, Martin was also busy in the other areas of his life. In 2003 he’d host the Oscars and publish his second novella, The Pleasure Of My Company. The year before, he’d updated Carl Sternheim’s 1910 farce The Underpants, about a man whose wife’s underpants will not stay up, for an off-Broadway production, and also begun a series of comic essays and articles for the New Yorker and New York Times. And, at last, he’d found another steady relationship.
Having briefly seen Patty Marx, one of the original writers on Saturday Night Live and a lecturer at NYU (she actually used Martin’s material to teach students comedy writing), he began a more long-term affair with Anne Stringfield, then deputy head of fact-checking at the New Yorker. She was 30 and a stunner, often being mistaken for actress Kristin Davis (in her twenties she’d moonlighted as typist for Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992). Steve was 58.
Martin’s next appearance onscreen would be in 2005, in Shopgirl, based on his own novella. The production had already been embroiled in controversy in November, 2002, when Winona Ryder, caught shoplifting in LA’s Sak’s store, had claimed she was practising for the part of Mirabelle. In fact, the part had gone to Claire Danes and she did a fine job veering between millionaire sophisticate Martin and slobby loser Jason Schwartzman in this bittersweet study of love and relationships.
The same year would bring another hit in Cheaper By The Dozen 2, where Martin took his enormo-brood on a lakeside holiday, only to end up in a series of comic confrontations with rival Eugene Levy, another father of many, based in a palatial house across the water. After the two Father Of The Brides and Bringing Down The House, this was the fourth fruitful pairing of Martin and Levy.
Adding to this success, 2005 would also see Martin produce the TV reality show The Scholar where high school kids competed for college tuition (choosing academia over comedy or music – very Steve Martin). Better still, at the Kennedy Centre Awards he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour. “I think Mark Twain is a great guy,” commented Martin “and I can’t wait to meet him”.
Come 2006, having returned to host Saturday Night Live yet again, Martin would be seen taking on one of his greatest challenges to date, stepping into the shoes of Peter Sellers for The Pink Panther. When the French football coach is killed and the legendary Pink Panther diamond stolen, an incompetent detective is needed to draw attention away from the real investigation.
Enter Martin’s Clouseau with sidekick Jean Reno, and so begins the expected succession of slapstick disasters. Some critics felt Martin was too sane for the role. The box office, though, told another story, as Martin, now in his sixties, continued his run of hits.
Having given us all those laughs, it seems right and proper that Steve Martin should no longer be sat on his own, surrounded by an art collection including works by Hockney, Hopper and Picasso, but wracked by the fear that he’d be left on the shelf.
This is the man who said All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work and I believe that sex is the most beautiful, natural and wholesome thing that money can buy. He deserves happiness – he’s given so much to others. All we can say is thanks, Steve, and good luck. ~ Dominic WillsRelated Information: