Dean Martin found phenomenal success in almost every entertainment venue and, although suffering a few down times during his career, always managed to come out on top. During the '50s, he and partner Jerry Lewis formed one of the most popular comic film duos in filmdom. After splitting with Lewis, he was associated with the Hollywood's ultra-cool "Rat Pack" and came to be known as the chief deputy to the "Chairman of the Board," Frank Sinatra.
Although initially a comic actor, Martin also proved himself in such dramas as The Young Lions (1958), more than holding his own opposite Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. He was also never above poking sly fun at his image as a smooth womanizer in such outings as the Matt Helm spy spoofs of the '60s. As a singer, Martin was, by his own admission, not the greatest baritone on earth, and made no bones about having copied the styles of Bing Crosby and Perry Como. He couldn't even read music, and yet recorded more than 100 albums and 500 songs, racking up major hits such as "That's Amore," "Volare," and his signature tune "Everybody Loves Somebody." Elvis Presley was said to have been influenced by him, and patterned "Love Me Tender" after his style.
For three decades, Martin was among the most popular nightclub acts in Las Vegas. Although a smooth comic, he never wrote his own material. On television, Martin had a highly-rated, near-decade-long series; it was there that he perfected his famous laid-back persona of the half-soused crooner suavely hitting on beautiful women with sexist remarks that would get anyone else slapped, and making snappy, if not somewhat slurred, remarks about fellow celebrities during his famous roasts. Martin attributed his long-term TV popularity to the fact that he never put on airs or pretended to be anyone else on-stage, but that's not necessarily true. Those closest to him categorized him as a great enigma; for, despite all his exterior fame and easy-going charm, Martin was a complex, introverted soul and a loner. Even his closest friend, Frank Sinatra, only saw Martin once or twice per year. His private passions were golf, going to restaurants, and watching television. He loathed parties -- even when hosting them -- and would sometimes sneak off to bed without telling a soul. He once said in a 1978 interview for Esquire magazine, that, although he loved performing, particularly in nightclubs, if he had to do it over again he would be a professional golfer or baseball player.
The son of a Steubenville, OH, barber, Martin (born Dine Crochets) dropped out of school in the tenth grade and took a string of odd jobs ranging from steel mill worker to bootlegger; at the age of 15, he was a 135-pound boxer who billed himself as "Kid Crocetti." It was from his prize-fighting years that he got a broken nose (it was later fixed), a permanently split lip, and his beat-up hands. For a time, he was involved with gambling as a roulette stickman and black jack croupier. At the same time, he practiced his singing with local bands. Billing himself as "Dino Martini," he got his first break working for the Ernie McKay Orchestra. A hernia got Martin out of the Army during WW II, and, with wife and children in tow, he worked for several bands throughout the early '40s, scoring more on looks and personality than vocal ability until he developed his own smooth singing style. Failing to achieve a screen test at MGM, Martin appeared permanently destined for the nightclub circuit until he met fledgling comic Jerry Lewis at the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both men were performing. Martin and Lewis formed a fast friendship which led to their participating in each other's acts, and ultimately forming a music/comedy team.
Martin and Lewis' official debut together occurred at Atlantic City's Club 500 on July 25, 1946, and club patrons throughout the East Coast were soon convulsed by the act, which consisted primarily of Lewis interrupting and heckling Martin while the he was trying to sing, and, ultimately, the two of them chasing each other around the stage and having as much fun as possible. A radio series commenced in 1949, the same year that Martin and Lewis were signed by Paramount producer Hal Wallis as comedy relief for the film My Friend Irma. Martin and Lewis was the hottest act in nightclubs, films, and television during the early '50s, but the pace and the pressure took its toll, and the act broke up in 1956, ten years to the day after the first official teaming. Lewis had no trouble maintaining his film popularity alone, but Martin, unfairly regarded by much of the public and the motion picture industry as something of a spare tire to his former partner, found the going rough, and his first solo-starring film (Ten Thousand Bedrooms ) bombed.
Never totally comfortable in films, Martin still wanted to be known as a real actor. So, though offered a fraction of his former salary to co-star in the war drama The Young Lions (1957), he eagerly agreed in order that he could be with and learn from Brando and Clift. The film turned out to be the cornerstone of Martin's spectacular comeback; by the mid-'60s, he was a top movie, recording, and nightclub attraction, even as Lewis' star began to eclipse. In 1965, Martin launched the weekly NBC comedy-variety series The Dean Martin Show, which exploited his public image as a lazy, carefree boozer, even though few entertainers worked as hard to make what they were doing look easy. It's also no secret that Martin was sipping apple juice, not booze, most of the time on-stage. He stole the lovable-drunk shtick from Phil Harris; and his convincing portrayals of heavy boozers in Some Came Running (1958) and Howard Hawk's Rio Bravo (1959) led to unsubstantiated claims of alcoholism. In the late '70s, Martin concentrated on club dates, recordings, and an occasional film, and even make an appearance on the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon in 1978. (Talk of a complete reconciliation and possible re-teaming of their old act, however, was dissipated when it was clear that, to paraphrase Lewis, the men may have loved each other, but didn't like each other).
Martin's even-keel world began to crumble in 1987, when his son Dean Paul was killed in a plane crash. A much-touted tour with old pals Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra in 1989 was abruptly canceled, and the public was led to believe it was due to a falling out with Sinatra; only intimates knew that Martin was a very sick man, who had never completely recovered from the loss of his son and who was suffering from an undisclosed illness. But Martin courageously kept his private life private, emerging briefly and rather jauntily for a public celebration of his 77th birthday with friends and family. Whatever his true state of health, he proved in this rare public appearance that he was still the inveterate showman. Martin died of respiratory failure on Christmas morning, 1995. He was 78. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi