AFI pays trib­ute to wild and crazy guy

Los Angeles Times - - CUL­TURE MON­STER - Su­san.king@la­times.com

well as Or­son Welles, Al­fred Hitch­cock, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Al Pa­cino, Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda.

The com­pany is so pro­found, said Martin, who will turn 70 in Au­gust, that “the only thing I can think is, ‘What am I do­ing up there?’ ”

His good friend and fre­quent costar Martin Short (“Three Ami­gos,” “Father of the Bride”) said the an­swer is ob­vi­ous: Martin takes the craft of com­edy aw­fully se­ri­ously.

“He will phone me up and say, ‘Tell me if you think this joke is funny,’ ” Short said. “He likes to have fun on the set and is loose on the set, [but] he’s very pre­pared. I don’t think Steve has walked through any­thing in his life.”

Best known for come­dies, in­clud­ing the late ’80s hits “Rox­anne,” “Planes, Trains and Au­to­mo­biles” and “Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels,” not to men­tion the 1991 film “L.A. Story,” Martin has taken his dra­matic work just as se­ri­ously.

After the suc­cess of “The Jerk,” he made a bold choice by not do­ing an­other com­edy. In­stead, he chose for his sec­ond film “Pen­nies From Heaven,” a dark De­pres­sion­era tale in which the char­ac­ters lip-synced to songs of the era. The film was not a hit when it came out in 1981, but it has grown in ad­mi­ra­tion dur­ing the last three decades.

“I loved ‘ Pen­nies From Heaven’ so much,” Martin said. “I re­ally didn’t have the op­tion to wait. The movie was there, then. It was also an es­cape for me from my own per­sona, which I had been do­ing for, es­sen­tially, 18 years. So it rep­re­sented so many things to me. I found it very emo­tional. Prob­a­bly in truth, it was too soon for me to do some­thing like this.”

Since then, Martin has been able to trans­form him­self into a mod­ern-day re­nais­sance man. Be­sides an ac­tor and screen­writer, he’s a best­selling au­thor, play­wright, pro­ducer, ma­gi­cian and fierce banjo player. (His 2013 blue­grass col­lab­o­ra­tion with Edie Brick­ell, “Love Has Come for You,” won the Grammy for Amer­i­can roots song.) He’s also the re­cip­i­ent of a Kennedy Cen­ter Honor and an hon­orary Os­car.

“He is very, very smart and enor­mously cu­ri­ous,” Short said. And he’s a great din­ner guest. Just the night be­fore, Short said, the two were at a din­ner party where Martin per­formed two mys­ti­fy­ing card tricks.

“Every­one at the ta­ble was say­ing this is in­sane, this is im­pos­si­ble what he had just done,” Short said. “Then he could have taken the lemons in the mid­dle of the room and started jug­gling per­fectly. Then he is a nov­el­ist, writes plays, knows ev­ery paint­ing on any­one’s wall and its ori­gin and his­tory and why it’s good or bad. And, oh, yeah, he plays the banjo. There’s a lot go­ing on with that young man.”

That’s high praise for some­one who came to fame as a stand-up comic wear­ing bunny ears and a fake ar­row on his head and pro­claim­ing, “I’m just a wild and crazy guy!”

In his best­selling mem­oir “Born Stand­ing Up: A Comic’s Life,” Martin re­called the sum­mer of 1965, when he stayed in an $8 ho­tel room in San Fran­cisco while per­form­ing for free at the club Cof­fee & Con­fu­sion.

“At this point, my act was a catchall, cob­bled to­gether from the dis­parate uni­ver­si­ties of jug­gling, com­edy, banjo play­ing, weird bits I had writ­ten in col­lege, and magic tricks,” he said. “I was strictly Mon­day-night qual­ity.”

Fifty years ago, Martin said, he never would have dreamed of what his ca­reer would be­come.

“This is an artist who was a rock star first and then be­came some­one who we know him to be to­day,” said Bob Gaz­zale, AFI’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive. “Even that’s hard to de­scribe. He is a tal­ent that can­not be con­tained by a sin­gle art form.”

Just a few years af­ter his gig at the Cof­fee & Con­fu­sion, Martin worked as a writer on the CBS se­ries “The Smoth­ers Brothers Com­edy Hour,” win­ning an Emmy. After years of strug- gling and fine-tun­ing his com­edy rou­tine, Martin de­vel­oped a sur­real per­for­mance-art style of stand-up that cap­tured the zeit­geist of the 1970s. He sold out are­nas. His com­edy al­bums were best­sellers. His nov­elty tune, “King Tut,” which he in­tro­duced dur­ing one of his many host­ing gigs on “Satur­day Night Live,” was a sur­prise hit in 1978.

Work­ing with Reiner taught Martin a lot of prac­ti­cal­i­ties about film.

“When we had the script for ‘The Jerk,’ he said the first thing I do with the script is change all the nights to day, just to make the shoot­ing eas­ier,” Martin said. “Any night we can change to a day, we change.”

Com­edy, Martin said, isn’t pretty. It leaves you un­steady.

“You have to get those laughs, and if they are not there, it’s dev­as­tat­ing,” he said. “Espe­cially when you are think­ing this is go­ing to kill them and then it doesn’t.”

Martin has dis­cov­ered over the years, though, that as for the com­edy bits he loved but didn’t think would get a laugh, “those are the bits that peo­ple ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber, that grow on them.”

Like a quick joke in “The Jerk.”

“Carl and I were laugh­ing driv­ing to work for 30 min­utes at this joke,” Martin said. “The joke is: I’m hitch­hik­ing in Mis­souri, and the char­ac­ter’s name is Navin John­son. A car pulls over and said, ‘St. Louis?’ And I say, ‘No, Navin John­son.’ ”

TNT will air the AFI trib­ute on June 13. TCM will present an en­core on July 30 dur­ing an evening of Martin’s films.

Archive Pho­tos / Getty Images

“THERE’S A lot go­ing on with that young man,” says Martin Short, above cen­ter, of Steve Martin, his “Three Ami­gos” costar along with Chevy Chase.

Touch­stone

STEVE MAR­TIN walked Kim­berly Wil­liams-Pais­ley down the aisle in 1991’s “Father of the Bride.”

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