Nationality: American. Born: Waco, Texas, 14 August 1945. Education: Attended Long Beach State College and the University of California, Los Angeles. Family: Married the actress Victoria Tennant, 1986 (separated). Career: As a child performer, worked with Wally Boag at Disneyland, then at Birdcage Theatre, Knott's Berry Farm; 1967—while at University, accepted contract to write for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for CBS TV; from 1970—writer and stand-up comic, working on TV through the 1970s, including Saturday Night Live, on tour, and on best-selling records; 1979—feature film debut as writer/performer in The Jerk, 1979; partner in Aspen Film Society (an independent production company) and 40 Share Productions (a television production company). Awards: Best Actor Awards, U.S. National Society of Film Critics, and New York Film Critics, for All of Me, 1984; Best Actor Awards, U.S. National Society of Film Critics, and Los Angeles Film Critics, for Roxanne, 1987. Address: P.O. Box 929, Beverly Hills, CA 90213, U.S.A.
Films as Actor:
The Absent-Minded Waiter (Gottleib—short) (+ co-sc)
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Schultz) (as Maxwell Edison); The Kids Are Alright (Stein)
The Muppet Movie (Frawley); The Jerk (Carl Reiner) (as Navin, + co-sc)
Pennies from Heaven (Ross) (as Arthur)
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner) (as Rigby Reardon, + co-sc)
The Man with Two Brains (Carl Reiner) (as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, + co-sc)
The Lonely Guy (Miller) (title role); All of Me (Carl Reiner) (as Roger Cobb, + co-sc)
Movers and Shakers (Asher) (as Fabio Longio)
Little Shop of Horrors (Oz) (as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S.); Three Amigos (Landis) (as Lucky Day, + co-sc, exec pr)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes) (as Neal Page); Roxanne (Schepisi) (as Charlie "C. D." Bales, + sc)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Oz) (as Freddy Benson)
Parenthood (Howard) (as Gil Buckman)
My Blue Heaven (Ross) (as Vinnie Antonelli)
L.A. Story (Mick Jackson) (as Harris K. Telemacher, + sc, exec pr); Father of the Bride (Shyer) (as George Banks); Grand Canyon (Kasdan) (as Davis)
Housesitter (Oz) (as Newton Davis); Leap of Faith (Pearce) (as Jonas Nightengale)
And the Band Played On (Spottiswoode—for TV) (as Brother)
A Simple Twist of Fate (MacKinnon) (as Michael McMann, + sc, exec pr); Mixed Nuts (Ephron) (as Philip)
Father of the Bride, Part II (Shyer) (as George Banks)
Sgt. Bilko (Lynn) (title role)
The Spanish Prisoner (Mamet) (as Jimmy Dell)
The Price of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner) (as voice of Hotep)
The Venice Project (Dornhelm) (as himself); Joe Gould's Secret (Tucci) (as Charlie Duell); Out-of-Towners (Weisman) (as Henry Clark); Bowfinger (Oz) (as Bobby Bowfinger +sc)
Novocaine (David Atkins); Fantasia 2000 (Algar and Brizzi) (as himself)
By MARTIN: books—
Cruel Shoes, New York, 1977.
The Jerk, New York, 1979.
Wasp: A Play in One Act, Los Angeles, 1996.
L.A. Story & Roxanne: Screenplays, 1997.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile & Other Plays, 1997.
The Judge, New York, 1997.
Pure Drivel, New York, 1999.
By MARTIN: articles—
Interview with B. Fong-Torres, in American Film (New York), June 1982.
Interview with Jack Barth, in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1984.
Interview, in Photoplay (London), March 1985.
Interview, in Time Out (London), 21 October 1987.
"I'm Just a White Guy from Orange County," interview with Elvis Mitchell, in American Film (New York), November 1988.
Interview with D. Sheff, in Playboy, January 1993.
"A Not So Wild and Crazy Writer," interview with Alex Witchel, in New York Times, 22 October 1995.
On MARTIN: books—
Lenburg, Greg, Randy Skretvedt, and Jeff Lenburg, Steve Martin: The Unauthorized Biography, New York, 1980.
Daly, Marsha, Steve Martin—A Wild and Crazy Guy: An Unauthorized Biography—Well Excuuuse Us!, New York, 1980.
Walker, Morris W., Steve Martin: The Magic Years, New York, 1998.
On MARTIN: articles—
Current Biography 1978, New York, 1978.
Allen, Steve, in Funny People, New York, 1981.
McGillivray, David, "Steve Martin," in Films and Filming (London), December 1985.
Worrell, Denise, in Icons: Intimate Portraits, New York, 1989.
Fiddy, Dick, "Steve Martin: Wild and Crazy Guy," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), December 1989.
Friedman, Bruce Jay, "Steve Martin, National Treasure," in Playboy, April 1991.
Van Biema, David, and Joe McNally, "Steve Martin Gets Serious," in Life, March 1992.
de Jonge, Peter, "Cool Jerk," in New York Times, 31 May 1992.
Gopnik, Adam, "Steve Martin: The Late Period," in New Yorker, 29 November 1993.
Golden, E., and others, "Playing Favorites," in Movieline (Escondido), May 1994.
Kroll, J., "When Pablo Met Albert," in Newsweek, 20 June 1994.
Elias, J., "Fantastic Voyage," in Village Voice (New York), 12 September 1995.
Sherrill, M., "Mister Lonely Hearts," in Esquire, April 1996.
Horst, Sabine, "Steve Martin: Der Alleinunterhalter. Der letzte Entertainer. Der bewegte Mann," in EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), February 1997.
* * *
Steve Martin's status in the American cinema as one of America's most versatile comic actors and most sensitive screenwriters seemed to be increasingly secure in the early 1990s. But by the beginning of the new millennium, Martin's film career seems to have somewhat stalled, a victim, perhaps of the kind of Hollywood myopia that Martin himself lampoons in his most recently produced screenplay, Bowfinger. Martin began as a writer for other comics and television variety shows, but soon developed for himself an incredibly successful career as a stand-up comedian. His routines tended toward the zany, his persona that of the jerky, egocentric comic. There was always a clear philosophical intelligence at work in his routines, even when he performed with an arrow through his head. His comic bit of using a single flashcube to take a photo of his large audience worked as a sly comment on misguided photographers among his typical amphitheater crowds. His use of catchphrases, such as "Excuuuuuuse me," and "I'm a wild and crazy guy," entered popular parlance, although they were as much reflexive ruminations on the concept of the catchphrase, as they were catchphrases. Indeed, his egocentric persona was so self-consciously a put-on that the second level of his routines became structural treatises on the stand-up form: "New Comedy" which was funny because it was sly parody of comedy, rather than comedy. His famous "happy feet" bit, whereby Martin's feet involuntarily start to dance, introduced the theme that would become a primary hallmark of the comedian's work: the split between the mind and the body.
In his first feature, The Jerk, a picaresque tale that marked the first of many collaborations with director Carl Reiner, Martin played a black sharecropper's adopted son who discovers only as an adult that he is white. The Jerk draws heavily on Martin's stand-up traditions, particularly a sequence in which Martin—in clichéd Mexican bandido drag—engages in dastardly cat juggling. The Man with Two Brains (co-written by Martin) continued to draw upon his traditions. Wearing a white suit and a headband with fluffy bunny ears, Martin acts the part of the self-deluded yet vulnerable jerk, uttering silly phrases like "Into the mud, scum queen!"
A clear, artistic departure took place with the 1981 Pennies from Heaven, directed by Herbert Ross. A very downbeat musical, Martin and co-star Bernadette Peters danced and lip-synced to authentic performances from the Great Depression era. If generally considered a noble failure, Pennies from Heaven distinguished Martin as one of the few American comic actors of his time (along with Woody Allen) willing to take chances on risky material. Risky, too, was his 1982 film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (again with director Reiner), in which Martin—through the magic of special effects and the most sophisticated Kuleshov-inspired editing—performs opposite stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, and Barbara Stanwyck in scenes borrowed from their greatest period vehicles.
With the exception of occasional films that appear designed to appeal to a juvenile audience (for instance, Three Amigos, a disappointing collaboration with John Landis and alumni of the Saturday Night Live television show; the slapstick Planes, Trains and Automobiles, directed by John Hughes; the one-joke TV remake Sgt. Bilko, (directed by Jonathan Lynn), Martin's film choices have tended to show laudable ambitiousness and fascinating inspiration. Several films in which Martin worked only as performer particularly stand out: In the musical Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Muppet alumnus Frank Oz, Martin turned in an overwhelmingly energetic supporting turn as a sadistic dentist. In All of Me, co-starring Lily Tomlin, Martin's physical mastery was so impressive that he won a number of film critics' awards for performance. In Parenthood, directed by Ron Howard, Martin played a more reflective leading man in a decidedly ensemble piece, although his stand-up tradition is nicely exploited in a scene as "Cowboy Gil," maker of balloon animals. In Father of the Bride and its sequel, Martin showed definitively that he could follow in Spencer Tracy's footsteps as a totally credible actor, easily capable of exuding warmth and human feeling. And in The Spanish Prisoner, a tense thriller directed by David Mamet, Martin turns in a surprisingly chilly performance in his most striking change-of-pace role.
Many of Martin's acting projects alternate, it would seem, between safer works of mass appeal which entertain, and ambitious works of more limited appeal which intellectually engage. Housesitter, for instance, with Goldie Hawn, is an absolutely charming comedy in the tradition of the Hollywood screwball, with Martin and Hawn exhibiting considerable chemistry in a well-written formula, while Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon (a key film of the nineties) challenges spectators to question their life choices, with Martin willing to take on a relatively serious role and to potentially undermine his star status by appearing in an ensemble context. The Out-of-Towners, a very loose 1999 remake of the 1970 Neil Simon screenplay, re-unites Martin with Hawn in a series of wonderfully contrived gags and allows Martin to demonstrate both his witty charm and physical skills, while Leap of Faith is much more ambitious and disturbing, with Martin putting his kinetic energy to use as the prancing, dancing, strutting preacher Jonas Nightingale. In Leap of Faith, the insincerity which had always been an integral part of Martin's stand-up persona is transferred wholesale to the business of the faith healer, and this satirical portrait of the shamans of Christian fundamentalism is surprisingly hard-hitting and unsentimental.
Almost all of Martin's film work is marked by an incredible physical gracefulness which recalls Keaton and Chaplin; a sweetness and vulnerability which recalls Stan Laurel, but which is often projected through a surface persona of egotism and cloddishness, which recalls Jerry Lewis; and an almost schizophrenic split between the performer's mind and his body. Indeed, Martin is invariably most memorable in scenes that display the actor-writer's incredible physical gracefulness in conflict with his mental state. In All of Me, a transmogrified female soul takes control of one side of Martin's body, and in Roxanne, Martin acts out a balletic fight using his tennis racket as a weapon and later attempts—hilariously—to drink a glass of wine without his huge nose interfering. On a less conflicted note, one thinks of Martin's triumphant dance with Lily Tomlin in All of Me and his moving dance of joy after his son catches a baseball in a Little League game in Parenthood. In his professional life, Martin has also demonstrated a not inconsiderable ability to collaborate respectfully with a variety of other skillful artists, a canny eye for quality material, an intelligence which emerges in all his performances, and a generosity as actor to his co-stars. Many of these qualities are in marked contrast to many of his contemporaries, such as Chevy Chase or the early Eddie Murphy, whose film work has too often been rather artless, hypocritical, or opportunistic.
Especially impressive about Martin's development as an artist is his increased activity as screenwriter of his own projects. In Roxanne, directed by Australian Fred Schepisi in 1987 from a screenplay by Martin, Martin plays C. D. Bales, a fire chief with a huge nose. A witty and moving updating which sets Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac in a mountain resort community, Roxanne seems Martin's masterpiece so far. More than merely clever, Martin shows the relevance of Cyrano to contemporary culture, in the process providing himself a dazzling opportunity for his verbal wit and acrobatic grace. Particularly impressive is Martin's revision of Cyrano's monologue on nose-insults, which offers some continuity with the actor's stand-up tradition. Martin the writer even provides some beautiful, romantic, wistful love scenes which Martin the actor interprets with subtlety and expressiveness. L.A. Story, directed by Mick Jackson in 1991, also written by Martin, looks increasingly like a major satirical statement about life in Hollywood: not so bitter as Altman's The Player, but certainly as insightful, if more whimsical, and definitely possessing a moral vision—which seems a hallmark of Martin as writer. Although A Simple Twist of Fate, directed by Gillies MacKinnon in 1994, was—like Roxanne—written by Martin as a contemporary updating of a literary classic (in this case, George Eliot's Silas Marner), it was not particularly successful with audiences or critics. As a dramatist, Martin fills his story with feeling (one thinks of Martin dancing with his baby girl while doing a deft Harry Belafonte impression or of father and daughter mugging to music as they look into each other's eyes), but never to that sentimental point where he forgets the truth: that in the real world, money, alas, always matters. Unfortunately, a fallow period as a screenwriter followed, and it was not until 1999 that another Martin screenplay reached the screen with Bowfinger. Again Martin offered a satirical view of Hollywood, good-naturedly attacking the action-film mentality, actors' vanity, the world of the Hollywood deal and its attendant amoral ambition, and the recent mania for Scientology among some of Hollywood's top stars. Although Bowfinger offers an atypical, reflexive performance opportunity for Eddie Murphy in a dual role, the film feels decidedly more mainstream than Martin's previous screenplays and thus is a bit disappointing. For those who hoped Martin would develop an extensive body of comic screenplays like Preston Sturges or Woody Allen, Martin's spare output must be discouraging. One suspects that Martin, who would have profited from the traditional studio system of old, has a variety of sophisticated screenplays stranded in Hollywood turnaround or development-deal-hell; his driving intelligence—informed by great and comprehensive knowledge of contemporary painting, literature, and science—may be precisely what prevents his cinematic success from being greater.
Truthfully, one suspects that Martin's heart may no longer belong to Hollywood; the fact that he has recently turned to writing plays, most notably his very successful Picasso at the Lapin Agile—which deals with Einstein, cubism, the theory of relativity, the mysteries of love, and the very workings of time itself—suggests that Martin has accepted the necessary limits to his film aspirations imposed by the nature of the industry. Too, Martin has been writing occasional comic ephemera—witty, intellectual, and culturally prescient essays—for The New Yorker, following in the footsteps of humorists like Thurber, Perelman, and Woody Allen. If there remains any other major disappointment from Martin, it is that evidently he has not aspired to direct; for certainly one would welcome films which even more completely were dictated by Martin's own creative impulses.