Family & Companions
As the epitome of laid-back cool, the handsome, mellow-voiced crooner Dean Martin successfully redefined his image throughout his career without ever straying too far from his established persona as a quick-witted, booze-loving regular guy. Martin emerged from the shadow of playing straight man to his early comedy partner Jerry Lewis, to become a respected film actor in such films as "Some Came Running" (1958), as well as a top-selling solo recording artist. His profile rose even further as the apparent second-in-command to his close friend Frank Sinatra in the Rat Pack, both in films and on records and the stages of Las Vegas nightclubs. By the 1960s Martin was one of the most popular and highest paid performers in history, with a hit single that bounced the Beatles off the charts, films like the Matt Helm series topping the box office, and his long-running comedy-variety series, "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-1974), sitting atop the ratings each week. Martin's output decreased somewhat in the 1970s and 1980s, but his appearances in films like "Airport" (1970) and "The Cannonball Run" (1981) continued to endear him to a broad audience. However, by the time of Martin's death in 1995, a resurgence of appreciation for Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and their contemporaries – fueled perhaps most prominently by Jon Favreau's über-cool film "Swingers" (1996) – elevated the entertainer to full-fledged icon status. Though his former partner Jerry Lewis would later call him "the most underrated performer in the history of our business," Martin was enthusiastically embraced by the audiences of his time, and rediscovered by subsequent generations of fans who had yet to be born during his heyday.
Born on June 7, 1917, Dino Paul Crocetti was the son of Italian immigrant farmers in Steubenville, OH. He spoke only Italian throughout his early years and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade – perhaps one of many reasons Martin would develop an almost impenetrable wall around himself, letting few in throughout his life. The future performer toiled in a variety of odd jobs around this time, including stints as a shoe-shine boy, store clerk, steel mill worker, and for a period, welterweight prizefighter. He also helped run bootleg liquor for certain shady establishments, later becoming an accomplished croupier at some of the local speakeasies. After being coaxed on stage one night by friends, Martin realized his suave good looks and smooth baritone might allow him to escape a life of manual labor and set out to become a crooner in the mold of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. An early break came when he performed with the Ernie McKay Orchestra, which led to higher profile gigs, and by the mid-1940s, a spot opening for a young Frank Sinatra in New York City. After a brief stint in the Army, Martin teamed with a teenage comedian named Jerry Lewis, launching them both into the celebrity stratosphere. Though Martin seemingly played the straight man to the manic, off-the-wall Lewis – the "organ grinder" to Lewis’ "monkey" as many termed it – his deft comic timing was a critical, if not always appreciated, part of what was then America's most successful comedy duo of the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, the fan hysteria that accompanied Martin & Lewis' public appearances at the time was akin to the manias that surrounded Sinatra and Elvis Presley at the heights of their popularity.
In addition to sold out live performances, Martin & Lewis began appearing on various television programs, and even landed their own half-hour radio spot, "The Martin and Lewis Show" on NBC. Placed under contract with producer Hal Wallis at Paramount Pictures, the comedy duo appeared together in 16 films, beginning with "My Friend Irma" (1949), through "Sailor Beware" (1952) and "Artists and Models" (1955), ending with "Hollywood or Bust" (1956). When the team's 10-year partnership ended – due, most speculated, to Lewis' ever-increasing ego, combined with Martin’s mounting dissatisfaction with being the "second banana" – many in Hollywood predicted dire straights for Martin's future career after the duo’s acrimonious split. Martin, however, saw things differently, releasing a string of hit recordings – which would ultimately include classics like "That’s Amore" (1953), "Memories Are Made of This" (1955), "Mambo Italiano" (1955) and "Ain’t That a Kick in the Head" (1960) – and jumping into a solo film career with the box office bomb "Ten Thousand Bedrooms" (1956). Undeterred, he took a supporting role in director Edward Dmytryk’s war drama "The Young Lions" (1958), delivering a respectable performance, followed by another well-regarded turn as an incorrigible gambler in the Vincente Minnelli melodrama "Some Came Running" (1958), co-starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Martin paired with John Wayne for the first time in the classic Howard Hawks western "Rio Bravo" (1959), then reconnected with Sinatra for "Ocean’s Eleven" (1960). The caper comedy, featuring mutual pals Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, officially kicked off the Rat Pack era, to which Martin and the boys would be linked forever after.
Martin and director Minnelli joined forces once again with an adaptation of the Judy Holliday musical "Bells Are Ringing" (1960). During the early 1960s, he performed regularly with the Rat Pack live on the Las Vegas strip, and in other lightweight film romps such as "Sergeants 3" (1962) and "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964). Billy Wilder’s sex comedy "Kiss Me Stupid" (1964) featured Martin in a role tailor-made for him – that of a hard-drinking, womanizing lounge singer – however, audiences were far from receptive to the film’s cavalier attitude toward promiscuity and adultery, dooming its theatrical release. Although musical tastes in America were changing – it was at the height of the Beatles’ American invasion, after all – Martin proved he still had something to offer when his hit single "Everybody Loves Somebody" knocked the Fab Four off the U.S. charts in 1964. Never one to take himself or his public image too seriously, Martin cashed in on the James Bond craze of the mid-60s with the spy spoof "The Silencers" (1966), as sexy super agent Matt Helm. Based on the popular series of pulp novels, it generated several sequels, all starring Martin, and later helped inspire the Mike Myers romp "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (1997). Other efforts included his own long-running TV variety program, "The Dean Martin Show" (NBC, 1965-74) – later followed by NBC’s periodic "Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast" spin-off specials, which attracted some of the biggest names in show business for some of the funniest off-the-cuff revelry ever aired on the small screen.
Over the course of the 1970s, Martin began to scale back his work. His last successful starring role in a major motion picture was as the pilot of a doomed airliner in the all-star disaster melodrama "Airport" (1970). His final starring role was in the little-seen crime drama "Mr. Ricco" (1975), followed by sporadic appearances on television shows like "Charlie’s Angels (ABC, 1976-1981) and "Vega$" (ABC, 1978-1981). Perhaps his most significant television appearance of the era was in 1976, when Sinatra brought Martin out as a surprise guest on Jerry Lewis' annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, marking the first time the former friends had spoken in two decades. The reunion touched Lewis, who had never stopped missing nor idolizing his former partner. Martin was called out of semi-retirement by 1970s movie megastar Burt Reynolds for the campy car race comedy "The Cannonball Run" (1981), along with fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr. Cast as a pair of contenders disguised as priests, the pair good-naturedly goofed their way through the silliness, reprising their roles in the 1984 sequel. Tragically, Martin's son, actor-singer Dean Paul Martin, was killed in a plane crash in 1987, and many of the performer's intimates later suggested that the loss was such a devastating blow to the already emotionally reserved Martin, causing him to further retreat into solitude throughout his later years. One bright spot came when Lewis made a low-key appearance at Dean Paul's funeral, prompting Martin to at last rekindle the friendship with his former partner for the remainder of his life. A life-long smoker, Martin succumbed to emphysema at his Los Angeles home in 1995 at the age of 78, leading old friends like Sinatra, MacLaine and Lewis to memorialize him as an underrated comedy genius and premier recording artist who was always the most charming man in the room.
In the years following his passing, Martin’s musical contributions gained new recognition, due in large part to his hits being featured on the soundtracks of such films as "Goodfellas" (1990), "A Bronx Tale" (1993), and the L.A. hipster comedy "Swingers" (1996). On the small screen, aspects of his relationships with former friends and partners were covered in a pair of telepics – "The Rat Pack" (HBO, 1998), with Joe Mantegna as Martin and Ray Liotta as Sinatra, in addition to "Martin and Lewis" (CBS, 2002), with Jeremy Northam as the laid-back crooner and Sean Hayes as his nutty partner.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
First used name Dean Martin while singing with the Sammy Watkins Band in Cleveland (date approximate)
Replaced Sinatra as singer at Riobamba, New York
Served with Army in Akron; invalided out after hernia
Unsuccessful screen test at Columbia; met Jerry Lewis while both were performing at the Glass Hat, NYC; formed team (a double act) and debuted at 500 Club, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Debut with Lewis on TV show "Talk of the Town"; signed contract with Universal (no films produced)
Film debut in "My Friend Irma"; with Lewis formed York Productions
Signed with Paramount
Ended creative partnership with Lewis after film "Hollywood or Bust"; withdrew from York Productions
Made his solo film debut in "10,000 Bedrooms"
Final film appearance, "Cannonball Run II"