Steve Martin: Wild and Serious Guy

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STEVE MARTIN: WILD AND SERIOUS GUY

Steve Martin is sitting with three friends at an umbrella-shaded table in a Southern California restaurant. He sips from his cup of coffee and listens to the bubbling water of the patio fountain. Then, Martin feels one coming--a Steve Martin fan. He hunches over, pulls the collar of his leather jacket around his neck, and shifts his eyes warily behind the jet-black sunglasses.

A large woman in a print housedress jiggles up to him. She giggles and thrusts a napkin and a ballpoint pen in front of Martin's face. He smiles wanly and scribbles his autograph on the napkin. She blabs happily and then wobbles away across the patio flagstones. Returning to her table, she whispers to her husband, "He didn't even say anything funny."

That is difficult for Steve Martin. He doesn't carry around a stock of one-liners like Bob Hope or George Burns, nor can he "turn on" at the drop of a straight line like Jonathan Winter or Robin Williams. Yet because he was the most phenomenally successful comedian of the 1970s, he is expected to "say something funny." To his fans he will always be that happy "jerk" onstage, that "wild and crazy guy" with the childlike comedy, the happy feet, the rabbit ears, and the balloon animals.

Unlike his stage and screen persona, Martin is a very serious man. "Steve really is bright and sophisticated," says Shelley Duvall, who starred with him in the hit movie Roxanne. He is also a very private man. His personal life and his past relationship with Bernadette Peters are taboo, as is the time he spent with Linda Ronstadt. When his busy moviemaking schedule permits, he and his wife, Victoria Tennant (War and Remembrance), travel to their weekend retreat in Santa Barbara, a home built like a concrete bunker, more ominous than inspiring. Martin's obsession is collecting 19th-century art. He is a serious collector, and the walls of his home are filled with paintings by such artists as Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.

Other than improving his art collection, Martin wants to secure his niche as a serious comedy actor in motion pictures. "After I gave up the stand-up comedy routines, I really wanted to be successful in motion pictures," Martin says.

It hasn't been easy. The comedian had creative problems transferring his own wacky brand of '70s humor to the movies of the 1980s. His first starring film, The Jerk, which came from Martin's fertile imagination, set him off toward his goal. It was a resounding success--with his fans, if not the critics.

Then Martin's next movie, Pennies from Heaven, an art-deco musical fantasy, confounded audiences and bombed at the box office. The comedian did a little better with Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, whose gimmick was to intersperse the new scenes with old black-and-white footage of Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd. But the movie was not well-received by Martin fans.

In The Man with Two Brains, the jokes were zany and Martin thought he was almost on track. He and the producers were stunned when it did poorly at the box office. The Lonely Guy followed next and died quickly. "It was sort of a stinker," Martin admits.

Martin's search for his kind of movie, a mix of serious comedy with burlesque bits, began to jell with the 1984 release All of Me (costarring Lily Tomlin), which made use of his gifts for physical comedy. "I was very happy with All of Me," Martin says. "It's the first film I have done that is funny without having to think about being funny."

In 1987 came Roxanne, a contemporary version of Cyrano de Bergerac. The reviews were great. When Time magazine praised Martin with a complimentary cover story, he felt his move dreams had come to fruition.

Martin's recent portrayal of a worried father in the guise of a goofball in Parenthood has secured his place on the cinematic scene. In this rich role as the father of a modern nuclear family (Mary Steenburgen plays the mother), Martin is able to balance his serious maturity with his wild and crazy instincts--this time in a logical way. …