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Steve Martin perfected this persona in the early '70s. Then he waited until they got it. And suddenly, in 1976, they went crazy over his silver hair, his B-movie-star face, his phosphorescent white suit -- the whole look so neat, so sensible, so . . . Phil Donahue -- and the sublimely silly uses to which he put them. Phrases like "Well, excuuuuuse me!" and "Naaaah!" became schoolyard mantras, and his concerts were eliciting rock-idol squeals. "He was performing to audiences of up to 20,000," recalls David Letterman, the late-night commissar of '80s comedy. "I think that's a record for a stand-up comedian in peacetime." In 1978 Martin recorded a gag disco tune called King Tut; it sold more than a million copies. The next year he published a slim volume of short stories, Cruel Shoes; it topped the best-seller list. When he appeared as a Saturday Night Live guest host, the show's ratings would jump by a million homes. His first starring movie, The Jerk, was the third biggest hit of 1980.
"Starting out in movies," Martin says, "I felt very confident that I could act, because I was too dumb to know better." Well, to start out, he could act, and he did get even better. Yet the Hollywood establishment has been his toughest audience. With All of Me in 1984, he proved that he could locate the soul of a character while surrounding it with spectacular physical comedy. The New York Film Critics Circle cited him as the year's best actor, but the academy did not even nominate him. His twisted turn as Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. (Drop Dead Sadist), in the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors should have won him a supporting-actor nod. After all, he was playing a deranged Elvis impersonator who loves his mama, tortures his girlfriend and dies of a nitrous oxide overdose. It was as if Martin were living out a line from the Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid trailer: "He'll do anything in the quest for the elusive Academy Award!" Still, nada.
O.K., Mr. and Mrs. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, try ignoring Roxanne. It is a sleeper summer hit, Martin's biggest since The Jerk. It is based on an honorable property, Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. It dares to plump for the supremacy of two old-fashioned notions: romantic love as the meeting of true minds and the English language as a tool for wooing and wonder. The script challenges its star to be at once noble and fatuous, strong and swooning, utterly in control and desperately in love -- all of which Martin handles as gracefully as if he'd written it himself (which he did). And in case you forgot, the last film fellow to play Cyrano, Jose Ferrer in 1950, got a best-actor award. "I hope he wins an Oscar," says Martin Short, Steve's co-star in last year's Three Amigos!, "because he has prepared a tremendously funny acceptance speech. If the academy members want to hear it, they know what to do."