Sensational Steve Martin

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At first Martin took his act anyplace that would take him. He worked one San Francisco club where, to attract potential customers, he would perform at a window facing the street. "I had to start my act with nobody in the audience. When people would come in, they'd find a comedian and an empty room." At California's Russian River Resort, he recalls, "I stood on a stage outdoors and played to a parking lot of cars and campers, like at a drive-in. If people liked something, they'd honk." At Harrah's in Nevada he followed an elephant act, whose trainers did not always clean up after their star. Playing Vegas was the worst. "People would have their faces in their food and never look up. Thirty minutes of material would last twelve minutes, because there'd be no laughs."

As his stand-up career blossomed, Martin found a plethora of laughs, partly because his act was defiantly antipolitical -- indeed, postpolitical. "Steve was never interested in the polemics, the controversy, the scene in the streets," Mason Williams notes, "To this day he is not." Partly because Martin seemed reactionary, the firebrands at Saturday Night Live were reluctant to have him host the show. But with his first visit, in 1976, Martin reached a turning point, maybe a flash point. King Tut was born on SNL, and Martin teamed with Aykroyd to develop the Festrunk brothers, those wild, crazy, dim-witted guys. "Steve can play dim better than anyone," says Lorne Michaels, producer of SNL and Three Amigos! "It all happens on his face. It is rare that people can play stupid without being insulting." In his career, of course, Martin was playing it smart. He was the biggest comedy star of the '70s.

But -- funny thing -- not of the '80s. The Jerk had pulled in $43.3 million in rentals. His next five pictures -- Pennies from Heaven, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, The Lonely Guy and All of Me -- earned a cumulative $38.2 million. "When you have the No. 1 record or become No. 1 at the box office," he says, "it's very easy to fall into the trap of seeing yourself as a number. My problem is that I don't get the same exhilaration from success as I get depression from failure." The reception of Pennies from Heaven, a musical drama about small people with oversize dreams, would have depressed anyone: it netted less than a tenth of The Jerk's take.

In his later movies, Martin leavened the jerk character with turns of endearment. He was a private eye in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, in which he co- starred with Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd and other famous dead people via interpolated clips from '40s film noir. He was a cuckolded surgeon in The Man with Two Brains, a parody of '50s mad-scientist movies and still Martin's bust-a-gut funniest picture. In All of Me, Martin played his best scenes with himself as a lawyer the right half of whose body is possessed by Tomlin, his dead client. In the lovely Lonely Guy, he gave another master class in informing light farce with passionate precision. And after shining in his Little Shop solo number, he cedes the spotlight to Bill Murray for a fabulous four minutes as a thrill-goofy masochist. "Steve's very generous as an actor," notes John Hughes. "Comedy can be a wicked playground, but he's totally secure, happy to step aside and let someone else shine."

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