Sensational Steve Martin

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Wondrous bits speckled all his movies. The Jerk: Steve, adopted son of a black sharecropper, discovers the forbidden delights of big-band Muzak. The Man with Two Brains: conniving black widow Kathleen Turner, lying in a hospital bed, suddenly sucks on Dr. Steve's finger, and when a nurse intrudes he removes the finger and studiously shakes it like a thermometer. The Lonely Guy: Steve makes slow, sad, beautiful love to a pillow. All of Me: during a divorce hearing, the female half of Steve must pretend to be the male half and does so by spitting on the floor and scratching his-her crotch. Three Amigos!: Steve, Chase and Short harmonize on a cowpoke lullaby as critters from a Disney zoo sway and sing along. But for Martin, great movie bits were not enough. He wanted more: to write and star in his own modern version of Cyrano.

"Conventional wisdom said it was a folly," he observes. "But I liked its emotion, its heart and its strong story line. Then David Goodman, a screenwriter friend of mine, gave me a reason to update the story: 'Cyrano gets the girl.' I also thought about using some other feature than the nose, but nothing else had its sweetness. A big nose is a friendly handicap. It's not like the Elephant Man." In 1981, for a TV special, he had played John Merrick as a deliciously sleazy show-biz freak with a pachyderm's snout. Roxanne's C.D. Bales is the sweet side of disfigurement. Though the role skirts smugness -- C.D. is the first Martin character to spend more time humiliating others than being humiliated by them -- the performance locates frolic and pathos in a wry, romantic, slightly aloof soul.

It cannot be far from Martin's own. Even in the swinging '70s, he was no party animal. "He had girls who were crazy about him," recalls Chris Bearde, Steve's producer on the Andy Williams and Sonny and Cher shows and, for two years, his roommate, "but he was almost totally dedicated to his career." At the end of the decade Martin was linked with Bernadette Peters, his co-star in The Jerk and Pennies from Heaven. They broke up in 1981. Five years later he married Victoria Tennant, the English actress who starred in TV's The Winds of War and appeared in All of Me. The two women seem polar opposites: champagne and claret. Peters, the Medusa-coiffed dervish, was an effervescent partner; Tennant, 33, is a protective one, as smart and tart as a Wilde witticism. She shares Martin's aversion to opening emotional arteries in public. She says only that "he is interesting to live with, and he makes me laugh."

( Their Beverly Hills home is just the place for a man whose comedy conceals, not reveals, and for a woman who appears comfortable in her role as a swan in the moat around the castle of her husband's privacy. It is a one-story L- shaped building with no front windows; Martin calls it the "house that says, 'Go away.' " Inside the mood is cool, elegant, high-tech. His home office boasts identical Hewlett-Packard Vectras on which he and Victoria work. The word processor is Martin's latest obsession; "It has probably replaced the banjo in his life," McEuen notes. The white walls hold works by Picasso, de Kooning, O'Keeffe, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Franz Kline, Jennifer Bartlett -- the hoard of a thoughtful connoisseur. Two cats, a white Persian named Mary and a calico alley cat, Betty, patrol the doorless rooms like silent security guards in the museum of Martin art.

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