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Steve Martin's New Song and Dance

The actor on his breakout dramatic role and year off from comedy

February 18, 1982
Steve Martin on the cover of Rolling Stone 363
Steve Martin on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

So I wanted everything to cease, and I wanted to throw the dice." Steve Martin, overdosed on success, threw his dice and what a number he rolled: the lead in 'Pennies from Heaven.' In this MGM tragi-musical, which zigzags from doomed darkness to dreamy fantasies, Martin plays Arthur Parker, a song-sheet salesman, who lies and cheats, sings and dances – who does just about everything, in fact, but act funny. For a man who rose to stardom through comedy, he was clearly taking the biggest risk of his career.

It was a role Martin worked hard to get. He had to learn dramatic acting – from the director, Herbert Ross – and take tap-dancing lessons for months, well into the production of the film. He had to accept what amounted to a year's retirement from, to put it mildly, a wildly successful comedy career. And he even had to butt up against his own friend and manager, Bill McEuen. "I just think he shouldn't be doing a dramatic role at this point," McEuen said, a few weeks before the movie opened. "I would've been happier if he'd done a couple more comedies first, then tried something different."

But Steve would not be stopped. Martin had seen 'Pennies' in its original form, as a six-part, nine-hour television series produced by BBC in 1976 and shown later in the United States on various PBS stations. "I couldn't believe it," Martin said. "I'd sit there and go, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever seen.' What the movie's about is so common to everything. Arthur's desire to be like what the songs told him. I saw this great parallel to when I was growing up in the Fifties. The rock & roll songs were so simple, everything was so simple. You loved her, you got her, you lost her. Pop music now, or in the Sixties, was complicated, but these songs were just, 'Here's what life is gonna be.' And that promise has been made to people of our generation as well as to people of Arthur's generation."

Ten days after 'Pennies' opened, Martin's mood was a reflection of the film's business – a mixture of disappointment, optimism and caution. Backed by rave reviews, it did well in New York City, but elsewhere, reviews were mixed and business was so-so. "I'm disappointed that it didn't open as a blockbuster," said Martin, "and I don't know what to blame, other than it's me and not a comedy." About the critics? "I must say that the people who get the movie, in general, have been wise and intelligent; the people who don't get it are ignorant scum."

When Martin got the role in 'Pennies,' he was thirty-six years old and the hottest comedian in the country. His concerts competed with large rock shows, drawing audiences of 25,000 people. Two albums sold more than a million copies each, and a third had the million-selling single "King Tut." He played Vegas and published a best-selling book, 'Cruel Shoes.' All four of his NBC specials have given that beleaguered network something to smile about. And his first full-length feature film, 'The Jerk,' grossed $100 million on an investment of some $4.5 million. Infact, it was on the strength of 'The Jerk' that Martin was mentioned as a possible Arthur Parker when Herbert Ross began casting 'Pennies.' Several other actors, among them Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfuss, were sent scripts. But Rick McCallum, executive producer of 'Pennies,' says most of the actors were put off by the "unsympathetic" nature of the Parker character and by the work the part required.

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When Martin met with Ross and writer Dennis Potter at Martin's home in Beverly Hills, Potter recalls: "Steve started talking about Arthur, what he felt about the part. As he talked – he actually put on a hat and did a tentative dance – be instinctively understood Arthur, and from that moment on, I had no doubt." Ross, who got into film as a choreographer and has directed a few dancers ('The Turning Point' and 'Nijinsky' being among his credits), calls Martin "literally the only actor in Hollywood who is equipped to do a musical. There is not one actor who has the skills that be does."

We are at Martin's house in Beverly Hills. From the outside, it looks like a forbidding fortress. But inside, it's sunlit, wide-open spaces, all white walls (or, more often, half walls or columns with rectangular cutouts) and gray carpeting, with careful, tasteful and clearly professional decorating. Furnishings are mostly contemporary, in greens, roses and maroons. Bookshelves are filled with a substantial library of histories and collections of American art (there are two dozen books on James McNeill Whistler alone), along with leather-bound scripts from Martin's films and TV specials. It is a house with no clutter, no magazines on the coffee table, no records strewn about (in a cabinet, though, one finds albums by Steely Dan, Kraftwerk, Devo, Mozart and tapes of Thirties music). On the walls hang artwork, both modern and nineteenth century, including a John Henry Twachtman. Martin has been a serious "looker" since college days and a collector since he could afford to be one.

Offstage, with friends or strangers, Steve is, simply, off. He's a cooperative interview, but he doesn't want to talk about fellow comedians, he says, "because all I'm gonna do is say nice things, and it's gonna be so boring." He wants to keep his relationship with Bernadette Peters (costar of 'Pennies') private. And the same goes for his art collection. Agonizing over whether to even talk about it, he explains: "As a comedian, I'm willing to trade out my private thoughts about things that are personal to me for space in the magazine, and I'm willing to say dumb things that, six months later, I go, 'Why did I say that?' But when it comes to art, which is so personal – and I'm not trying to make it part of my personality – I'm not willing to say dumb things about it. I want the freedom to be stupid about it, to learn about it, to think about something I still don't understand. It's like why I'm a vegetarian, I don't know. I can't defend myself, and I don't have to defend myself. It's like the artist doesn't have to explain or justify anything about it. And I think it's important for me to keep that position, for my own personal health."

But on occasion, Martin the comedian emerges. He notices my scribbling into a notebook. "What're you writing down?" he asks.

I tell him, "Striped dress shirt, black slacks . . . ."

"Well," he volunteers, "my shoes are mauve. They're dress shoes, but I want to break them in, so I'm wearing them two hours a day." He chuckles.

And the socks?

"Oh, I'm breaking in these socks, too."

Why did you decide to take such a risk with your career?
I was asked about that before I went into the project, and there was no hesitation. When I first started doing my act, it was not . . . normal. It was not what was expected. That's why the public caught onto it. And I said, "If I start getting trapped by my own sameness, I'm not doing what they secretly want, which is for me to do what I want to do."

The last time I saw you, you said this movie would be the biggest challenge of your life. Did your expectations come true?
More than I thought, I was in such a state. I'd been on the road – about seventeen years. But three years really steady, and it was debilitating. You get physically tired, emotionally tired, and start wondering what you're doing.

It got to the point where when I'd do new material, it sounded like old material even to me [puzzled laugh]. And one thing I didn't understand that frustrated me was, I was doing comedy, and the audience was doing an event. They were at an event, and I was going, "Wait a minute. This is my little joke. Why are you waving balloons at me during my joke?"

I needed a break. I wasn't looking for a dramatic role; I didn't know what I was looking for. Then this thing came along, and it was like seeing the perfect circle. You knew you had to enter it.

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