Steve Martin's New Song and Dance

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

Steve Martin on the cover of Rolling Stone 363
Annie Leibovitz
Steve Martin on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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.

After the first weeks of shooting, did you feel confident about your acting, or was there fear?
[Laughs] I would not allow myself to be afraid. I thought that would really hurt me. I felt I had been through so much. I'd faced 20,000 people in concert, and I refused to be intimidated. It was not easy.

What has it been like for you to see the film?
There's something about the movie that overwhelms me, and it's touching and it's different and I love what it's saying, even though I can't express it. When I was in college – one reason I was in show business is I'd read a poem and think, "God, that thing is beautiful." And I would get in my speech class and read the poem. I wanted to pass it along. The thrill for me is when a sympathetic person watches this film and gets the same feeling I had when I saw the BBC version.

Was your goal always to be in movies?
Yeah, stand-up comedy was really just an accident. I was figuring out a way to get onstage. I made up a magic act and, "Hey, I'm in show business," and that led to nightclubs. I felt like a comedian, that was my work. As I got into the movies, I was reminded, "Hey, this is really why I got into show business." I do like the movies. It's so condensed. You get to try and make it right.

But there's nothing more condensed than a one-liner to an audience that laughs right back.
But with movies you've got constantly new material, constant new challenges.

Wasn't it in college (Long Beach State, 1964) that you hit on your particular brand of comedy?
College totally changed my life. It changed what I believe and what I think about everything. I majored in philosophy. Something about non sequiturs appealed to me. In philosophy I started studying logic, and they were talking about cause and effect, and you start to realize, "Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic. There is no anything!" Then it gets real easy to write this stuff, because all you have to do is twist everything hard – you twist the punch line, you twist the non sequitur so hard away from the thing that set it up, that it's easy . . . and it's thrilling.

For a while there, you thought about becoming a teacher.
But then I thought, "I can't give up show business." I'd studied philosophy and realized the only true value was accomplishment. So I changed my major, transferred [to UCLA] and went into theater.

You were already doing some comedy. Where did you first perform onstage?
At this club, the Prison of Socrates, on Balboa Island [near Newport Beach]. It was Hoot Night, and I got up and just threw everything in to try and get to fifteen minutes. So I had my magic, and I read poetry and played the banjo, and I juggled. It's exactly what I'm doing now.

What kind of response did you get?
Gosh, I don't know. Part of the thing, when you're young andnaive, is that you think you went over when you didn't, and that's what keeps you going. Your desire's so great to do it, you don't just quit.

How did you meet your manager, Bill McEuen?
Well, I used to go to high school with his brother, John, and we slowly communicated. We didn't get together, though, till I started writing for the Smothers Brothers. I was about twenty-two when we decided to sign a management thing, and neither of us, I swear to God, knew what we were doing. [Dumbstruck voice] "I got a manager now...."

I can't believe the intensity of his devotion. He tape-recorded everything you did back in the early days.
Sure. He used to sit out there every night, watch every show, and laugh. And I'd hear his laugh and it'd sort of keep me going. It was like him and me, kind of cheering each other up. I know I'm dying, he knows I'm dying, and we're laughing about it.

For a while you slipped into a hippie look. How much did it reflect your life?
Well, I was just going through a stage, like anybody. I was listening to rock music. I smoked some marijuana. That was when I was about twenty. Marijuana's so strange in that you can get a lot of different things from it. When you first start smoking it, you really get high, and then after a while, you just get tired. When I started writing, I quit.

How did you get the job writing for the Smothers Brothers?
I had written a stack of things in college, in creative writing class. I had a girlfriend who was a dancer on the show, and she showed Mason Williams [the show's head writer] my stuff. Mason paid me out of his own pocket at first.

After your hippie phase, around 1971, you started wearing white suits. How contrived was that?
It seemed at the time like something really far out. It was planned, and then the white suit became gurulike when I started achieving success. But when I cut my hair, I didn't do it to think, "Well, this will help me in show business." I just wanted to forget about the past.

Even before the white suit, you were doing some strange things, not only in your act but especially after the shows, leading crowds out into the streets and going to McDonald's and ordering 300 hamburgers and one French fry.
That's what I had to learn in acting, that it was the degree of your commitment to an idea that made it successful or not. The idea could be wrong, but you must be committed, and that's what I was to the act at that time. All the way.

I remember the first time I ever walked out of the hall at the end of the act, and the audience came with me and I had them all get in a swimming pool – which was empty& – and then I swam over top the of them, and they all put their arms out, and I thought, "Gee, there's a breakthrough! I'm gonna do this every time now." It was that spirit, I think, that caught fire to the rest of my act. I stopped going outside because it got too dangerous. I realized if I go out and take 3000 people, someone's gonna get run over.

That's when the concerts became "events."
But even after that, there were great shows, shows that thrilled me. It was like playing an instrument. The audience was an instrument. I can do this and they'll do this. There was a period of, like, a year and a half where I felt so good; my body, my fingers, everything was working. When it got beyond that . . . . I don't want sour grapes, like I was selling out 20,000-seat concerts and was unhappy. I wasn't, on one hand. It was the traveling, the circumstances – it just got me. I started doing things like collapsing onstage. It was a signal.

What about the time you had to go to the hospital?
It was a concert in Knoxville, Tennessee, with about 7000 people in, like, a gymnasium. They were hanging from the rafters. It was about 100 degrees outside and humid, so it must've been 125 degrees onstage. The first five minutes I could feel sweat coming from my hair and running down my face. And the suit got soaked through. And I was about a half hour into the act when I realized I couldn't go on. I had to leave. They called the medics and took me to the hospital. It was just exhaustion. I was a wreck.

How did it affect your performance? Did your act become rote?
No, that wasn't the problem. My act was always formulated. It's not like you get depressed and go out and do a lousy show. You could be exhausted, and something happens and you're on top of it. That's the enigma of performing. You can be very down and go out there and suddenly feel it. Or be very high and never connect with the audience. I started getting tired when I was getting into the nonconcert situations, like Atlantic City or Las Vegas. I felt something was missing.

When you began to get a lot of media attention, people tried to explain why you hit when you did. Did you agree with their assessments?
You know, in those articles I always looked for something larger. I always felt there was a deeper meaning to what I was doing than just being "wild and crazy," something more philosophical. I had a view that there was something funny about trying to be funny. I needed a theory behind it in order to justify it at the time, but now I don't. I see it for what it was. It was just fun, and it was stupid and that's why it was successful.

But a lot of stupid comics have failed. Why did you succeed?
It was like everyone was ripe, and I was there and had the act I'd been doing for ten years, and boom, you know? I just think people wanted something new. I mean, I wanted something new, so I sort of became it.

You were one of the most popular guest hosts of 'Saturday Night Live.' Was there an instant chemistry?
It grew over the years. After a couple of times, it was a lot easier to write for me, and we had things to go to. I was not much of a contributor, except for my monologues.

When you were invited onto 'SNL,' did you already know the show?
Sure, I saw the very first show, and I loved it. Saturday Night Live was a huge force. It made movie stars – John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray. They and Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin and myself were the comedy of the Seventies.

Do you have plans to work with 'SNL' cast members in movies?
Oh, I'd love to. We had a project at one point with me, Belushi and Aykroyd, called The Three Caballeros, but it went the way of a lot of projects. Belushi and Aykroyd and Murray and Laraine [Newman] came on my special [November 25th, 1981, on NBC]. There's a nice camaraderie, but we're not the best friends. Belushi was over here the other night with Don Novello [Father Guido Sarducci], and we sat around, talked and bullshitted. That was fun. You don't get a chance to get real close because . . . "I'm off!" or they're gone. You know, you really see each other only at rehearsals.

Do you plan to get back to the stage soon?
I want to stay in contact with live performing. Once you lose it, you've lost something real important. I want to go back with something really fresh. I need six months at the Comedy Store to get back into shape, and I look forward to going back. I'd like to start from the bottom again. Work up a whole other feeling. And to get that feeling again of funny. Who even wants the big halls again? That's been done.

Can a successful Steve Martin still play the jerk who thinks he's making it when he's actually making a fool of himself?
I'd still be that character. That's me. I can't walk out and be a somber Lenny Bruce or change the focus of my material. Onstage, when I say I've made it, it doesn't mean careerwise or celebritywise. It means [smugly], "I'm good." You can always think you're good when you're really not.

How are you coming up with new material now?
My act was ad-libbed, really, for over ten years, and the good ad-libs stayed and that's how it evolved. I sat down and wrote some things, but pretty much everything was, "Hey, that'll work," laying at night in your bed and going, "Well, that's another good idea!" [Laughs.]

You met Bernadette Peters, the story goes, four years ago at a dinner in Las Vegas. What was it about her that attracted you?
I liked her because she was independent. I respected her for it, and I knew it wasn't going to be, you know, "Oh, Steve, what are we going to do now? Where're you going?" She was in show business, we could talk.

Offstage, you're very serious and kind of distant.
That's what my close friends say, too, you know.

Why is it that you come off cold to people?
You know, I can't answer that. That's for a shrink to answer. I'm a lot better at it now than when I was touring. When you're touring and if you go to a party, there's automatically a celebrity-audience distance. It follows you around, especially when you're on the road in small towns. Any time there is awe, it gets very difficult to be normal, to be yourself. But I'm not saying that that's what made me the way I am. I've probably always been distant.

As a kid, too? In high school and college?
Well, I had one very close friend in high school and college, two different people. Otherwise, it was hard to get to know people. But I had real good rapport with these specific friends. We had this communication, generally through humor.

When you're at the Comedy Store working out bits, do you just do your spot and split? Do you hang out with the other comics?
[Dryly] No.

Do you appreciate a comic like Andy Kaufman, who seems more interested in arousing the audience than in getting laughs?
I've only seen Andy Kaufman be funny. I always felt like if what I was doing then hadn't broken through, I would eventually have gone on to something like that. I always felt like Andy Kaufman was the next step.

What about other comics? Do you keep tabs on them?
Not much. I can look at it almost objectively because I don't feel like one anymore. I feel like I've moved . . . changed somehow, and it's so far behind me in some spiritual way. I feel more inclined toward the movies now. I'm not looking for my next college date. I want to be a comedian-actor.

What about your next movie, 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'? (Martin, through the magic of film archives, carefully contrived writing, meticulous set designs and film editing, plays scenes with Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd. The film is due out in May.)
Well, Carl Reiner and George Gipe and I were rewriting a script I had written, called Depression. As we rewrote it, we realized we didn't like it, and we didn't know how to fix it. We were having lunch one day and somebody said, "What if we cut to a scene from an old movie and have our character placed into the movie, by matching sets and stuff?" So it started out as one scene. Then, "What if we did a whole picture like that?"

What is the story line?
It's set in the 1940s. I'm a detective, and Humphrey Bogart taught me everything I know, and I'm so good I've surpassed him. He starts to slip, and I have to let him have it and let him know that all the things he taught me, rules like "Never fall in love," that they're wrong. And he's got some really great looks. He really feels bad. There're like twenty or thirty stars in it, and it's brilliantly constructed. It's a mystery and it all comes to a conclusion. Using other movies' dialogue, that's amazing. It's one of those movies that's just fun; it takes you away. I have a grudge with a lot of comedies, that they're so poorly made and they look crummy. This picture looks good; it's funny and it's got character.

I heard you met recently with Stanley Kubrick in London.
It's not the kind of stuff you want to put in the papers. That's the way deals are blown. But I met with him in London for about eight hours. He likes The Jerk, and we talked about doing something together. He's working on a script.

You're also the executive producer of a late-night show on NBC called 'Twilight Theater' (a pilot will air in February).
Well, that's strictly a title. I just go in and see how it's going. It's part of my television deal; we created a production company that feeds ideas to NBC, and late-night really appealed to me. We're doing a prime-time situation comedy with Martin Mull – that's in development – and Twilight Theater, which is our version of those Alcoa anthology shows from the late Fifties. We've got Roddy McDowall as the host, and it looks like we present great drama. He sits by the fireside and pulls books off the shelves and introduces the next, you know, piece of art, and it's all sort of pompous. Then we do New Wave, with a punk-expressionist set.

(Among planned segments: a soap-opera parody set in a high school whose population is three-quarters punks and one-quarter preppies; a New Wavey video clip of Rosemary Clooney doing "Come on a My House," accompanied by Spazz Attack, the dancer in Devo's video of "Satisfaction.")

Now that you're two films past it, what do you think of 'The Jerk'?
I saw it recently; it came on cable TV. I sat there and . . . "You know, this is pretty funny." I liked it. There are things I would've done different, but I recognized that was me then; that's the style of the film.

'The Jerk' got worked over by the critics, and that came around the time you were being slammed for the 'Cruel Shoes' book. Other writers said you were repeating too many bits and putting out too many albums. How did you respond to all this?
The thing that's wrong is that they [the critics] try to make you ashamed of your work. And nobody has the right to do that. We do this out of – oh, I can't say why [laughs]. I was gonna say love, but that's not true. Love sounds like you're implying [in a sincere voice], "I want to go out there and make those people happy." And I've never thought that. I wanted to get onstage and exercise this craft. It's to please yourself.

. . . Or to make the world a better place?
I'll tell you, I'm sure musicians don't feel they're going out there making people happy. They're happy with moving their fingers across the neck of that guitar, and that's the way I felt. It just happens in comedy that that's superficially what it looks like you're doing. I never thought I was making them happy. I always figured they hated me. I felt happy that the show went right, and if I had this elevating moment, I felt there was communication. That's why when the thing got out of control and certain individuals in the audience& – you know, the rock-audience syndrome with some guy throwing a beer bottle at you and the people running up onstage. That really got to me because it threw everything out of sync. I learned how to handle it, but I didn't want to have to handle it.

How have you handled the money that's come with success?
Well, I don't want to sound like I have $ 100 million. I did well. I have no complaints.

You have what? About $50 million?
That's about eighty million [laughs]. I have no problems with money at all. I'm not depressed because of it. It's so relative. You can quibble over $100 but not over $100,000. But I hesitate to discuss money because it's – I don't care who you are, there's a real hatred of rich people, there's hostility – this real snide attitude toward the rich as though you didn't earn it and that it was easy, or that there's a great difference between the rich and the not-rich. What's the difference? Now why is he an asshole? I mean, I didn't start it out as a business. There are two things – what you do and the business of what you do – and I don't feel like a businessman.

Bill McEuen told me that he wanted to do well more to have freedom than for the money. But he also said, "While we're hot, why not take it? If we don't, we'll hate ourselves in ten years."
I have to tell you something. Bill vacillates, and it depends on the mood he's in. Sometimes he'll say, "Fuck you, we're only doing this for the money, and if we don't get the money, we're not gonna do it." Other times he's the most artistic, dedicated, devoted-to-art person I've ever met. And I think all of us are like that. You're making so much on a concert tour, and it excites you a little and you go, "How much?" There's a certain thrill to it. It's detached. I don't care if I'm getting five cents for a show or $100,000, it's just as hard. The work is the same, and you're not gonna let it die. I mean, you're out there sweating, working for something else.

You know, talking about selling – that's a whole style. You're on the road, you're selling records, it's a period of your show-business life that maybe happens once, or two or three times. Everything's coming together. The road was meant to sell records, it was meant for you to be out there and be Number One; it was to do everything, to explode and ride that wave. But it only comes every once in a while, and now I'm happy. I intentionally beached to calm it down, to let it subside, because if you're on that wave, pretty soon it's gonna break, just by its own weight.

Is there that sense of having retired a champ? You didn't quit, but you stepped back by your own choice.
That's right. Pull it back and just say, "I'm gonna get sick of this, they're gonna get sick of it," and you just go . . . [Martin leans back, allows himself one of his wide, eye-closing smiles, breathes out and sits up again] "That was wonderful."

This story is from the February 18th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 363: February 18, 1982
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