Happy Birthday, Dean Martin

From Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches. Getting to the heart of it all.

His schoolmates had never really known him. Even his loving family could not tell for sure what lay within this kid who moseyed around among them with a hat on, singing. There was a pin-tumbler sidebar lock on his guts that no one could pick. That was just the way he was, and it was just the way he always would be.

Unlettered and rough-cut, Dino possessed both wiles and wisdom beyond his years – anyone trying to fuck with his mind or his body or his soul found this out forthwith. But the wisdom served by those wiles was an annihilating wisdom. It was the wisdom of the old ways, a wisdom through which the seductions of reason and love and truth and all such frail and flimsy lepidoptera would in their seasons emerge and thrive, wither and die. The sum of Dino’s instincts had to do with the old ways, those ways that were like a wall, ways that kept the world lontano, as the mafiosi would say: distant, safely and wisely at bay. That was how he liked it: lontano, like the flickering images on the theater screen that gave him pleasure as he sat alone, apart from them and unknown to them, in the dark.

Those close to him could sense it: He was there, but he was not really there; a part of them, but apart from them as well. The glint in his eye was disarming, so captivating and so chilling at once, like lantern-light gleaming on nighttime sea: the tiny soft twinkling so gaily inviting, belying for an instant, then illuminating, a vast unseen cold blackness beneath and beyond. The secret in its depth seemed to be the most horrible secret of all: that there was no secret, no mystery other than that which resides, not as a puzzle to be solved or a revelation to be discovered, but as blank immanence, in emptiness itself.

There was a picnic in Beatty Park. Roozy had gotten hold of an eight-millimeter movie camera, and they were all going to be in pictures. No one who saw that movie ever forgot it. The camera captured the silent laughter of the Crocettis and the Barrs. It followed Dino’s friends back and forth as they ran and fumbled, threw and jumped in a makeshift football game. There was merriment everywhere, but there was no Dino. Then the camera scanned to the right, to a tree off in the distance, and there he was by himself under the tree, away from it all, caught unawares and expressionless, abstractedly toying with a twig, sort of mind-whittling it. That was Dino, all right; the Dino inside the Dino who sang and swore and loafed and laughed.

He was born alone. He would die alone. These truths, he, like every punk, took to heart. But in him they framed another truth, another solitary, stubborn stone in the eye of nothing. There was something, a knowing, in him that others did not apprehend. He was born alone, and he would die alone, yes. But in between — somehow — the world in all its glory would hunker down before him like a sweet-lipped High Street whore.

a rio bravo se PDVD_013

Here’s a bit from Peter Bogdonavich’s superb essay about Dean Martin, included in his book Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors. Bogdonavich talks to Howard Hawks about directing Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, where Martin gives an excellent performance. According to Hawks, Martin was afraid he couldn’t do it, afraid it would be “too dramatic”, that he would fail.

Hawks told me how he had happened to cast Martin in what would remain the finest dramatic performance of his career. “I always liked him,” Hawks said. “I’d met him personally.” Martin’s agent had asked if Hawks would consider Dean for the role of the drunken deputy and talk with him. Hawks said, “OK, nine-thirty tomorrow morning.” When the agent said he wasn’t sure Martin could get there quite that early, Hawks just closed him off: “Look, if he wants to get here at all, have him get here at nine-thirty.” Hawks grinned, remembering that Dean had come in the next day right on time and said, “Well, I’m kind of shufflin’. I did a show till midnight over in Vegas — got up early, hired an airplane to get down here and I’ve had a lot of trouble gettin’ ‘cross town.” Hawks shook his head. “You went to all that trouble to get here at nine-thirty?” Martin answered, “Yes,” and they talked for a minutes until Hawks abruptly said, “Well, you’d better go up and get your wardrobe.” Dean looked confused. “What do you mean>” he asked, and Hawks replied, “Well, you’re going to do it – go get your wardrobe.” Howard went on to me, “And that’s what we did. I knew that if he’d do all that, he’d work hard, and I knew that if he’d work we’d have no trouble because he’s such a personality. And he did – he worked hard over that drunk.”

It shows – yet only in the best way – never labored, remarkably natural. Clearly, Martin never worked that hard over a role again, nor did he ever have as layered a part to play. Apart from a cowboy burlesque with Lewis (Pardners), Rio Bravo was also Martin’s first Western, which was by far his own favorite kind of entertainment. Especially John Wayne Westerns. In his last tragic eight years, supposedly all Dean ever did was sit in front of the TV and watch Westerns. Therefore, to co-star with John Wayne (of all cowboy stars, the most popular), and to be directed by Howard Hawks – for the director’s first Western since his triumphant debut epic with Wayne, Red River — must have been for Dean one of the crowning moments of his career. The performance he gave was a kind of committed investment proving to doubters that if he wanted to, Dean could, within his range as an actor, do just about anything.

Dean Martin was smart. He worked. He could have been ruined when he “broke up” with Jerry Lewis. The two of them were such gigantic stars together. It had helped make his name. He very easily could have sunk into obscurity. But he was bold. He was smart. He struck out on his own. He began performing solo, opening in Vegas for the first time in 1957. All of his friends came out to see him. It was better than they could have ever imagined, although it was clear the man was talented. He had risen above what could have been a huge detriment. He was so identified as the straight-man to Jerry Lewis’ mania. Many lesser performers can never survive such a loss of identity. Dean Martin not only survived, he flourished.

Observations: They walk to the left. They walk to the right. They walk forward. They are applauded for that as though it is a difficult kickline. Why? Because they are awesome. No tricks, no flash. I like to watch it just tracking Dino, then again to see what Judy’s up to, and finally once more, to only watch Frank. Watch how they compete with one another, and then silently give each other props, like, “Wow, you just sounded awesome.” The sense of feeling and friendship between the three is genuine. You don’t need to DO much. Well, except have talent and genius. But if you have that? All you need to do is link arms, walk to the left, walk to the right, and you’re home.

March 6, 1957

Dean Martin opened his solo show at The Sands Hotel on March 6, 1957. Everybody was there. He had split with Jerry Lewis the year before and people had (wrongly) assumed that Martin might have a hard time going solo.

Check out the marquee. It makes me ache for a time machine. I love the “Maybe Frank … Maybe Sammy”.

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Here’s one of the stills from his performance there that night, the night that would launch a spectacularly successful solo career. I love his goofiness.

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He was a hell of an actor, too.

Perfection. Watch how easy he is with himself, with his talent, how freely and gently he shares it. It’s like breathing with him. It’s that simple and that automatic.

Please go read my friend Trav S.D.’s profile of Dino’s career and importance.

Do you know anyone who doesn’t like him? I don’t. I think of him as the embodiment of a certain kind of show biz, with so much charisma that he transcended trends and fashions, yet so low-key and subtle that it wasn’t shoved down your throat.

And finally, my brother Brendan’s comments on Dean Martin.

I remember seeing the Dean Martin roasts and being scared, like a drunk friend of a drunk uncle had showed up unannounced at a dinner party and started shoe-horning everyone into singing along to perverted folk songs. I didn’t know what he was famous for and those roasts seemed to hint that he didn’t really know why either.

Then, years later as a grownup, I heard “Ain’t That A Kick In the Head” in some movie, or in a bar. That’s really all you need to do…just listen to that song a few times in a row. It all seems like a joke. Then you start to hear how well he sings the song. Then you realize that someone could have completely fouled the song up. It isn’t a very good song, actually. Think about all the classic standards. Everybody does ’em. But is there another famous version of that song? If there is, I haven’t heard it.

How does he turn a mediocre song around? He doesn’t sound all that invested in the heartbreak aspect of it, there isn’t irony dripping all over the place. I still can’t quite place what makes the song work so well. But I’m going to try:

His presence and personality are so evident that you don’t even need the song. He has sung the song out of existence. All you want to do is hear him make a rumble in his throat and roll his eyes about how much trouble a broad can be. You also somehow realize that no broad ever caused him too much trouble. He causes them trouble. And they love it.

It is almost a taunt. What could be a stupid jokey brushoff of heartache turns into a come-on. It is a magic trick.

Another thing that strikes me about Dean Martin is that you get the sense that he would have behaved exactly the same had he been a truck driver, a grocer, a whatever. Most of the other stars of that era seem to have been transformed in some way by fame and what came along with it. This guy could have strolled around the streets of Rome with his jacket over his shoulder and 10 bucks in his pocket and it would make no difference to him.

The most underrated of all time.

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14 Responses to Happy Birthday, Dean Martin

  1. Kent says:

    Ah, Dino! Let me count the ways…

  2. Danny G says:

    Man o man! What a guy! We miss you pal…never be another Dean! Happiest Birthday to you Dino!

  3. mutecypher says:

    That clip with John Wayne is just priceless.

  4. Dear Miss Shelia, once again thanks so much for honorin’ our most beloved Dino on the 96th anniversary of his entrance onto our planet. Likes a great bartender mixes just the right ingredients to make a perfect martini, so you have mixed prose from Tosches, Bogdonavich, and your bro to offer up a perfect homage of our King of Cool. Know that your Dino-devotion is bein’ shared this day with all the pallies gathered ’round ilovedinomartin. Keeps lovin’ our most beloved Dino!

    • sheila says:

      You guys are so great over there – such a wonderful site of appreciation. Thank you so much for linking to my stuff!

      • Hey pallies, likes Miss Shelia the pleasure is all ours….ilovedinomartin loves to share others deep, pure, and true devotion to our Dino. And, likes thanks ever so much for you kind words of Dino-appreciato. Keeps lovin’ our most beloved Dino!

  5. Shelley says:

    I’ve always felt that he was underrated (and even “appeared” on The Simpsons complaining about the same!) Netflix needs to carry more of his TV shows.

    There was just something so winning, so benevolent, about his humor.

    That smile!

  6. K.C. Russell says:

    Cannot get over ‘Maybe Frank – Maybe Sammy’
    Wow.

    Thanks Sheila
    Your posts are always the high point of my day

    • sheila says:

      I know! On the billboard!! I’d show up just to see if THEY showed up. So tantalizing.

      Thank you, KC!

  7. jomo says:

    well….you cant write a story about dean if all you say is no one ever knew the guy..which sadly is true.
    but..dean was never in danger of failing and the breakup of him and lewis was all dean who knew the end of the line had come.
    i doubt anyone would consider dean under-rated considering he not lewis was the only one to enjoy success after they broke up.
    deans talent was always his comedy and he was one of the best…..”if you got a straight man you got an act”.
    i have always been fascinated by him because i know he lived with deep sadness…i dont know why and i dont know why he never told anyone why.
    dean cared about nothing….not even his children…though he never set out to harm anyone…..his appeal was he seemed liked the guy you would want to be with having a drink or just hanging out…..but….dean martin had no friends no interest but golf…and no desire to ever confront his demon that he would wash away with massive amounts of alcohol.

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