October 14, 2008

The Books: "Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams" (Nick Tosches)

169_dino.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches

David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film writes of Tosches' book:

Nick Tosches' Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams is one of the great showbiz biographies. Its research is not just thorough, but lunatic, and perverse - for, plainly, Dean Martin had led a life indifferent or averse to recollection, accuracy, or fact. Dino is brilliant on the Lewis-Martin assocation, and inspired in its evocation of the drift, the haze, the numbing futility of being Dino, or being alive.

Tosches' book, while it covers all the details it needs to cover (Dean Martin's start as a singer, his immigrant upbringing - he didn't speak a word of English until he was 6 years old - his meeting with Jerry Lewis and how their particular brand of lunacy made them two of the biggest stars in the world, the breakup with Lewis, and Martin's surging off into a solo career - his friendship with Frank Sinatra and the other Rat Pack boys - his sketchy friendships with underworld characters - his marriages - particularly to Jeanne, the woman who stood by him until the end, even after they divorced - his family-man lifestyle - his highly successful television show - the "roasts" - the tragic death of his son - an event that Martin never recovered from - and then, suddenly, Dean Martin walking away from it all) - does not stop there. The details are just the jumping-off point for Tosches' deeper ruminations, all embodied in the persona of the man that we know of as Dean Martin. You get a great overview of Martin's journey, what it was that made him so special (as a comedian and also a singer - not to mention his potential as a dramatic actor - you need only to see Rio Bravo to understand how good he could be) ... but Tosches is up to something else in his book. It weaves a spell. It ends up being about the entirety of American life in the 20th century - its glory, its seedy side, its reliance on the energy of immigrants - the development of television and what that would really mean to the culture at large - the boomtown of Las Vegas, a truly grown-up playland in the middle of a desert ... the criminal element married to the legit element ... bootlegging and movie stars, poker games and Sunday School ...

Tosches goes deep into the metaphoric resonances of our lives, our experiences as a collective ... and then ... he goes even deeper than that - into an ongoing meditation of what it is to be a human being, the most sophisticated of animals ... and yet the most tragic, with our awareness of our own mortality. What does it mean to live one's life KNOWING that it will end? How does that form us? How does it develop us? We are not cookie-cutters - everyone deals with the reality of death in different ways.

Tosches sees something in Dean Martin - that he had an awareness of death on a cellular level ... it is not intellectual with him, it is known, and understood ... and it was that that distanced him from, well, everyone. No one really knew Dean Martin (according to Tosches). He remained apart. That was one of the reasons why he could be so unbelievably funny. He hovered above the action, seeming to react to it off the cuff, and you wondered (or at least I do, when I watch him): what exactly is he doing that is so funny? It's hard to point to it - it's especially hard to point to it when you are falling off the damn couch with laughter. His humor is subtle, sophisticated, reactive, and deeply human. I would imagine that he was always that funny - and it wasn't Jerry Lewis, per se, who brought it out of him (although you'd never know that from listening to Jerry talk!) ... It was that Dean Martin reacted to whatever person he was standing beside - with gentleness, acceptance, and a ribald sense of the absurd. He made fun of himself, but he never came off looking like just a clown. He was, along with George Burns, the ultimate straight man. It's hard to do with Dean Martin does. Or - it was easy for him ... but what he does cannot be taught. You have it, or you don't. Being a good straight man is having gold in the bank. There's probably one genius a generation in that particular field of show business. It's that difficult and that subtle.

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I don't know if Dean Martin would even recognize himself from Tosches' majestic melancholy book ... but like I said, Tosches is up to something different here than a straight biography. It is a rumination on darkness (you can tell that from the title), it is a contemplation of America itself, and the intersection of show business and the underworld. It is a deeply philosophical book, and if you go into it looking for something more traditional, you will be deeply confused. Just give up your expectations. There are other biographies of Martin out there, but this is the one to read. Not just because Tosches really gets Martin's talent and is able to describe it (although that is true as well) ... but because it is spectacular writing. Writing so thick and good you want to scoop it up with a spoon.

Here's an example of the kind of prose that makes up the whole book:

His schoolmates had never really known him. Even his loving familiy 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.

This, obviously, is not a regular book. Tosches sprinkles the book with Italian words, it is as though he is trying to imagine himself into Martin's psyche - not an easy thing to do on a normal day - because Martin was resistant to analysis and to self-reflection. He did not talk about what he did. He just did it.

His singing came easy to him. And that's one of the things that really gets me about Martin ... the beautiful smoothness of not only his voice, but his persona. His solo songs on his television show are works of art. He sits on the edge of a desk, staring into the camera, and sings. He doesn't overdo anything. Simplicity like that, the ability to not do too much is deeply vulnerable. He does not protect himself, he lets himself be soft, open, and connected to us. His voice would make you swoon - and that's what he wants. In a way, his was the most generous of the talents of the Rat Pack crowd ... it was a direct communication with his audience, in a way that was singular and set apart. Who knows if he knew how much he was loved, and if that made a difference to Dean Martin, and his experience of being Dean Martin. Nick Tosches surmises that it did not make a difference, that Dean Martin had something in him - an existential loneliness, a solitary mindset - that kept him from joining the world at large. Regardless of whether that is true or not, watching Dean Martin sing is to be in the presence of true grace, in my opinion. You can relax. You can be with him. He demands nothing from you except that you enjoy your own life while you are here. It's remarkable. Baffling, almost. Generosity of that sort in a performer, without the accompanying subtext of "Love me, love me, love me" is so rare as to be almost unheard of.

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The couple of times that Martin got a chance to really act (The Young Lions, Rio Bravo) showed that when he put his mind to it - he could move out of his comfort zone. This man was such a giant and easy talent that his comfort zone was obviously enormous - he could be funny, he could be sentimental, he could be absolutely insane, he could do a "ba-dum-ching" line like nobody's business - he could do slapstick, gentle situation comedies, he was sexy - This is not a man who had a narrow path in which he operated. But outside of that enormous comfort zone was the realm of dramatic acting, ensemble acting ... It is hard to say what was going on inside of Dean Martin when preparing for these roles, but we only need to listen to the people who knew him, who had hired him, directors, co-stars ... who reference what a good person he was, what a collaborator, no bullshit, and also how hard he worked.

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Here is the section in Tosches' book where Howard Hawks speaks of the entire experience of Dean Martin being cast in Rio Bravo (his best performance as an actor):

"I hired him," Hawks remembered, "because an agent wanted me to meet him. And I said, 'Well, get him around here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.' The agent said, 'He can't be here at nine.' So he came in about ten-thirty, and I said, 'Why the hell couldn't you be here at nine o'clock?' He said, 'I was working in Las Vegas, and I had to hire an airplane and fly down here.' And that made me think, 'Well, my Lord, this guy really wants to work.' So I said, 'You'd better go over and get some wardrobe.' He said, 'Am I hired?' And I said, 'Yeah. Anybody who'll do that ought to get a chance to do it.' He came back from wardrobe looking like a musical-comedy cowboy. I said, 'Dean, look, you know a little about drinking. You've seen a lot of drunks. I want a drunk. I want a guy in an old dirty sweatshirt and an old hat.' And he said, 'Okay, you don't have to tell me any more.' He went over, and he came back with the outfit that he wore in the picture. He must have been successful because Jack Warner said to me, 'We hired Dean Martin. When's he going to be in this picture?' I said, 'He's the funny-looking guy in the old hat.' 'Holy smoke, is that Dean Martin?'

"Dean did a great job. It was fun working with him. All you had to do was tell him something. The scene where he had a hangover, which he did in most of the scenes, there was one where he was suffering, and I said, 'Look, that's too damn polite. I knew a guy with a hangover who'd pound his leg trying to hurt himself and get some feeling in it.' 'Okay, I know that kind of guy,' he said. 'I can do it.' And he went on and did the scene with no rehearsal or anything."

For some reason, that makes me want to cry. "Okay, I know that kind of guy." He was an actor who was willing to listen, to give things a shot - even if they were scary or new to him - and who showed up when he needed to show up (by 'show up' I don't mean being on time, or being actually present - I mean "showing up" - with all your concentration and focus being put on the job at hand). Because Dean Martin was a guy to whom things came easy ... being put in a position where he might not know what to do or how to do it ... was daunting. He didn't do it often. There are stories of him before going to shoot The Young Lions and saying to a friend, "I'm so scared. I'm so scared." So what did Martin do? To deal with those nerves? He went and talked with Marlon Brando, his co-star, just to get some tips on ... you know ... how to act. Brando was generous with him, telling him to always make sure he was listening - to not plan too far ahead, to try to stay in the moment - and above all else: LISTEN. I love Brando's generosity there, but I also love that Martin, a GIANT star, knew that he was a bit out of his element, and instead of struggling in silence, or trying to fake it - hoping we would buy it - OR not even realizing he was out of his element, and doing a bad job blithely - thinking it was awesome ... Martin went privately to talk to the greatest actor at the time, and said, "Hey, man, can you help me out?"

That's a pro.

Another thing that I love Dean Martin for is how he put his own career on the line when Marilyn Monroe was fired from Something's Got to Give - a movie he was co-starring in. This was in the last couple of months of Monroe's life, and large forces were at work in the studio (which was in the process of collapsing) - and Monroe was one of the ones who took the fall. Martin had signed on to do the picture with Monroe, and when he heard she had been fired, he walked off the picture. Nothing anyone said could dissuade him. The big-wigs begged, pleaded, cajoled, threw money at him. Nope. Nope. Nope. It was a PR nightmare for everyone involved ... the studio knew Monroe was beloved by the public, and it did its best to paint a picture of her as a drugged-out mess ... regardless of whether or not that was the truth ... and so they needed Martin to shut the fuck up, and be a good team player, and continue on to do the movie with Lee Remick - the replacement. But Martin would not budge.

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He had been friends with Monroe for years, obviously - but more was going on than that. Marilyn Monroe was still one of the biggest stars in the world. Yes, she had some problems, but didn't we all? Martin was kind to those who were weaker (in whatever ways). Monroe was a damaged girl, sure, but she was box office gold, and he was going to do the movie with her, or with no one. Martin put the studio execs in a hell of a spot. I love him for it. In Marilyn: The Last Take, the book that describes those final two months of Monroe's life, the authors, Peter Harry Brown and Patte B. Barham, write:

Snyder approached Martin, who was still in golf clothes from a noon game at the Los Angeles Country Club. "Dean, I think they've fired Marilyn," Snyder said.

"What?" Martin said.

"Then Dean had his assistant run to the production to verify the story," Snyder remembered.

A few minutes later, the assistant was back. "Yep," he said. "Monroe has been fired and Lee Remick's going to be your leading lady."

Martin put his putter down, grabbed his coat and headed for the Fox parking lot. Snyder walked part of the way with him. "Whitey, I made a contract to do this picture with Marilyn Monroe," Martin said. "That's the deal; the only deal. We're not going to be doing it with Lee Remick or any other actress."

When Martin arrived home half an hour later, Vernon Scott, the Hollywood reporter for United Press International, coaxed a brief interview out of him. Martin told Scott that he had walked off the set and didn't plan to return. "I have the greatest respect for Miss Remick as an actress," Martin continued. "But I signed to do this film with Marilyn Monroe."

Shortly after 6 pm, the UPI wires broadcast this bulletin: "Dean Martin quit the Twentieth Century-Fox film because Marilyn Monroe was fired."

... Dean Martin never elaborated on his reasons for putting his career and his future on the line for Monroe, but it was typical of a man whose on-screen image as an easygoing good guy was identical to his off-screen persona. An ex-prizefighter and ex-cardsharp, Martin had been laboring in a steel mill when he began singing nights and weekends in small clubs. After he teamed up with frenetic comedian Jerry Lewis in 1946, he assumed the role of a handsome, not-so-bright straight man. The Martin and Lewis partnership endured for ten years, eleven films and a thousand appearances in nightclubs.

When the partnership collapsed in the mid-fifties, many Hollywood producers thought Maritn wouldn't survive as a solo act. But half a dozen number-one hits, including "Volare" and "Memories Are Made of This", smoothed his way to film and television superstardom. In 1958, his role in Some Came Running opposite fellow "Rat Packers" Sinatra and MacLaine proved his value as a dramatic star.

However predictable, Martin's loyalty to Monroe was far from popular. "Nasty sayings were scrawled on his dressing-room door," production secretary Lee Hanna remembered. "By insisting on Monroe, it seemed as if the film would shut down for good - with the loss of one hundred and four jobs."

Hedda Hopper warned the actor in her Los Angeles Times column. "The unions are taking a dim view of Dean Martin's walkout," Hopper wrote. She quoted a union official as saying, "Dean's putting people out of work at a time when we are all faced with unemployment." ...

Levathes, who flew back to Los Angeles on Sunday, was determined to change Martin's mind but, just in case, had Ferguson begin drafting a $5.6 million lawsuit "for breach of contract".

The three-hour meeting among Feldman, Levathes, Frank Ferguson, Martin and Herman Citron was an exercise in frustration. The executives were determined to sell Remick to the increasingly skeptical actor.

When Feldman tried to verbally recap Martin's "rejection of Remick," Martin interrupted him, saying, "I didn't turn down Miss Remick. I simply said that I will not do the film without Marilyn Monroe. There is a big difference between the two statements."

Levathes countered, "What kind of position does that put our investment in?"

Martin answered, "That's not a fair question to ask me. I have no quarrel with anyone."

Levathes forged ahead. "We think Miss Remick is of adequate stature," he said. "After all, she has appeared with Jack Lemmon [in Days of Wine and Roses] with James Stewart [in Anatomy of a Murder], and with Glenn Ford [in Experiment in Terror]."

Martin patiently explained that he had taken the role mainly because "the chemistry between Miss Monroe and myself was right." The actor also said that the whole point of Something's Got to Give was Martin's desertion of his new bride, Cyd Charisse, for Monroe, which was something which wouldn't happen, Martin said, "with Lee Remick."

The production chief disagreed. "This story is a warm situation in which the husband, with his children, loved his former wife, but was caught in an embarrassing position because he had remarried," said Levathes. "This is not the case of a man who chucks one woman for a sexpot."

Martin shook his head.

The situation went round and round, a total impasse. It was never resolved. It might have been, had Monroe lived, there were rumblings that she would be re-instated - but it was not meant to be. She died in August, 1962, a mere 2 months after she had been fired. In those crazy last months, as her friends fell away (and as she fired her staff, left and right, trying to get rid of the sycophant suckers all around her) - Dean Martin stood up for her. He put his career and reputation on the line.

He could not be swayed.

Tosches, in his book, seems interested most of all in that part of Dean Martin that could not be swayed. It was that element of Martin's character that drove his friend Frank Sinatra up the wall. Sinatra (at least in Tosches' version) always needed more from Martin than Martin could give. Sinatra was baffled and hurt when Martin decided to stop performing (in the middle of a tour!) - how could he just walk out? How could he not realize his obligations - not just to the tour but to their friendship? Martin did not recognize those obligations. He was done. His heart had been shattered by the death of his son. All he wanted to do in his old age was sit on the couch and watch Westerns on television. And that's what he did.

But that implacable element of Martin's personality was always there - it was what made him such an acutely funny and perfect straight man ... it was what made him a heartbreaker to the women who loved him ... and it was what made him a star.

The excerpt I chose today from Tosches' brilliant book has to do with the Martin-Lewis dynamic, particularly their first live shows - which were legendary. Martin and Lewis would take the show out into the parking lot - and the entire audience at a nightclub would follow them outside, and watch as the two of them went absolutely insane in the parking lot - messing with cars, valet drivers, chasing each other - whatever - these were electric shows. No record of them exist. But that's okay. There's no record of Edmund Kean playing Richard III or Shylock, either. Doesn't mean I don't believe it was a great performance - just because I personally didn't see it. What happened between the two of them in the live shows was one-for-the-ages ... and it transferred to radio, to television, to movies ... in an unstoppable juggernaut. An amazingly successful collaboration - and Tosches, in that way that he has - a prose styling all his own - really is able to capture what it was in that dynamic that was so resonant, so deep.

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Below the jump, I have included an image of the bill the famous night in Atlantic City, 1946, when Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin met. Jerry Lewis was doing impressions, and Dean Martin was singing. There they are on the bill - their names separate - having no idea (although it became apparent immediately) what they would be to one another.

I have also included below the jump one of my favorite clips from Dean Martin's TV show: him and John Wayne singing "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime". Those two guys loved each other, that is obvious - I love how funny Wayne is, how generous Martin is with Wayne's funniness - giving him the props when deserved - and also how he sets Wayne up to look like a million bucks. Not that that is difficult - Wayne was another guy who seemed comfortable wherever he was ... but watch how Martin HANDS the entire sketch to Wayne, letting Wayne be the funny one, letting Wayne take it away. It's glorious!! (I love what Wayne does with his body and his face at around the 1:20 mark ... it makes me laugh out loud. So stupid!!) But even with the silliness of it, even with the goofball nature of these two big swaggering guys singing a love song to one another - not to mention the fact that John Wayne - John Wayne! - is LIP SYNCHING ... there's a beauty here, a real slice of Americana ... the innocence and pleasure of our entertainment, the thing that more jaded cultures sneer at us for ... the open-faced enthusiasm of who we can be, at our best ... something that I will never feel shame about. I think it is our greatest asset. And here it is - in Wayne and Martin - writ large.

And finally, I will end this post on Dean Martin - one of my favorite entertainers of all time - with some words from my brother Brendan. Brendan has a way of capturing what it is, what it really is, about a performer ... the essence - not just in who the performer is - but the response the performer engenders in an audience - and I love his words here.

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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EXCERPT FROM Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches

The Desert Inn was still several months away from opening when Dean and Jerry arrived in September 1949. The Flamingo was still the jewel of that stretch of Highway 91 that came to be called the Strip. The Rex Cigar Store, the Jungle Inn, the 500 Club, the Riviera - the great and gaudy neon cathedral of the Flamingo was all these joints exalted. Here, married by God and by state, anointed in the blood of Bugsy Siegel, Unterwelt and American dream lay down together in greed.

Martin and Lewis by now were among the beloved of that dream, embracing and embraced by the spirit of a post-heroic, post-literate, cathode-culture America. The Flamingo was the pleasure dome of the new prefab promised land: a land of chrome, not gold; of Armstrong linoleum, not Carrara marble; of heptalk, not epos of prophecy.

Martin and Lewis were the jesters of that land. Time magazine, then as always the cutting edge of lumpen-American mediocrity, the vox populi of the modern world, celebrated the dazzling appeal of their hilarity. The heart of their audience, the nightclub clientele whose reduction to a quivering mass of thunderous yockers Variety attested again and again, was sophisticated, white-collared, and well-heeled. The sophisticated, white-collared, and well-heeled New York Times itself, in an article published while Martin and Lewis were in Las Vegas, hailed their "refreshing brand of comic hysteria," their "wild and uninhibited imagination".

And yet, these few years later, the nature of that appeal is as alien and as difficult to translate as the language, syntax, and meter of Catallus. There are no films or tapes of their nightclub act. Only secondary fragments have survived to be judged: glimpses of routines reworked for pictures, such as the "Donkey Serenade" scene in My Friend Irma, and for pale renderings on radio; a few rare kinescopes of television broadcasts, none of them predating 1952. Those fragments convey almost nothing of the dazzling appeal of that hilarity proclaimed in contemporary accounts. And yet the howling laughter present in many of those fragments, in the radio shows and television performances, all done before live spectators, is unanswerable. Those spectators, who had lined up for free shows at network studios, were not the same urbane nightclub-goers who howled at the Copacabana or Chez Paree or the Flamingo. Their sense of yockery was perhaps homelier; but, on the other hand, it was less primed by booze. Jerry was right: Martin and Lewis appealed to everyone. But why?

"Let us not be deceived," the New York Times had declared in April 1947, while Dean and Jerry had been playing at the Loew's Capitol; "we are today in the midst of a cold war." Now, in September 1949, while they were in Las Vegas, President Truman, the first president to have a televised inauguration, revealed that the Soviet Union had set off an atomic-bomb explosion. A week later, on October 1, Chairman Mao Tse-tung would formally proclaim the Communist People's Republic of China. In January, Truman would order the development of the hydrogen bomb. Six months later, United States ground troops would invade South Korea. "Let us not be deceived" -- but America wanted nothing more than to be deceived. Martin and Lewis gave them that: not laughter in the dark, but a denial of darkness itself, a regression, a transporting to the preternatural bliss of infantile senselessness. It was a catharsis, a celebration of ignorance, absurdity, and stupidity, as meaningless, as primitive-seeming, and as droll today as the fallout shelters and beatnik posings which offered opposing sanctuary in those days so close in time but so distant in consciousness.

Those days were the beginning of the end of timelessness. Homer's Odyssey spoke throughout the ages; Kerouac's American odyssey, On the Road, would have a shelf life, and would prove after a handful of years more outdated and stale than Homer after thousands. But like the detergent on the shelf in that other supermarket aisle, it was for the moment new and improved; and that is what mattered. And that is why the dead-serious pretensions of Kerouac today seem so droll while the comedy of that same necrophiliac era seems so unfunny.

Dean, of course, had no use for any of this shit. He did not know the new and improved from the old and well-worn. Homer, Sorelli the Mystic: it was all the same shit to him. The Trojan War, World War II, the Cold War, what the fuck did he care? His hernia was bigger than history itself. He cared as much about Korea as Korea cared about his fucking hernia. He walked through his own world. And that world was as much a part of what commanded those audiences as the catharsis of the absurd slapstick; and it would continue to command, long after that catharsis, like a forgotten mystery rite, had lost all meaning and power. His uncaring air of romance reflected the flash and breezy sweet seductions of a world in which everything came down to broads, booze, and money, with plenty of linguine on the side. There was a beckoning to join him in the Lethe of the old ways' woods that appealed to the lover, the menefreghista, the rotten cocksucker, the sweet-hearted dreamer in everyone.

Mickey Cohen, a brutal killer who "got kind of friendly with him," said that "Dean would've been in the rackets if he didn't have the beautiful voice that he has. He probably would've ended up a gambling boss somewhere. I'd say Dean had the perfect makeup to be a racket guy, although he is a little too lackadaisical, if you know what I mean."

Love was Dean's racket. The traits he shared with the Fischettis and the Anastasias - that lontananza, that dark self-serving moralita - were never far beneath the surface of whatever sweet spell he meant to cast. Whatever talent he had, whatever he worked at, whatever was God-given and whatever manufactured, that much, that darkness beneath the spell, was immanent and intractable and ever-there.

Frank Sinatra, who had sung at the Nacional during the Havana yuletide gathering of 1946, was a malavita groupy, a scrawny mama's boy who liked to pretend he was a tough guy. He cultivated the company of, and catered to, men such as the Fischettis. But it was Dean, so aloof and yet seemingly so kindred, to whom those men themselves were drawn.

"They loved him," Jerry said. "But they knew that he wasn't the one to talk to on a business basis. He had his way of getting that clear to them. I would say he was the most brilliant diplomat I've ever known. I used to hear things like 'Talk to the Jew,' 'Talk to the kid,' 'Talk to the little one.' "


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October 10, 2008

The Books: "My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir" (Shirley MacLaine)

Lucky_Stars.jpgNext book on my "entertainment biography" shelf:

My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir, by Shirley MacLaine

Wonderful book! It might be my favorite of Shirley MacLaine's (although granted I have not read her latest). It's a book of anecdotes and character studies - all the people she worked with and who made an impression on her in her many years in Hollywood. The portrait she paints of Peter Sellers is something that will stay with me always. What an odd complex depressive yet beautiful man. And Anthony Hopkins. Fascinating. Difficult. Emotional. She spends an entire chapter on Frank Sinatra, there's an entire chapter on the entire shoot of Terms of Endearment (a very very difficult shoot) - and she is just in her best form here, throughout. She's not a "surface" kind of person, obviously, and the anecdotes she chooses to share really illuminate the person in question (at least through her eyes - it's her version of, say, Richard Harris, or Frank Sinatra). She does not pull her punches. She's honest. She's telling it like she sees it. She does not spare Debra Winger, and yet somehow it doesn't come off as bitchy. It comes off more as baffled. Like: how on earth am I supposed to deal with this person? But when someone, even someone like Winger, does something extraordinary - or is able to project their particular genius onscreen - MacLaine is more than willing to give the props. MacLaine comes off as the real deal: an insightful intuitive person, someone who knows who she is, but is also willing to grow and learn and be surprised.

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She tells one of my favorite stories about Jack Nicholson, an actor I truly love. Not only do I just love his acting - I just flat out love his whole career, his attitude, his vibe, his energy - whatever you want to call it. When he shows up at the Oscars, wearing sunglasses, I am thrilled. He brings an aspect of anarchy to everything he does ... and yet there's an integrity there, a seriousness about the work ... He has such a fine reputation. He has been in the business his whole life, practically, and so one of the things he does on every set is to befriend EVERYONE. The lady who makes the sandwiches, the grip, the gaffer, his drivers, the makeup woman, the coffee guy, the lowly PAs ... they all become his best friends. He knows everyone by name. It's not a game with him, he's not "playing" them. It's that ... the movie set is his home - probably more so than any real home he actually has. And so whereever he is - he creates a family. He is notorious for this. The stories about him abound. Gifts he gave to the random woman who set up the craft table, because they shared a joke one morning ... whatever ... He's kind. He's generous. He knows a movie is a collaboration - and although he is usually the biggest star in whatever picture he is in - he knows he's not in it alone. So Jack Nicholson probably has more friends than anyone on earth, if you think about it. He knows everyone. He is about personal relationships. I love that about him and I think it shows in his work. But anyway, back to MacLaine's story about Nicholson - which is my favorite. Because of the vague air of anarchy that floats around him, I think it sometimes can be overlooked what a professional he is, and how seriously he takes the work. Yeah, it should be fun, but if you're goofing off or not focusing when you should ... out comes the roaring tiger. The shoot of Terms was pretty chaotic- and the responsibility for that lies with the director, as always. He is the one who sets the tone, who protects the actors from the chaos behind the scenes, who keeps things moving forward, under control. At the time of this anecdote, Jim Brooks had totally lost control of his own movie. Here's the story from the Terms shoot:

When Jack Nicholson arrived back to shoot his scene, he sensed there was trouble. Jack is a master of the intuitive. His nose started to twitch. He was like an animal perceiving a negative vibration - a monstrous dynamic in our midst.

When you've been around our business as long a Jack had, you grasp the dynamic on the set immediately.

I could see he didn't like it. The crew was operating in a disjointed, fragmented way ... taking too long ... arguing over inane things. Jim was slightly wild-eyed, but looking for a way to use the chaos. The dynamic was insinuating itself, working its destruction.

We were doing the kitchen scene, where Jack had pages of dialogue describing what it was like, as an astronaut, to walk on the moon. Then he noticed the camera crew was not together. The prop guy was late with the food we were supposed to eat in the scene and no one was in charge. The dynamic permeated the set as though it had a personality and an intention. It became an invisible being who was about to jeopardize Jack. Jack was up for practical jokes regardless of how bizarre, but not for the dynamic of unprofessionalism. I sat across from him, watching the buildup of an explosion. Suddenly his eyes narrowed as he did a quick sweep-of-a-look around the set. He was ready to work and they weren't.

"Hey," he yelled. "Motherfucker - hey!"

Suddenly he slammed his fists onto the top of the kitchen table with a violence that literally shook the set. The crew froze; no one moved. Everyone had been put on notice and they knew it. Then Jack collected himself. He smiled that devil smile. I could feel the dynamic shrink away.

Jack's is not a petty temperament. When he is threatened or angry, he can be truly impressive. His repressed violence is nothing to trifle with, certainly not to be manipulated. And he's not in the same class with those who tinker with danger, as Jim does. Jack is real danger - class-A danger - smiling danger. The kind that renders a crew paralytic. The kind that makes your blood run cold because he's willing to pay the price. Which is what happened that morning. And from that flashing moment on, the set was reborn into a professional unit inspired to make a movie the way it should be made.

I believe it.

The book is full of gems like that.

Her relationship with "The Rat Pack" (they called her "the Mascot") makes up a huge part of the book - and it's really fun reading, but also not exactly what you would think. The dynamic of that group - Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean Martin ... was not always pleasant, there was some serious misogyny going on, they protected MacLaine and accepted her, but she also knew when it was "boy time" and she wasn't wanted - but I was mostly interested in the dynamic between Sinatra and Martin. Wow. An entire book could be written about what was going on there between those two men. Martin walked away, was able to walk away ... Sinatra never was. He had to hold on. That was all he was about. So perhaps there was something elusive in Martin - that aspect of him that could walk away, of his own free will, from performing - that drove Sinatra up a wall. I don't know. Sinatra could be a son-of-a-bitch (that's no surprise) but he could also be the most generous man in the world. When MacLaine came to Hollywood to do Some Came Running - originally in the script, it was Sinatra's character who died in the end. But Sinatra, with that strange intuition he had at times, said in some script meeting - "No. Let the kid die." (He always called MacLaine "the kid"). "No. Let the kid die. If you let her die, she'll get the nomination." And that is exactly what happened. Pretty amazing, right? Somehow he sensed that it would be better for the story if "the kid" died (he was right) - and he also sensed that if MacLaine was the one to die, she'd get nominated (he was right). Anyway, I really loved all the Rat Pack information ... as upsetting as some of it was.

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MacLaine was one of those rare women who, first of all, was not seen in a sexual way by these guys - but she also wasn't in any way, shape, or form, a prude. She was not a big drinker, and she always had great discipline about how much sleep she got a night, and things like that ... but she also loved to have a good time. They taught her how to play poker. She would clean up after them (they were all pigs). They would tease her. They would be big brother-ly towards her. They didn't just tolerate her, they loved her. She was friends with all of them forever. It was Dean Martin she really loved (as a matter of fact, she convinced herself for about one month - that he was the love of her life. She KNEW it. He was IT. Of course he wasn't - and Martin knew that, too - but that is just indicative of how strong her feelings were for him. She looked at him and, just like Sinatra, felt that there was only so far she could "get in there" and it captivated her.) They were dear friends - but not intimate friends. Martin wasn't really intimate with people in that way. But I've put one of my favorite photos EVER below the jump ... which kind of captures the MacLaine - Martin friendship ... and it makes me smile every time I see it.

In 1955, MacLaine appeared in Artists and Models, directed by Frank Tashlin - the second-to-last of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movies. MacLaine had grown up loving Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis so this was a thrill for her - but what was not so thrilling was realizing that the team was pretty much breaking up, during the course of the movie. It broke her heart.

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The excerpt I chose today has to do with MacLaine's fascinating impressions of Dean Martin. As anyone who's read me for a while knows, I have a low-level obsession with Dean Martin (nothing approaching the Cary Grant, Stalin or Dean Stockwell level - but obsession nonetheless) ... and MacLaine's words here are riveting to me. Because nobody really knew Dean Martin (but we'll get to him in a bit - when we arrive at Nick Tosches' startlingly brilliant book about Martin) ... and so MacLaine doesn't try to explain him, or psychoanalyze him - not really. She just describes what she saw, in the man that she knew.

And she tells one of my favorite stories about Martin (him calling the cops ... look for it.)

Well done. I love this book.


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EXCERPT FROM My Lucky Stars: A Hollywood Memoir, by Shirley MacLaine

Dino Crocetti - Dean Martin - had been born into an environment where the Mob resided as neighborhood characters. In Steubenville, Ohio, he discovered the rackets early and he loved to bet on anything that moved. After school he'd make the rounds of pool rooms, cigar stores, and gambling dens. His offhand stories of the old days captivated me.

I asked him about Vegas and Bugsy Siegel, who dared to build the Flamingo Hotel and make it the first grand establishment for gambling, before anyone else was there.

Dean smiled. "Guess who was in the pit opening night, dealing blackjack?" he asked.

"Who?" I asked.

"Me!"

He told me about some of the Mob characters, his stories making it clear they were "not gentlemen", but he was protective of my knowing too much about such people.

Over the years I saw that Dean was not impressed with the Mob. He grew up with them, and therefore, he shared many of their Old Country traits - privacy of thought and feeling that no one dared to violate, an emotional detachment from the world and everything in it, an unspoken belief in a Catholic God who would forgive even the most heinous crime through confession. But, in his soul, Dean didn't want to run with the Mob. I always felt he didn't even like them. He didn't come when they called. Instead, he played gin, or drank, or did card tricks, or tried out new material for his act on whoever else happened to be around.

For them and everyone else, Dean was a menefreghista, one who simply did not give a fuck.

I did not know all this when I first met Dean. My initial impression was of a man who basically wanted to be left alone. He was nice to everyone; he just didn't want "nice" to go on too long. Often there would be parties at his home on Mountain Drive, where he and Jeanne lived with their seven children. Three of the kids were Jeanne's and four were Betty's - Dean's first wife. Dean didn't particularly want to be involved in the upbringing of the children. He told me he felt inadequate, and his own emotional blocks prevented communication anyway. Whenever Jeanne asked him to have a stern talk with one of the children, Dean would take the child into his den and say, "I have nothing to say, but please tell your mother I bawled you out, okay?" The child would comply and sometime later would get a new car.

Dean insisted on being home every night for dinner with his children. It was a ritual that gave him the Old Country feeling that he was the head of the household and connected to his children's future.

Much of his humor on the set revolved around things that happened in what he called the "big hotel". He said he'd try to count them all, but he never learned to count that high. He said he had to eat standing up because he had "screwed himself out of a seat" at the table. His family humor gave the impression that his was an emotionally volatile, rough and tumble, interconnected Italian family. It might have been that, but Dean wasn't a part of it.

Even when Jeanne had dinner parties attended by the most interesting people in town, Dean would usually just go to his room and watch television. More than once he retired to his den and called the cops, saying there was a party at his house and it was getting too noisy. Once I lost my pearls at one of their dinner parties. I wandered around looking for them and ended up in Dean's den. He was watching television while his guests were having dinner. He said I could sit down. I did and he told me he felt shy about not being educated and ashamed of his limited vocabulary and his lack of political and social knowledge. "I can't understand what the hell they're talking about down there," he said. "So I don't want them to know I feel dumb." He then launched into some new material for his club act, which was so funny I laughed until I felt like I had a hernia! Dean was terrified of the intimacy required to carry on a conversation, so he inevitably segued into comedy routines.

That was what I found the most intriguing aspect of Dean. When a man fears intimacy, I'm interested. I try to open him up. It didn't happen when we worked on Artists and Models; that came later.

On that first film with Dean I was awestruck at his and Jerry's antics. Even though there was always tension underneath, they seemed to share a compulsive need for the experience of creating and playing to an audience. Perhaps the tension fed that need, or maybe they were simply performers to the core and their world inevitably became a stage.

They careened around the Paramount lot on their motorized golf carts, clanging bells and tooting horns, stopping for a beautiful young starlet to cross the street as they drew a crowd by teasing her into red-faced embarrassment.

If they had an interview with a newspaper reporter, they might cut the tie of a man and perhaps set it on fire, or curl up like a baby in the lap of a woman reporter and suck her thumb. Nothing was out of bounds. They'd flop into cars driven by strangers and scream bloody murder that they were being kidnapped. Dean would light a cigarette with his solid gold lighter, blow out the flame, and toss the gold lighter from the window as though it was a used match. Someone, I noticed, always retrieved it for him.

There were custard pies thrown in the face, butter pats splattered on ceilings, golf clubs and balls slung around like children's toys. There was Jewish deli in Jerry's dressing room, and antipasto in Dean's; visiting musicians with sheet music of new song ideas, comedy writers who realized that the Martin and Lewis heyday was producing moments of genius that should be recorded, and the inevitable producers, directors, and agents who attended to the needs of the talented team Americans would never see the likes of again. The agents, Herman Citron and Mort Viner, were also my agents at MCA, so in many ways I felt part of a new family ... a family that defied every value I had been brought up with. I had been schooled in a WASP middle-class environment, to say nothing of having been brought up to respect authority in the world of ballet. It was beyond my comprehension that Dean and Jerry could be so freewheeling as to play practical jokes on one of the studio heads and get away with it. Y. Frank Freeman was a southern gentleman with white hair and a hospitable manner. When Dean and Jerry spontaneously made him the brunt of their humor in the commissary during lunch hour, I watched with openmouthed astonishment.

Because he was the president of Paramount, he often entertained big, established stars at lunch meetings - Gloria Swanson, Audrey Hepburn, and Marlon Brando among them. I think he was proud to be seen escorting the likes of Marlene Dietrich or Anna Magnani through the tables to the executive dining room.

Whenever Dean and Jerry spotted such an event, the potential for deprecating humor was too much for them to pass up.

Their favorite rap was to stop Freeman and "visiting stars" in the midst of the big room and pose as inmates in a prison. "We don't need to eat this slop," they'd yell at Y. Frank while smearing butter all over his suit. (Butter was a big prop for their comedy). They'd then pick up their food with their hands (lamb chops, tuna salad - it didn't matter), squeeze it through their fingers and throw it around the table. Freeman would hover in gentlemanly shock, waiting for their next move. Marlene or Magnani would take a discreet step backward, careful not to provoke inclusion, leaving Y. Frank directly in the line of fire. That's when Dean and Jerry would really let him have it. One routine was their favorite.

"Okay," they'd say. "So you've called us all here. Tell the people why."

Freeman's mouth was painted open by now, causing speechlessness. The diners were just as nonplussed. They watched in shock.

"Why?" Dean and Jerry would yell.

"Because," said Dean and Jerry in unison, "because you all are fired!"

Everybody would laugh, including Y. Frank, because they were secretly acknowledging his power.

Jerry would then stuff french fries up his nose or throw spinach in Dean's face and tell him he should have washed that morning. Dean would shove cold cuts into his mouth and wag them like a huge flopping tongue. Marlene or Magnani would no doubt long for the Old Country as they smiled in abject terror, wondering when and how they'd be included in the insanity.

Then Dean would take Freeman by the arm and, like a Dutch uncle, lead him out of the commissary saying, "We simply don't like your attitude in here - you are fired." Jerry would bring up the rear and both would kick Freeman out the door. "Wash up, collect your pay - and we'll take care of the girls," they'd yell.

Marlene and Magnani had been around show business, but never like this.

By now the commissary would be in bedlam at the preposterousness of it all. There were two respected, dignified international icons stranded in the middle of the dining room while the boss of the studio had been kicked out by brash American upstarts. How would this routine end?

"One more thing," Dean would yell out at Freeman. "This studio is filthy. There're cigarette butts all over the place." (He'd light a cigarette with his gold lighter, take a puff, throw the cigarette down, crunch it out, and again throw the lighter away.) "Everywhere I look, cigarette butts!" Jerry came from behind like a spastic monkey. "And have our cars washed immediately," he'd screech. "In fact, have all our cars washed."

The commissary would applaud. Dean and Jerry knew this was their exit. They'd gallantly make their way back to the screen goddesses, open their arms, and lead the by now amused beauties to the executive dining room.

I would sit tongue-tied at the sheer audacity of it all. I'd never seen people behave like that. In my world there had been an inferred censor. A silent alarm that instantly sounded caution. I couldn't do what I had just seen Dean and Jerry do, not in a million years. The irreverence - the disrespect - the outrageous disregard for form and social appropriateness ... Where had I been all my life? This stuff was great! It got laughs, it loosened people up, they didn't take their precarious jobs so seriously - how could they? I'd not met that many Italians and Jews. The ethnic ethos of their comedy was what made Y. Frank squirm. He was from my part of the world. Him I understand. But him was no fun.

Later Freeman would offer Dean and Jerry money just to be quiet for one lunch hour. They'd turn him down, and Freeman would willingly offer himself up on the altar of their zaniness yet another time.

I guess that was it in a nutshell. When you went that far out on a limb, you were successful. If you pulled your punches, you sucked dirt.

Dean and Jerry were my primary education in spontaneous, Katzenjammer antics to let off steam, avoid ulcers, and touch the muse of comic insanity bubbling in each of us.

I observed the havoc Dean caused, however, by sometimes being funnier than his partner. Dean would come to work throwing away comedy lines that you could barely hear. When someone would say, "Huh?" he'd repeat it. A laugh would come, which he would top, then another laugh, then he'd top that until he was on a roll. Soon the entire set was engulfed in the more sophisticated, quirky, literal humor of Dean's words, which revealed the peculiar slant he had on any given situation. His humor was not as physical as Jerry's, although it could be - especially with his hands. Dean's hands were the size of ham hocks, with fingers that curled inward. He had broken several fingers boxing and they were strong from working in the steel mills. His hands encompassed so much space that it was easy for him to palm cards when he was a blackjack dealer. He could deal from the middle, the bottom, or wherever, and never be detected. He entertained me between set-ups with sleight-of-hand card tricks. In between the tricks he'd lob in his funny lines as though he was testing new material. People would crowd closer so as not to miss any of his subtleties.


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July 23, 2007

A break in the Stockwell obsession ...

(which shows no signs of abating for the time being) ... just to say: Sigh.

Another Dean, another dollar.

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October 22, 2006

Dino: "a likable coward"

From Dino, by Nick Tosches - more from Howard Hawks on Rio Bravo:

Dean himself described Rio Bravo for a reporter that June: "I play a sodden, drunken bum. My hands shake so I can't hold a cigarette. I have no self-respect. It was a woman and I can't get over her. Then along comes Duke Wayne with a big problem and I start pulling myself together. The whole thing is kind of a horse-opera love affair between Wayne and myself."

Jeannie remembered her husband during the making of those first, important films of his newborn career. "His biggest stretch was not The Young Lions," she would say. "His biggest stretch was Rio Bravo." Of his role in The Young Lions Dean himself had told people: "Hell, I just played myself: a likable coward." His role as Bama in Some Came Running was "a snap". But in Rio Bravo, he had to portray from scratch.

Dean had Marlon Brando read the script for him. "He didn't tell me how to act the part. He just told me what to think about. I play a drunk with DTs. I'm fighting the bottle, the bad guys, and John Wayne, the sheriff who makes me his deputy." As Dean recognized, it was "a very good role, more dramatic than anything I've ever done."

The moment in Rio Bravo that proved the hardest for him was a scene that called for him to break down in tears. He had trouble doing that. Even pretending to cry was something that unnerved him; even as make-believe, it was contra naturam. Hawks seemed to sense this in Dean, and he put off the scene until the final day of shooting, and he helped him through it, for which Dean was grateful.

"I was willing to do almost anything," Hawks said, "because he was so nice to work with and so good at what he did." The way Hawks saw it, "He could do anything you wanted him to."

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Dino: 'Okay, you don't have to tell me any more.'

From Dino, by Nick Tosches (this is on the filming of Rio Bravo - I just LOVE Hawks' words here ... I just get it:

"I hired him," Hawks remembered, "because an agent wanted me to meet him. And I said, 'Well, get him around here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.' The agent said, 'He can't be here at nine.' So he came in about ten-thirty, and I said, 'Why the hell couldn't you be here at nine o'clock?' He said, 'I was working in Las Vegas, and I had to hire an airplane and fly down here.' And that made me think, 'Well, my Lord, this guy really wants to work.' So I said, 'You'd better go over and get some wardrobe.' He said, 'Am I hired?' And I said, 'Yeah. Anybody who'll do that ought to get a chance to do it.' He came back from wardrobe looking like a musical-comedy cowboy. I said, 'Dean, look, you know a little about drinking. You've seen a lot of drunks. I want a drunk. I want a guy in an old dirty sweatshirt and an old hat.' And he said, 'Okay, you don't have to tell me any more.' He went over, and he came back with the outfit that he wore in the picture. He must have been successful because Jack Warner said to me, 'We hired Dean Martin. When's he going to be in this picture?' I said, 'He's the funny-looking guy in the old hat.' 'Holy smoke, is that Dean Martin?'

"Dean did a great job. It was fun working with him. All you had to do was tell him something. The scene where he had a hangover, which he did in most of the scenes, there was one where he was suffering, and I said, 'Look, that's too damn polite. I knew a guy with a hangover who'd pound his leg trying to hurt himself and get some feeling in it.' 'Okay, I know that kind of guy,' he said. 'I can do it.' And he went on and did the scene with no rehearsal or anything."

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Dino: "a rare, rare champ"

From Dino, by Nick Tosches:

Dean himself was not so sure of that as he prepared to leave for France a month later to begin location work for The Young Lions. Sammy Cahn had dinner with him at La Scala in Beverly Hills the night before he left. Cahn had never known Dean to reveal himself as he did that night.

"I'm so scared," Dean told him. "I'm so scared."

He opened his shirt and showed Sammy his chest, which was broken out in a rash from nerves.

"Dean, please listen to me," Cahn said. "I beg you to listen to me. Do you know what Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift would give to be able to what you do? Walk out on a stage and charm an audience out of their skin? Dean, you're a champ. You're a rare, rare champ. These fellas have to do what a director tells them to do. You are in charge."

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Dino: "menefreghismo"

From Dino, by Nick Tosches:

The padrone of Steubenville, the man who oversaw it all, the one to whom the Irish and the Jews and the rest paid tribute, was JamesVincent Tripodi, whom no one ever described as a gentleman. Botn in Italy in December 1899, Vincenzo Tripodi had established himself early and violently as the demon lover of the Democratic bosses, as the evilest dark breeze in that lush and fruitful garden. He lived at 638 Broadway with his wife. They called her Mae or Mabel, but her name was Amelia. She too had come from the other side, and was a girl of eighteen with Tripodi married her in 1926. There were semi-legitimate businesses: the J.V. Tripodi Restaurant on North Sixth Street, the beer distributorship that had grown out of a Prohibition monopoly. But Tripodi's sub-rosa interests were everywhere his will decided them to be. He knew others of his kind, men in Cleveland, Detroit, New York. They would come to his daughter's wedding and embrace him. But he neither sought nor cultivated their company, desiring no such shadow other than his own in the garden he held as his sacrosanct domain. He would end it many years later as he had begun it, with his hands and his will, blowing out his brains with a thirty-eight, alone in his garage, on a wintry afternoon in December, 1987, eleven days before his eighty-eighth birthday.

Tripodi was the first of many such characters whom Dino would encounter in his life: men -- America called them the Mafia -- who sought to wet their beaks (fari vagnari u pizzu, as the Sicilians said) in the lifeblood of every man's good fortune. He shared many traits with these men, traits born of the old ways: the taciturn harboring close to the heart of any thought or feeling that ran too deeply; that emotinoal distance, that wall of lontananza between the self and the world; a natural, unarticulated belief in the supreme inviolability of the old ways themselves; a devout sense of Catholicism, based upon the power of its rituals and predicated on God's special forgiveness for the sins of those whose faith was founded in the ancient, sacred grain of the old ways' moralita. He shared these traits with them, but he did not share his money with them; and the more he came to know them -- and he came to know them as few would -- the more he hated them for the predators they were, and the more intent he became on beating them at their own racket. It was not a matter of bravado. He did not share that trait with them. It was a matter, rather, of menefreghismo. Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista -- one who simply did not give a fuck.

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Dino: "there was no secret"

From Dino, by Nick Tosches (More excerpts to come from this kind of extraordinary book which reads a bit more like an exorcism of Tosche's demons ... or, no - more than that - a RIFF on Dino's ESSENCE which is, necessarily, subjective.)

Fascinating, though. I've read so many entertainment biographies I can't even count them all. Some are quite good. But none are like this one. This one stands alone.

His schoolmates had never really known him. Even his loving familiy 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.

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October 7, 2006

Dino and Sammy

So Frank is trying to start a bit - trying to get everyone together - which is not easy, since Dino and Sammy are bopping around in the background, just doing lunatic shit on their own - so Frank is at the mike, Johnny Carson is beside him - and Frank is saying, "Sammy, come here a second ...."

Then you hear the audience start to howl, something is going on off camera, and then suddenly - Dino and Sammy come into the frame, and Dino is carrying Sammy in his arms. Dino goes right up to the mike and declares loudly, "I'D LIKE TO THANK THE NAACP FOR THIS WONDERFUL TROPHY ..."

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Please note Sammy's drink and cigarette. Also note Sammy's expression. hahahahaha

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October 6, 2006

"Dean's hands were the size of ham hocks"

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Again, an anecdote from Shirley Maclaine [these quotes are from one of her 123 autobiographies, most of which I have read. What can I say. I'm a whore for a good theatrical actor anecdote, and her books are FULL of 'em. They're full of spirit guides from the planet Vega and Native american wisdom, too - but that's okay. Shirley's Shirley. I'm in it for the anecdotes. Here's more:]

Dean and Jerry were my primary education in spontaneous, Katzenjammer antics to let off steam, avoid ulcers, and touch the muse of comic insanity bubbling in each of us.

I observed the havoc Dean caused, however, by sometimes being funnier than his partner. Dean would come to work throwing away comedy lines that you could barely hear. When someone would say, "Huh?" he'd repeat it. A laugh would come, which he would top, then another laugh, then he'd top that until he was on a roll. Soon the entire set was engulfed in the more sophisticated, quirky, literal humor of Dean's words, which revealed the peculiar slant he had on any given situation. His humor was not as physical as Jerry's, although it could be - especially with his hands. Dean's hands were the size of ham hocks, with fingers that curled inward. He had broken several fingers boxing and they were strong from working in the steel mills. His hands encompassed so much space that it was easy for him to palm cards when he was a blackjack dealer. He could deal from the middle, the bottom, or wherever, and never be detected. He entertained me between setups with sleight-of-hand card tricks. In between the tricks he'd lob in his funny lines as though he was testing new material. People would crowd closer so as not to miss any of his subtleties.

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Dino's fathering technique

Again, Shirley Maclaine [these quotes are from one of her 25 autobiographies. The one called My Lucky Stars]:

My initial impression of [Dean Martin] was of a man who basically wanted to be left alone. He was nice to everyone; he just didn't want "nice" to go on too long. Often there would be parties at his home on Mountain Drive, where he and Jeanne lived with their seven children. Three of the kids were Jeanne's and four were Betty's - Dean's first wife. Dean didn't particularly want to be involved in the upbringing of his children. He told me he felt inadequate, and his own emotional blocks prevented communication anyway. Whenever Jeanne asked him to have a stern talk with one of the children, Dean would take the child into his den and say, "I have nothing to say, but please tell your mother I bawled you out, okay?" The child would comply and sometime later would get a new car.

Dean insisted on being home every night for dinner with his children. It was a ritual that gave him the Old Country feeling that he was the head of the household and connected to his children's future.

And then this:

Even when Jeanne had dinner parties attended by the most interesting people in town, Dean would usually just go to his room and watch television. More than once he retired to his den and called the cops, saying there was a party at his house and it was getting too noisy.

hahahaha I mean, it's totally annoying, and if I were Jeanne I would be like: Dude, you're my husband, I love you, but WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?? However, it is still rather funny.

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The "menefreghista"

Shirley Maclaine on Dean Martin [the second movie she did was with them - Artists and Models - Martin and Lewis were in the process of breaking up at that point, so there was much tension on the set, etc. Shirley befriended both of these guys in different ways - but she and Dean remained dear and close friends until the day he died.]

Getting to know Dean was another story [than getting to know Jerry]. The words that come to mind are those that describe a person cut off from feeling - purposefully cut off. Perhaps that was why he seemed so devil-may-care and so coolly casual. The Italians, I later learned, had a more apt word for it, menefreghista, which means "one who does not give a fuck." Dean Martin was basically a menefreghista.

He was so witty because of the way he saw the world. If he did a routine about the President announcing a nuclear attack, the focus of his humor would be the tie the President wore or how he, Dean, couldn't open his refrigerator door as he was listening to such a momentous speech. I remember once he called me about something, and the entire conversation was about the telephone wire he couldn't locate under his sofa. I was in tears of laughter.

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September 26, 2006

Competing obsessions

-- My Dino book just arrived.

-- I have my Alexander Hamilton lecture tonight.

I am truly torn. Hamilton's gonna win, cause he pre-dates Dino - also, I bought tickets ... but still ... I had feared this would happen. I had feared that Dino would come on the same day, causing my psyche to go into a tailspin of competing interests.

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September 23, 2006

Obsession Central: Dino

"You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on." -- Dean Martin

Amusingly enough, he was probably the only one of those guys who actually wasn't an alcoholic. But his drunky-drunk comments are always very funny.

Let's hear it again:

"You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on."

heh heh

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September 22, 2006

Obsession Central: Dino

You didn't think I was done, did you? I am far from done. You have no idea. Please also realize that as I post this picture - what song is blasting through my apartment? "Twlight". by ELO. Unbelievably, I am able to juggle many obsessions at one time.

Also, hopefully there will be a new development in the Dino realm by next week ... I'm working on something which potentially could be one of the most hysterical things I've ever done. Stay tuned.

But anyway. I love this picture. I love how hard Shirley [Maclaine - not Temple. Okay??] is laughing. And I love the look on his face. It seems that he is happy to have made her laugh. That was his thing. The stories she tells of her time with the Rat Pack are hilarious. She came to my school and one of the things she said about her friendships with all those guys, "I was the only virgin in that group." hahahahahaha But they loved her talent (especially Sinatra - who positioned her in Some Came Running so well that she ended up being nominated - Apparently he said to Vincente Minelli, the director: "If you have the kid die - she'll get nominated." Sinatra referred to Shirley as "the kid". You know. The only virgin in the bunch.) Say what you want about Sinatra. He was one of the most generous people in the business. Or - he COULD be. If you were talented and you worked hard. If you were those things, there was nothing he would not do for you. But if he thought you were wasting his time? He'd be the most difficult mo-fo on the planet. But anyway - they all loved Shirley. She was one of the boys. Virginity and all. She played poker. She cleaned up after them. They looked out for her.

Love this photo.

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All Dino posts here.

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September 19, 2006

Sheer joy from Dean Martin

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I have Alex Nunez to thank for the link below - he put it in a comments section below somewhere - and I thought I would pull it out and point to it.

It's Dean Martin's commercial that he did for his signature golf line - must be from the 70s some time. (I put the YouTube link below the jump).

A couple observations:

-- I just need to comment again on his unafraid unselfconscious goofiness and how much I respond to it. Goofiness like that could survive a nuclear blast. If there's one thing all the men I have loved have had in common it is that they are all GIGANTIC GOOFBALLS. I value it above all else, practically.

-- And Alex is so right. Please take note of what happens to Dino's body and face at 0:33. hahahahahaha Seriously - it makes me laugh out loud EVERY. TIME. I've seen it. Glorious. hahahaha

-- I love when he begins to chop at the sand. Like ... uhm ... Dino??

Enjoy!

(more Dino posts here)

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September 18, 2006

Dino again

Seriously, if you're looking for other more serious content - or at least a variety - you might have to come back in a couple months. To see how I'm doing THEN. Because now? I can't stop. Nor do I want to. For those of you who might not have ridden one of these waves with me before - please check out my category pages - for example: Cary Grant has a whole category devoted to him. So does Bogart. So does Stalin - although - er - that's really not the same kind of thing at all. But I guess it counts as an obsession.

I'll create a category for Dino sooner or later - just so they all can be in one place.

And look! It's catching!!

Pitter pat. Pitter freakin' pat.

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Said during one of his shows:

"If you think I'm going to get serious, you're crazy. If you want to hear a serious song, buy one of my records."
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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 this marquee. It makes me ache for a time machine. I love the "Maybe Frank ... Maybe Sammy".

It's just flat out HOT.

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And here's one of the stills from his performance there that night - the night that would launch a spectacularly successful solo career. I just love his goofiness.

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I love the fact that everyone is laughing - scan the faces.

Oh, and scan the audience for the famous folks. Ya see Lucy??

(These photos are from the collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - they have a ton of great collections, well worth browsing through if you are interested in this sort of thing)

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September 17, 2006

Obsession Central: Dino

Tracey sent me this image with a brief one-line email - which (I hope she won't mind) I will quote in full. She kind of says it all:

The face is in direct opposition to everything else.

Uhm ... yeah.

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hahahahaha

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Obsession central: Dino

Another gem from Tracey. Alex: is this from the concert they did together? Or something a bit more impromptu? I have no idea what Dino is doing but what I love most of all about this photo is the very REAL laughter on Frank and Judy's faces. Look at Frank!! You can so sense the friendship between these three.

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Obsession central: Dino

One of the funnest things about having a blog where all you do is write about your current obsession - is that there are those out there who not only do NOT roll their eyes at you (because believe me - I get some "rolling eyes" comments on my obsession posts) - but are more than willing to fan the flames. People send me books, links, articles they think I would like ... It is BEYOND awesome.

Tracey, basically, has been bombarding me with Dino images for the last 24 hours. HA!!! I am so grateful.

So here we go.

Here's Dean Martin with his parents. The crinkly smile lines on all three of them strike me as very beautiful.

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September 16, 2006

Hard to get

Richard Schickel (I had thought it was Pauline Kael - but I was WRONG WRONG WRONG) wrote this about Cary Grant, and I have always loved it:

Cary Grant, when playing his most famous characters, isn't playing hard to get. He is hard to get.

I have thought about this so much when watching Grant's films over and over. Think about not just movie stars - but people in real life - who play hard to get - because either they're afraid of commitment, or they like messing with you, or they're just flat out dishonest. But then there are those who really are hard to get. And those people? Please. They're the ones you never forget. I won't comment on that further cause I'll incriminate myself and most of my ex-boyfriends.

But I think that Schickel quote could also be used to describe Dean Martin.

You'd have to PAY that guy to "play hard to get". Please. He just was hard to get. Not because it was a GAME, but because that was just the way he WAS. Who knows why, and who CARES why.

This is why his appeal is so long-lasting. Because there's a mystery at the heart of it. Watch him perform, how intimate he is with his audience, how he uses his voice, how smooth he is, what good humor ... but still ... there is a sense, somehow, in the same way there was with Grant, that you can never have all of him. Whatever is deepest within him was his - and his alone.

But how wonderful it is - to keep watching him - to keep NOT having all of him - to keep trying to get close to that mystery, close to what it seems like he knows.


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September 15, 2006

Ease

It's a cliche that those who make it look easy don't get the props they deserve - at the time when it matters. Cary Grant is a perfect example. He breezed through Philadelphia Story, shining his OWN LIGHT onto his co-stars, both of whom were nominated (he was not), and one of whom won the award (his only award). Cary Grant was not congratulated for how easy he made it look. Or - at least not congratulated in the way that seems to matter: awards, and also - just that feeling that: This guy is the BEST. People who seem to work hard always get the accolades in the moment - which is why those who put on funny noses, use foreign accents, or play people who are 1. retarded 2. autistic 3. insane 4. insanely ugly - win the awards, and get the props. A great example (in my opinion) is Russell Crowe. In my estimation, he has never ever been better than in LA Confidential. Well, maybe Romper Stomper and The Sum of Us - from before he hit it big here - but that's interesting because once he became mega-famous in the States and in the world, he seemed to lose the confidence he had in those earlier films and started trying to prove himself. And naturally, once he started trying to prove himself by working really hard (sometimes VERY successfully like in The Insider and sometimes not so successfully like in Beautiful Mind) he started getting the Oscar nominations he so desired. He is a wonderful actor. Whether or not he transforms himself physically. Cary Grant always looked fabulous - he wasn't a chameleon - that was not his thing - but he is the best there is. But he made it look too easy. That is NEVER congratulated in such an obvious and superficial business as acting.

I bring all of this up because watch this YouTube clip of Dean singing "Everybody loves somebody (sometimes)". It is the epitome of ease. It looks like he was born singing that song. He is barely singing it at all. He's not even emoting. Or living it. Or reaching out to us. Or trying to communicate. He is just INHABITING it.

And ease like that is a miracle. Make no mistake. Almost NOBODY has that kind of ease. You can count them on one hand.

Breathtaking. It's like a soft warm bed you can sink into. A soft warm bed with a warm loving body waiting for you. Ease.

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Dean Martin: "the presumably 'less talented' half of the comedy team"

I've said it before: I treat my obsessions as though they are a JOB. So here goes.

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(Uhm. LOVE that photo.)


Came across this article about Dean Martin, with some really nice background information about his rise - and also recommendations on books to read, what to watch, what to listen to.

(Mitchell, Alex, and any other big-band singer fan: that site in and of itself looks incredible. Take a look at that right-hand side bar - and all the profiles of these huge names. It's a goldmine!)

Excerpts from the article I really like:

When Martin split from Lewis, he needed to create a character that had an identity unique from other singer/performers. The "drunk" persona was envisioned by Dean, figuring with Joe E. Lewis having recently retired, a perfectly good character was up for grabs. This also served the purpose of helping cover for his opening night jitters as a solo performer without longtime stage-mate Lewis. In April of 1957, with an act written by former Colgate Comedy Hour writer Ed Simmons, Martin stepped onto the stage of Jack Entratter's Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in front of a star-packed audience. . .alone. The crowd that had come out of curiosity and sympathy for the presumably "less talented" half of the comedy team was soon roaring with laughter and approval for the soon-to-be drunken icon who would realize an unprecedented second titanic career as a performer.

And

We grow up as children saying we don't care what anybody thinks. You hear it all the time. Many adults still use that phrase as a defense, but to really come across as not caring what others might think...now THAT is something to be envious of. That's a trait we'd all like to be able to turn on. Spock... Dean... not many can do it.

I don't think anybody really thinks ill of Dean Martin, but if they did, it wouldn't have bothered him much.


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Dean Martin

The onslaught will be continuous until the obsession burns out of me, like a high fever.

Check out this picture I found. I don't know if that's his own child showing him his muscles - but all of the details of this photo are mini-worlds in and of themselves:

-- the sleek bar in the background - are they in some type of rec room?
-- the posture of the guy sitting at the bar - his pinkie ring
-- Dino's shoes. I mean, the shoes.

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My brother on Dean Martin:

I have to post one of the comments he made about Dean Martin below. (Yesterday I went a bit nuts on the Dino - start here and scroll back).

But here's a comment my brother made and it's just too good to have it hidden in a comments section:

I remember seeing the Dean Martin roasts and being scared, like a drunk friend of an 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 ThatA 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 brush off 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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Dino at home

Annika got into the spirit of my Dean Martin appreciation day - and has linked to a wonderful compilation of Dino's home movies. I love the one shot of Dino being basically attacked by a group of small chidren, they're hanging all over him like little chimps.

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September 14, 2006

Warning

I'm not done with Dean Martin yet. Just had a kind of frenzied conversation on the phone with my brother about him. And, as always, my brother had some blunt statements about ... this GUY ... and what it WAS about ... this GUY ... that had such great APPEAL. My brother has a way with words. He always has.

Obsession bubbling up. I can feel it. Love has always been there. But now I recognize the voracious signs of ... need ... which would be completely disturbing and single-white-female-ish of me if it were someone I knew ... but since he is a) dead and 2) a celebrity - it's safe.

The signs are there. There is MUCH more to discover here.

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Dean Martin appreciation day - a link

In addition to all my posts below - here is an amazing post with thoughts about Dino.

Ever notice how most people will say they prefer Dean over Jerry? Iíve heard it time and again. Iíve also heard people say they prefer Dean over Frank. What was the manís secret? Just this, I suspect --- this guy didnít do needy. Never. Not with anybody. And most of us think thatís cool. Because we donít want to be needy either. A pox on Jerry and his unleashed emotion on those telethons! Damn that childish Frank and his spaghetti assault on this cool, unflappable man. Yes, I suspect weíd all like to be a little more like Dean. Not all the way, mind you, because by all accounts, his loner habits did not necessarily make for a happy life, particularly toward the end, but who wouldnít want that calm exterior? They say that even with all that spaghetti matting in his hair, Dean just got up calmly, walked into the bathroom, and waited for a penitent Frank to leave his hotel suite. The only thing that seems to have really impacted on Dean was his sonís tragic death during a jet-training flight in 1987.

And check out those photos. Presley's gorgeous, sure - but Dean is handsome. Manly handsome.

Wonderful photo below - I just love the whole world it represents - the glimpse into it - the spirit of it:

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Bogdonavich writes:

The last time I saw Dean was one evening in front of the Beverly Hills restaurant La Famiglia, less than a year before he died. This popular Italian restaurant was nearly always where Dean ate when he went out. Just as I was walking past, Martin started to come none too steadily out the front door. He looked alarmingly thin, face gaunt and pale. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, it seemed as though one of his knees gave out, and he had to catch himself by the door to stop from falling. He made a funny surprised expression and, looking down, said with a touch of dry irony, "Ooops ..." Right up to the end, I thought, he'll go for the laugh. Then Dean straightened himself to full height, shoulders back, and slowly moved toward a waiting car, weaving only slightly. The image had become the reality.

Or had the reality always been different than we thought? Five years after Dean died, I said to [Jerry] Lewis once that I had always had the feeling (right from the start) that Dean was usually kidding the whole crooning thing, that he was never really serious about it. "There's a lot of truth in that," Jerry said right away. "See, Dean could never ever sing and do it with a full heart because he wasn't clear about his worth. He did not have self-esteem. He didn't have self-esteem of any kind. So he would kid the singing and he would never allow it ever to get serious so that people would compare him to anybody. I don't think he knew this." I asked why did he think the self-esteem was so low, and Lewis said, "I heard about his demons, his fears, talkinga bout his mother. She was a two-fisted Italian woman who gave him one credo to take through life. And that was: you take money into your pockets, you never take it out. Take. You never give. You cry, you're worthless. You have emotional feelings, you're a fag. And all of that was ground into his head..."

And I, personally, will always LOVE him for how he stuck up for Marilyn Monroe during her disastrous last moments at Fox. She was fired from her last movie - co-starrin Dean Martin - and he refused to continue if she wasn't in it. Not a lot of people would behave that way - but he did. The draw for him was HER, being in a movie with HER. Funny thing: Marilyn Monroe was obviously a woman who "got around", so to speak. She slept with a ton of people. People snickered about her. BUT: her friends, her good good friends, outside of Shelley Winters, were all men. Those guys might have passed her around ... but they also recognized and loved talent. They protected her, an army of powerful men. Fox was fucking with her - and Dean Martin was disgusted by it. He walked off the set.

Here's an excerpt from the book Marilyn: The Last Take:

At 3:45 pm, Fox hairstylist Agnes Flanagan knocked on Dean Martin's dressing room door to ask his opinion of the story that Kim Novak had been hired to replace Monroe.

"I don't think so, honey," Martin said. "I'd certainly have heard about that."

But it wasn't long before Buck Hall made it official by posting a notice on the call sheet next to the main entrance to soundstage 14. "Set Closed Until Further Notice - Per Instructions from the Legal Department."

About the same time, Whitey Snyder got a tip from a source in the front office. Not only had Monroe been fired, but the studio had worked quickly to replace her. Lee Remick, who owed the studio two films, was already in wardrobe, being fitted for Monroe's costumes.

Snyder approached Martin, who was still in golf clothes from a noon game at the Los Angeles Country Club. "Dean I think they've fired Marilyn," Snyder said.

"What?" Martin said.

"Then Dean had his assistant run to the production to verify the story," Snyder remembered.

A few minutes later, the assistant was back. "Yep," he said. "Monroe has been fired and Lee Remick's going to be your leading lady."

Martin put his putter down, grabbed his coat and headed for the Fox parking lot. Snyder walked part of the way with him. "Whitey, I made a contract to do this picture with Marilyn Monroe," Martin said. "That's the deal; the only deal. We're not going to be doing it with Lee Remick or any other actress."

When Martin arrived home half an hour later, Vernon Scott, the Hollywood reporter for United Press International, coaxed a brief interview out of him. Martin told Scott that he had walked off the set and didn't plan to return. "I have the greatest respect for Miss Remick as an actress," Martin continued. "But I signed to do this film with Marilyn Monroe."

Shortly after 6 pm, the UPI wires broadcast this bulletin: "Dean Martin quit the Twentieth Century-Fox film because Marilyn Monroe was fired."

Thus began a long PR nightmare for Fox but Dean stuck to his guns. I will always admire him for that. Monroe didn't have many friends at the end of her life. Now he might not have been her "friend" - his concern was that he wanted to do a movie with HER. The biggest female star in the world. But at that time - Fox was punishing her for her success. They saw her as a slut who got lucky. They trapped her in a horrible contract, where she was underpaid, and she knew it. Martin gave her the respect she deserved. A ballsy move - to just walk off the damn set.

More from The Last Take:

Dean Martin never elaborated on his reasons for putting his career and his future on the line for Monroe, but it was typical of a man whose on-screen image as an easygoing good guy was identical to his off-screen persona. An ex-prizefighter and ex-cardsharp, Martin had been laboring in a steel mill when he began singing nights and weekends in small clubs. After he teamed up with frenetic comedian Jerry Lewis in 1946, he assumed the role of a handsome, not-so-bright straight man. The Martin and Lewis partnership endured for ten years, eleven films and a thousand appearances in nightclubs.

When the partnership collapsed in the mid-fifties, many Hollywood producers thought Maritn wouldn't survive as a solo act. But half a dozen number-one hits, including "Volare" and "Memories Are Made of This", smoothed his way to film and television superstardom. In 1958, his role in Some Came Running opposite fellow "Rat Packers" Sinatra and MacLaine proved his value as a dramatic star.

However predictable, Martin's loyalty to Monroe was far from popular. "Nasty sayings were scrawled on his dressing-room door," production secretary Lee Hanna remembered. "By insisting on Monroe, it seemed as if the film would shut down for good - with the loss of one hundred and four jobs."

Hedda Hopper warned the actor in her Los Angeles Times column. "The unions are taking a dim view of Dean Martin's walkout," Hopper wrote. She quoted a union official as saying, "Dean's putting people out of work at a time when we are all faced with unemployment." ...

Levathes, who flew back to Los Angeles on Sunday, was determined to change Martin's mind but, just in case, had Ferguson begin drafting a $5.6 million lawsuit "for breach of contract".

The three-hour meeting among Feldman, Levathes, Frank Ferguson, Martin and Herman Citron was an exercise in frustration. The executives were determined to sell Remick to the increasingly skeptical actor.

When Feldman tried to verbally recap Martin's "rejection of Remick," Martin interrupted him, saying, "I didn't turn down Miss Remick. I simply said that I will not do the film without Marilyn Monroe. There is a big difference between the two statements."

Levathes countered, "What kind of position does that put our investment in?"

Martin answered, "That's not a fair question to ask me. I have no quarrel with anyone."

Levathes forged ahead. "We think Miss Remick is of adequate stature," he said. "After all, she has appeared with Jack Lemmon [in Days of Wine and Roses] with James Stewart [in Anatomy of a Murder], and with Glenn Ford [in Experiment in Terror]."

Martin patiently explained that he had taken the role mainly because "the chemistry between Miss Monroe and myself was right." The actor also said that the whole point of Something's Got to Give was Martin's desertion of his new bride, Cyd Charisse, for Monroe, which was something which wouldn't happen, Martin said, "with Lee Remick."

The production chief disagreed. "This story is a warm situation in which th ehusband, with his children, loved his former wife, but was caught in an embarrassing position because he had remarried," said Levathes. "This is not the case of a man who chucks one woman for a sexpot."

Martin shook his head.

They went round and round, at a total impasse. Martin would not budge. He would not do the film without Marilyn Monroe, and that was final.

Balls. Integrity. I totally admire that.

More from Bogdonavich:

When I asked Jerry to take me behind Dean's supposed coolness, he said, "Dean had a wonderful device in his life. 'Recluse' was wonderful for him. 'Above the crowd' was wonderful for him. The best thing he ever had working for himself was his way of standoffishness. And I think throughout all of it, he must have peeked through the door to see what everyone was doing. I never knew that he did that, but I always wondered if he did. And did he come away from the door saying, 'Whew, I don't need that.' Or did he come away from the door saying, 'Why can't I be with them?' If you know about his background, you'll see the complicated is simple. He came from a Mafia-like upbringing - an insensitive set of parents. And certainly sad to have to say they were also incredibly dumb ... Then, at his twentyninth birthday, he put his arms around me because I got my arms around him. And he liked it. And then he would push me away like I'm the kid brother: 'What's with the hugging?' And he loved it. He used to do what his grandmother did. He pushed me with this hand and pulled me with that hand. Because I was the only human on God's earth that he would communicate with then. He was kind, he was generous, he was silly, he was simple. He read comic books because that was easy. And I used to say to him, 'Will you stop sending people for comic books? Go yourself and buy them. What are you hiding?' He said, 'Aw, you know, Jer.' I said, '"You know, Jer"? my balls! This is something an individual, who has the inalienable right to live as a human being, with the pink slip on himself, won't go over to a stand and buy what the fuck he wants with his own hard-earned money?' He said, 'Can I please send out for them?' And I said, 'OK.' He was so fuckin' cute. He loved sitting in the corner and having a beer and he had his fuckin' comic books. And if a Western was on, he tabled that and the Western is on!"

That Dean Martin died on Christmas Day was the kind of black joke he might have made. It didn't seem real to me until I heard that all the casinos on the Vegas Strip had turned off their lights for one minute to commemorate Dino's passing. You could almost hear Dean saying, in amazement, "One whole minute? I must have been a big shot." He was.

And so concludes my Dean Martin appreciation day. I'm such a nerd that I have actually shed tears as I typed all this out. I need to see all his movies and TV specials RIGHT NOW.

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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I adore that photo.

Here's more from Bogdonavich's superb essay about Dean Martin. Here he is talking to Howard Hawks about directing Dean Martin in Rio Bravo. Martin was afraid he couldn't do it - afraid it would be "too dramatic" - that he would fail. If you see that movie - it is truly astonishing how much he does NOT fail. But we all have our demons of insecurity. Martin had never been called upon before to play such dramatic scenes. But watch him in that movie. Seriously.

So: Bogdonavich:

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 - nevere 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.

Yup.

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Peter Bogdonavich writes:

We got on the subject of acting drama, as opposed to comedy, and how he prepared for a serious role. "I just kinda think the way the part is, you know?" He leaned forward in his chair. "I kinda think back to somethin' that's happened to me," he continued. "Like in Rio Bravo -- there was a scene I was supposed to be very sad in, supposed to cry even. So I thought about a time I was unhappy - time my son, little Dino, was very sick - and that helped me. I kinda used those feelin's I had then." He sighed deeply. "Before I started that picture, I went to Brando and he helped me out a little bit. Told me to listen. Actin' is reactin', you know? Think wthat you're thinkin'."

The image of him going to Brando for acting coaching is so moving to me. And that excerpt above makes me think of John Wayne, who always said, "I am not an actor. I am a reactor."

More about Rio Bravo:

Martin went on to tell me that Rio Bravo director Howard Hawks had so correctly sensed the actor's anxiety about this key emotional scene - to be played in a stable with John Wayne - that he saved it for the last one Dean did on th emovie. A little over a year after interviewing Martin, I first met Hawks, who confirmed to me that the scene had purposely been held for last. "And he did a hell of a good job of it," Hawks said. "He really found out he could act in that thing and it was a great scene. He worked so hard ... The ones who are good, work."
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Peter Bogdonavich again:

In our brief conversation, the last thing I asked Martin was about the many jokes already then being made about his drinking. He shrugged. "They don't bother me, but they're a little silly. If anyone drank that much, how long you think people'd keep hirin' him?" He paused, but not for an answer. "Oh, don't get me wrong, I drink. But I hardly ever get drunk. I don't mind the jokes though. Matter of fact, they kinda help the image, you know what I mean?"
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Peter Bogdonavich interviewed Dean Martin in the mid-60s. I love Bogdonavich. His whole essay on Dean Martin is really not to be missed, for Martin fans. There's SO MUCH in it - and this is just a taste.

In his portable MGM dressing room - a small moveable bungalow on the sound stage - Dean sat very politely with me and was quite forthcoming. He had been told that I was writing a piece on the state of Hollywood for Harper's Magazine (it ultimately went to Esquire), so I assume he thought of this interview as fairly weighty stuff, answering my questions with a kind of uncharacteristic earnestness and little kidding around. Which doesn't mean he was pretentious or less than candid. Since he had just done Bells Are Riging the year before, I asked if he would ever consider doing a musical on Broadway. He made a face. "'Doin' the same thing ev'ry night?" he asked rhetorically. "Jesus, how borin'." He shook his head once. "I wouldn't mind tryin' it for about three nights," he said, "but I'd sure as hell hate to be in a hit."

hahahahahahaha

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Peter Bogdonavich writes:

What I saw them do onstage at the paramount was much like what they are seen doing at the end of The Caddy, and for the last ten minutes of each of their Colgate Comedy Hours: the boys in tuxedos (even during Paramount's morning and afternoon shows), their bow ties untied, fooling around in front of Dick Stabile's orchestra, their caricatures displayed thorughout the band. Dean sings -- Jerry disrupts. They sing together. They throw things into the audience or Jerry runs into the auditorium. They do jokes putting each other down. Dean sings as if he's sending up crooners and doesn't mean a word, Jerry screeches hysterically for attention and his outrageousness becomes contageious. For a privileged minority, Dean was as funny in his own dry way as Jerry was so obviously. In fact, even Frank Sinatra had originally missed the self-deprecating wit behind Dean's comedy. When Frank saw the act the first time at New York's Copacabana, he reportedly said, "The wop's not much, but the Jew's funny."

I love this photo so much that I have been unable to stop staring at it for about 5 minutes. Because I am a gigantic nerd.

Onward.

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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I came across this photo and was just completely struck by it - on every level. Every face, every detail ... Mia Farrow, Dean Martin, and Sharon Tate. It's kinda haunting. I mean, it's hard to look at anyone else but Sharon Tate in that photo - but look at his face, the softness, but also the ... etches of something else there. Despair? Private sorrow? The man did not have an easy time of it. But the softness is what I am really struck by.

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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Peter Bogdonavich writes:

Recently I saw nearly all twenty-eight of their Colgate Comedy Hours (soon to be released on DVD), and a lot of the stuff is still fall-down-on-the-floor hilarious. Usually, it's Lewis who ad-libs a line or some piece of comic business that makes Martin laugh, which in turn often causes Jerry to fall apart, too; he always got a big kick out of breaking up Dean These moments are not only infectiously funny, they sparkle with a delightfully unfettered sense of loving camaraderie and joy. When I mentioned this to Jerry, he said quietly, "Yeah, if you could bottle that, you could change the world."
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Bogdonavich asks Lewis: "What was it like those first four years, before the movies? From 46 to 49?"

Lewis responds:

It was wonderful. It was the Katzenjammer Kids. We had so much fun, it's ridiculous. We played football in a suite in Philadelphia, broke windows, lamps. Like two monkeys on a fucking high. We just played. And he played golf and I'd write. Then I said to him: "I've written some wonderful shit here, we've got to work on it." "Later." Uh-oh. "No, no later - because I'll quit and then you won't have any good shit to do." "Later." And I knew not to push him. He wanted to play golf during the tournament in Philadelphia, I didn't push him. We left there, we went to Chicago, I said, "Now you're going to practice." And he did. But the thing of it was this - impossible to understand was - I would write him a bit that would run four minutes, spotting the positioning on the stage and the geography within that bit. I would do it that night and he was right on the fucking money. And he had a favorite line, he said, "You only have to tell me once."
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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More from Jerry Lewis' interview with Bogdonavich. I know a lot of this is Jerry being self-serving, but that's no matter. It's still awesome information. Bogdonavich is asking about Dean - he says "he worked on a totally instinctual level".

Lewis responds:

Oh, yes. Because he always told everybody, "I can go out and drift, he'll always pull me back." And vice-versa. Jerry can get as crazy as he wants and who's the best judge of what Jerry does but Dean. And Dean knew when to pull me back if I was getting in trouble or something. So, we never sat and discussed the enormity of our emotional ties together. But it was always underlined. It was always underneath it all. I would reprimand him sometimes: "Would you sing one, just straight? You've got a marvelous voice. Go out in the Copa and let the honeymooners hug while you sing a love song." "I do." "No, you don't." "Yes, you do." "No, you don't." "Yes, I do!" "No, you don't!" He felt his oats really good and clean and solid when we split up. Then he didn't have to do what I thought he did all those years, and that was cop out. Have me as the cop out. "Well, that's not what got us here - singing." "No, but it was part of it. So you should do it. I mean, honor those who think you're a wonderful singer, that buy your records and so on." He said, "You know what we'd be getting if we were two singers?" I said, "What's that got to do with it?" He said, "Tell me, what if we were two singers and we were hot in the business. Do you think we'd get a grand a week?" I said, "Oh, that's fucking ridiculous. We wouldn't be. Two singers wouldn't have made it." He said, "How about that?" Now, July 25, 1946, the team legally started. And we ended July 25, 1956, to the night.
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Jerry Lewis:

And the premise in my mind always was that I'm going to dig in and get the child within me alive. I cannot see two men standing on the stage and doing what I think we should do together, and be adults and do it. Dean must be the adult, but Jerry has to be the kid - the little guy - and I loved that. I was as tall as Dean, except I worked in a crouch, and I had his shoes lifted. Just so that I could work the crouch better. He always looked that much taller than me on the stage because I'd shrink. When I stood upright introducing him or something, I was six feet.

More:

Peter Bogdonavich (all of this is coming from his marvelous book Who the hell's in it) asks Lewis: "A lot of times on the Colgate Comedy Hour he's sing and you'd do shtick while he was singing, which was hysterical."

Lewis responds:

Right. We had wonderful times. If he didn't feel like really singing straight from the heart one show, we'd fuck with it. I would just create something. And the most wonderful thing about the two guys was that I could write anything at any time, or create anything at any time with anything. And I was fearless about it. "Let's go for it!" "Yeah, but you're on the air live now - there's like fifty million people tonight. "That's right. Let's go for it." "You mean, you're going to do this live without ...?" "It's ready. And what's going to happen to me if I fall on my ass? I'll be here next week." "Oh, OK." Now, the brilliance of Dean was that he would expedite it like he rehearsed four years. He wouldn't get in the way of it, he knew how to hold on to it, he knew where to take me, where to back off. And I'm on the stage and my mouth drops open sometimes because I'm watching this excellence, and 97 percent of it was that he wasn't even aware of how good he was.
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Dean Martin appreciation day

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Jerry Lewis:

You see, the one thing that [newspaper columnist] Walter Winchell told me that night -- he saw us at the Havana Madrid -- and I was sitting having a drink with him after the show and he said, "You know what's wonderful about what you two guys are doing?" And he's talking like we're an act. We're not an act. He said, "I love the way you look at him." I said I didn't know it was that evident. "You know, that's part of the magic - and the way he looks at you".
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September 13, 2006

Happy place

Oh, happy happy place. Seriously. There's just something about him. I love to get my brother talking about Dean Martin - he's really articulate about his appeal. This happy place is also for Michael - who loves Dean Martin. That ring-a-ding-ding jollity ... hiding a world of pain ... but what a guy. What a guy.

Peter Bogdonavich's essay about him is so wonderful - I'll post some excerpts of it later, because I think Dean Martin, while loved and all that, is HUGELY under-rated.

I look at Dean Martin and I feel happy. I cannot explain why this is so. I am sure it has SOMEthing to do with the fact that I am a gigantic nerd.

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