Dean Martin was the definition of "cool". Las Vegas entertainer, singer, recording artist, comedian, straight-man, serious actor, Martin could.. and did.. do it all. Cigarette in one hand, drink in another, even though that drink may have been nothing stronger than apple juice, nothing seemed to get under his skin. That coolness helped make him a perfect foil for the manic Jerry Lewis during their long partnership and for the just-under-control heat of Frank Sinatra during the Rat Pack years.
Born in Ohio
Dean Martin was born in Ohio on June 7, 1917, in the town of Steubenville, about 35 miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But his name then was Dino Crocetti. His father was an Italian immigrant, a barber in the town. For the first five years of his life, Dino spoke only Italian. He quit school at the age of 16 and knocked around a bit, working in steel mills, delivering bootleg liquor and taking up prizefighting, under the name of "Kid Crochet".
Crocetti scored a job as a dealer and croupier in a gambling joint near Steubenville, where he could mingle with entertainers. His idol was Bing Crosby. Martin claimed he learned to sing from watching Crosby’s movies, listening to his records and imitating the crooner. The word is that friends of Dino’s had heard him singing and thought he was pretty good. So one night, they pushed him up on stage and his professional singing career was born.
Dino, Meet Jerry
By 1940, Dino was performing in the city of Cleveland as featured vocalist for bandleader Sammy Watkins. About that time, he changed his name, first to Dino Martini and then, to Dean Martin. By the mid 1940’s Dean Martin was performing on the New York nightclub circuit, and rapidly running out of money. 1946 saw the release of his first single "Which Way Did My Heart Go?" and his first teaming with a struggling comic named Jerry Lewis.
The two appeared on the same bill, although booked separately, in several clubs and began clowning around on stage, visiting each other’s act. They officially teamed up in 1947. Martin playing the level-headed straight man to Lewis’s lunacy.
Success At Last
Martin and Lewis quickly became superstars. They were featured on an NBC radio program in 1949 and made their television debut in 1950 on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Their first film, My Friend Irma was part of a multi-year, multi-film deal with Paramount Studios. The two also had a recording contract with Capitol Records. They rode the wave for ten years and 16 films.
Martin’s recording career was also doing well during the Martin-Lewis years. He scored hits with "Return to Me", "That’s Amore", and had his first Number 1 single in 1955 with "Memories Are Made of This".
The Pairing Ends
But Martin and Lewis off stage were having "creative differences". They were together ten years, almost to the day. They announced their split in 1956, after finishing a run at the Copacabana in New York.
Most critics and show business observers figured Jerry Lewis would continue as a star, but didn’t hold out much hope for the crooner. And the failure of Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Martin’s first film without Lewis, seemed to bolster those arguments. But Martin wasn’t about to let that happen. His second movie without Jerry, was The Young Lions, also starring Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift and both Martin and the film got great reviews.
Rat Pack Years
Martin went on to make 33 more films, including Some Came Running, Bells are Ringing, Airport, a series of "Matt Helms" films, and Ocean’s Eleven with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. That movie about a plot to rob Las Vegas casinos, was filmed during the day. At night, Martin, Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop performed on stage at the Sands Hotel. Martin became a regular performer at the Sands during the 1960’s before moving on to the Riviera, then the MGM Grand and Bally’s Casinos.
As Long as He’s Singin’
When pal Sinatra left Capitol and started his own label, Reprise Records, Martin went with him to considerable success. In 1964, his "Everybody Loves Somebody" soared to Number 1 on the charts, knocking the Beatles out of that spot. Some of his other hits include "Volare", "You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You", "Houston" and "Ain’t That a Kick in the Head".
Did Someone Say Television?
The next year, "The Dean Martin Show" debuted on NBC TV. It would run for nine seasons before morphing into a series of "Celebrity Roasts" that ran on Friday nights in the 1970’s. These were patterned after the "Friar’s Club Roasts" in which the guest of honor was verbally skewered by friends and acquaintances.
Martin and Lewis Make Up
Martin re-united with Jerry Lewis for the first time in 20 years, tagging along with Frank Sinatra to the broadcast of Lewis’ annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in 1976.
e late 1970’s Martin’s health was taking a turn for the worse. He suffered from ulcers and headaches and his career was largely focused on the nightclubs at casinos. He did make two more movies, Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II in the early ’80’s.
End of the Line
Martin was married three times. He married first wife Betty McDonald in 1941 and the couple had four children before divorcing in 1949. He married Jeanne Biegger that same year. They had three children and split up in 1973. A month after the divorce was final, he married Catherine Hawn and adopted her daughter. The marriage lasted just three years.
In 1987, life dealt Martin a blow from which he would not recover. His son, Dino Jr. was killed, when the National Guard jet he was piloting, crashed. Martin became increasingly isolated and retired permanently in 1988 when he became ill during a concert tour with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Martin died on Christmas Day, 1995 at the age of 78.
No Drama, No Movie
Director Martin Scorsese had been trying for several years to make a biographical film of Martin, planning an all star cast, including Tom Hanks as Martin, John Travolta as Sinatra, Hugh Grant as Peter Lawford, Adam Sandler as Joey Bishop and Jim Carrey as Jerry Lewis. The film was to be written by Wiseguys author Nicholas Pileggi. But as of December 25th, 2004, Scorsese had declared the project dead. The problem? Martin’s tendency to play his cards close to the vest, and pull back from life. Not enough drama for the big screen.
Dean on the Web
In "Memories Are Made of This", daughter Deana writes that Dean Martin was not a good father but that he was a good man. She has worked hard to keep his memory alive in his home state of Ohio, getting lawmakers there to declare Dean Martin’s June 7th birthday, a state holiday and setting up a "Dean Martin Day". Her website DeanaMartin.com and the Dean Martin Fan Center are among several sites, helping to keep Dean Martin’s memory alive.