Cover Story

The Two Faces of Steve

The ''wild and crazy guy'' reveals a more serious side in the new film ''L.A. Story''

This is Steve Martin's brain: sane, sober, relentlessly reflective.

This is Steve Martin's brain on stage: sizzling with skewed humor, shish-kebabed by a magic-trick arrow, wild and you-know-what.

Of course, Martin hasn't been on stage lately. His new film, L.A. Story, is worlds away from the fall-down-funny stand-up act that made the comedian's name in the '70s. You would think that, after spending three quarters of a billion dollars to catch him in 18 movies, audiences would grasp that he doesn't strut his stuff as King Tut anymore. They don't. ''For years he's been living down this phrase that haunts him — 'wild and crazy guy,''' complains Victoria Tennant, Martin's wife and L.A. Story costar; the exceedingly cultivated goddaughter of Sir Laurence Olivier, she does not suffer fools gladly. ''My God, it's been 10 years since Pennies From Heaven (his first noncomic role) — they're in some time warp.''

Actually, Martin, 45, hasn't totally renounced the manic-impressive antics that made him what Carl Reiner calls ''the first rock-star comedian,'' packing 20,000-seat halls with shrieking fans and luring millions of extra viewers to Saturday Night Live as its top-rated guest host. It's just that, as befits an actor who once made a film called The Man With Two Brains, Martin has two nearly antithetical personalities — one philosophical, one silly. ''I love the smart joke and the dumb joke,'' he says, and ever since he stumbled onto the big screen as The Jerk, he has been tinkering with the tricky balance between calculated method and liberating madness. With L.A. Story, a love letter to his city of dreams —as well as to Tennant, who plays a cool, eccentric journalist who falls for Martin — he thinks he's found it.

Complex and introspective, Martin is a hard man to get at. Humor protects his privacy: He fends off fans with a card that reads, ''This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent, and funny.'' ''Spending time with him is like being alone,'' says his old boss Tom Smothers, on whose TV show Martin's comedy writing got its first national exposure. ''He's a real nice guy, a deep guy, but when he stops being funny he reveals very little about himself.''

''I've known Steve a long time, but I don't feel I know him well,'' says Carrie Fisher, who used to be an intimate of the SNL crowd. ''He's in another zone; he has this place he goes to, like Siddhartha with his private stream. A Siddhartha place with rim shots. He's got a real calm for a person who can summon manic energy. Robin (Williams) gets possessed by it, but Steve is more disciplined — computerlike.''

Martin hates to talk about the man behind the grinning mask, but as a dramatic actor and cinema auteur, he can't help exposing his soul. The best way to the heart of his mystery is to scrutinize his work on film — and he's never made one more revealing than his latest. ''He's very much like the character he plays in L.A. Story,'' says the movie's director, Mick Jackson. Tennant sees the film as ''a summary of his ideas. It's a completely personal piece of work, and the place in it is unmistakably his — like Barry Levinson's Baltimore or Woody Allen's New York.'' Martin's L.A. is, she says, ''a city that creates dreams for the world — it takes the dreams out of people's heads at night and puts them up on a screen.'' And the inner life that's most visibly put on display in L.A. Story is that of its creator.

Just off a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard called the Miracle Mile, near the county art museum to which Martin has given nearly a million dollars, lies the Four Seasons Hotel, an epicenter of L.A. culture. Outside the grand entrance, J. Seward Johnson's bronze sculpture Newspaper Reader studies a New York Times with a headline most appropriate to L.A. Story, as well as to its maker's career: ''But Is It Art? Price Is Right, But Experts Disagree on Worth.''

In the hotel restaurant, Steve Martin sips herbal tea at a power table, expressing indifference to opinions on his latest work in words as carefully chosen as his exquisite clothes. ''I don't feel that nervous about it,'' he says softly, ''because I feel like the work really speaks for itself. It's more of a personal statement, whereas films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which are really made for the audience to enjoy, you worry about more.'' Martin wants L.A. Story to please people, but he doesn't feel the film has to crack us up en masse. ''I made it for a certain kind of audience,'' he says. ''I hope people will get involved in the romance.''

Martin knows the perils (and advantages) of being misunderstood. His renowned ''Happy Feet'' routine, for instance, was supposed to be about a sinister force seizing one's extremities and compelling them to dance crazily. ''It was about being manipulated by something else,'' he says, flashing a toned-down version of his extravagant smile. ''I'd say, 'Leave me alone!''' But audiences didn't get it, so he dropped the reference to a larger power pulling his strings, and the bit became a pure ode to joy: The artist yielded a measure of control to his fans, who outnumbered him.

L.A. Story is not so simple, and it's entirely under Martin's control: He wrote, executive produced, and took the lead role. ''It's radically untraditional,'' he says. ''There are laughs people won't know how to take, though it does have jokes that would fit naturally into The Jerk. It's got the romantic emotions I sort of explored in Roxanne, and a little of the mysticism and magic of Pennies.''

In choosing his dark, difficult role in Pennies From Heaven, Martin first signaled his ambition to vault from funnyman to film artist, and he has been working in that direction as single-mindedly as any comic of his generation. ''I was at dinner with him and Chevy Chase, and I think Chevy might get more money than Steve, but Steve gets more respect, so that issue came up,'' says Carrie Fisher. ''He really hones his craft, and Chevy just gets further away from it, less mature, and that's what works about Chevy's comedy. It's sort of childish, adolescent — and funny. I don't mean to say anything bad about Chevy, but they're just opposite. His work doesn't reflect his style and taste; Steve has much more to do with his movies. He's a writer.''

Mick Jackson says Martin's writing in L.A. Story is ''a strange blend of surrealism and slapstick — L.A. is like the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream, full of characters stumbling around the woods of their own subconscious, with an enchanted freeway sign performing the function of Puck, the mischievous sprite who interferes with the heroes' love lives.'' Martin's character, though, owes more to Jerry Lewis than to William Shakespeare: He's Harris K. Telemacher, the ''wiggy weekend weatherman with the wuh-wuh-wacky weekend weather.'' ''Say, don't you have a Ph.D. in arts and humanities?'' asks one of his TV news colleagues. ''A lot of good it did you.'' It is tempting to compare the weatherman's peculiar mix with the actor's own. Martin, after all, once planned to be a philosophy professor and wound up as a clown telling existential fart jokes, the subtleties of which were often lost on TV audiences. Martin characteristically parries any such attempt to link his life and his work.

''It's really just a convenient metaphorical job,'' he says. ''Here's a guy who's on the outskirts of showbiz, which everybody is here, even the waiters. The frustrations it reflects are in my life, if not my career. I think it affects a lot of people: They take a job and think it'll be for one year and find seven years later they're still on the job. It's like the job is taking you somewhere rather than you controlling your own life.

''You have to be kind of struck by lightning in this town,'' he adds, ''and the amazing thing is you can come from nowhere and suddenly be cast in a sitcom at 14 and you're making $5,000 a week.''

That's pretty much what happened to Martin. In 1968, he was a 22-year-old UCLA student with a passion for philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein when he was improbably hired as a TV writer for the Smothers Brothers at up to $1,500 a week. As Martin has put it, ''The luck ball landed on me.'' But he was poised to grab it and run. In addition to being a scholar, he'd long been a driven performer. At 10, he hawked Disneyland guidebooks — he may have set the all-time sales record, 625 books in a day, when the average was 50. Promoted to the Fantasyland magic shop, he labored there until he was 18, and did a magic act, 20 shows a week, at nearby Knott's Berry Farm. Writer Mason Williams hired him for the Smothers' show because his oddness and ambition had impressed Williams when they'd shared the stage at folk-music clubs (Martin played the banjo, and his first gig was in the aptly named Prison of Socrates). ''Steve was kind of a shy and quiet person,'' recalls Williams, ''always perfecting a single performance.''

The perfectionism has only grown in the years since. L.A. Story took seven years to write and, says its star, ''It represents 10 years of experience in making films. You just get a little smarter, it gets a little sharper and cleverer.'' He won't dwell on his stand-up past — let alone revive it and go on tour, as he says record industry mogul David Geffen urged him to do five years ago. ''Once I've said it and done it, I don't have a stake in doing it again.'' One of the few times Martin has betrayed emotion in public was on a recent Oprah, when he winced at audience requests to do Tut and the Wild and Crazy Guy. ''It's hard to go back,'' he gently rebuked them; ''Awww!'' groaned the audience like a great beast.

But Martin is willing to look back on his post-stand-up career. ''I always think, yes, you're making movies for now, but you're also making them for 10, 15 years from now, and you've got to keep that in mind.''

Martin is prouder of Pennies From Heaven, his second film, than he is of The Jerk, but you have to see both to get a true feel for the quality of his bicameral mind. Pennies is what they used to call a head trip, an intellectual exercise — even its fantasy dance sequences comment sardonically on the hero's squalid real life. The Jerk is rompingly, stompingly stupid. Martin's challenge was to devise a film style melding the dumb joke and the smart joke, with a little Wittgensteinian gloom thrown in. As a stand-up, he'd already pulled it off: ''My cat is taking my checks down to the bank and cashing them. I went out in his little house and there was $3,000 worth of cat toys. I couldn't return them because they had spit all over them.'' Could any other comic have written this? But it took a while for Martin to develop a film persona supple enough to accommodate all of him, and All of Me was the turning point. In it, he managed to create a credible character in an incredible fix — Lily Tomlin has invaded his body — and he was less tense, more natural, than in Pennies. ''It's my first structured comedy,'' he says. ''My mature film career starts with All of Me and ends with L.A. Story.''

L.A. Story has very little in the way of a story, but it fuses his diverse seriocomic enthusiasms, a little mildly astringent social satire, and many lush flowerings of Martin's imagination. Not even director Jackson understands some of the more arcane stuff, such as the character whose testicles make piercing wind-chime noises when he walks. ''I don't know — it's just one of those weird things,'' the director says. ''The movie is rich in them. He just puts all these disparate things in, secure in the knowledge that it will all hold together because it's part of the same sensibility.

''It's very difficult to say whether he's a wild and crazy guy with a shy guy trying to get out, or the other way around,'' he continues. ''But there's a lag between the rapidity with which he's changing and the perception of who he is. A lot of people think he's still juggling cats with an arrow through his head.''

By the time audiences catch up with L.A. Story, Martin will be working on three new movies: a ''sort of a modernization,'' he says, of the Spencer Tracy classic Father of the Bride; a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan, directed by Frank Oz; and Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, ''the flip side of L.A. Story: It's a drama about the dark, violent side of L.A.'' One Saliva Bubble, his long-awaited film with David Lynch, about a guy whose spit saves the world, will have to be awaited longer. Martin calls it ''one of the funniest scripts I've ever read — the closest thing I can think (to compare it to) is Dr. Strangelove,'' but he now doubts it will be made.

As an actor for hire, Steve Martin knows what he'll be doing for the next year or two. As a moviemaker, though, he has no idea what's next — except that it won't be anything like his latest. ''There's no part two to L.A. Story,'' he says. ''I can't make that style of film again.'' Having spent his youth demonstrating the same dumb magic tricks at Disneyland and his early manhood reprising what was essentially a single show, Martin can't stand the thought of repeating himself even in tone. Awash in chances for easy money, he passes the time tinkering with various film projects and collecting as many of the world's great paintings as he can afford. Maybe he aspires to make a movie with the cool Precisionist beauty of his Charles Sheeler canvas, or the Abstract Expressionist passion of his Franz Kline. Perhaps he'd like to try both. He once said he doesn't want a textbook-perfect collection but one that reflects his personality: ''I feel a need for the slightly edgy, different thing.''

''He does what tickles him, even if once in a while he misses the national funny bone,'' says Carl Reiner. He compares Martin to the one character he still performs occasionally on stage: the Great Flydini, a magician who removes a succession of impossible objects from his trouser fly. ''He pulls out eggs, a telephone, a Pavarotti puppet that sings Pagliacci,'' Reiner says. ''Steve's like Flydini: He's gonna pull something else outta there, and who knows what it'll be?''

Originally posted Feb 22, 1994 Published in issue #54 Feb 22, 1991 Order article reprints