Movie Article

The Martin Chronicles

Steve Martin role call -- We review the comedian's filmography from ''The Jerk,'' to ''My Blue Heaven''

Steve Martin role call

Steve Martin can look back with artistic and financial satisfaction on most of his old movies: They're still making millions on video. The Jerk, a theatrical smash, has earned $43 million in rentals — about 10 times what it cost to make. Even a disappointment like Three Amigos! has found a happy afterlife. ''It's done $11 million or more on video. It's amazing,'' says Martin, who is as avid a businessman as he is an artist. Here — omitting bit parts in The Muppet Movie, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Kids Are Alright, and Movers & Shakers — are the star's feature films, all available on tape.

The Jerk (1979)
Director Carl Reiner helped Martin make a blockbuster out of one line from his stand-up act: ''I was born a poor black child who never dreamed he was adopted.'' Unable to keep time with soul music, the Jerk can only get down to Mantovani. ''I just cared about the jokes; Carl made me care about the story,'' says Martin, who cowrote the script. ''Now I'm stronger in that department.'' Accustomed to performing before coliseums full of shrieking fans, he forgot to lower his voice on the film set. ''I yelled through the whole movie. But I like The Jerk. It's not sophisticated, but it's really a bundle of energy. It's a good first film.''

Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Dennis Potter's grim, strange tale of a 1930s sheet-music salesman was Martin's first serious acting role and first commercial disaster. ''At the time it was something I needed emotionally,'' he says. ''I didn't want to do The Jerk II or any more stand-up, and this script came along — a work of genius, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I got a bit free from my own personality and mystique and was able to immerse myself in something besides Steve Martin.'' He also mastered, in three months flat, the elements of tap dance needed for the many lavish production numbers. ''It was a real trial by fire, very hard, nerve-racking, scary, but I was determined I was gonna get through it.'' Martin's fans were baffled by his downbeat, rather nasty character: The Jerk grossed $100 million; Pennies, $8.4 million.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)
Beating Woody Allen's Zelig to the punch by a year, Martin inserted himself (with the help of director and cowriter Reiner) into various old black-and-white movies. A tough-talking private dick (''Your lips are like two succulent brussels sprouts waiting to be buttered and bitten''), he interacts sarcastically with Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, and Bogie himself. ''It made enough to pay off the mortgage,'' says Reiner, ''but it still wasn't The Jerk. By now he knew his way around the camera — he's a very quick study, this guy.''

The Man With Two Brains (1983)
Martin, again cowriting and directed by Reiner, plays Michael Hfuhruhurr, mad scientist, who's crazy for icy Kathleen Turner. ''Dead Men and Man With Two Brains I put into the same category of finding a way to figure out what it is I wanted to do,'' says the actor. ''I didn't know quite what to make, but I knew it should be this zany comedy. It only works to the extent the jokes work.'' Some critics rank this as his finest, most overlooked, comedy. ''To this day, we think it's the funniest thing we ever did,'' says Reiner, ''especially the first 20 minutes.''

The Lonely Guy (1984)
Neil Simon adapted Bruce Jay Friedman's popular tale of glum bachelor schlumpfs, Charles Grodin costarred, and the movie still died a horrible box office death. At this nadir of his career, Martin told critic Roger Ebert, ''When you're batting one for six, you feel a little funny going into Spago's (an L.A. power restaurant).'' But his somewhat more emotional performance deepened him as an actor, and the self-questioning prompted by repeated commercial failure spurred him to write more personal scripts. ''I was in a sort of a low period,'' he recalls; so he started work on Roxanne and L.A. Story (which prominently features a power-restaurant humiliation scene).

All of Me (1984)
Reiner directed Martin's triumphant comeback, as a man possessed by the spirit of Lily Tomlin, a deceased millionairess who occupies half of his body. His enactment of this plight recalls the genius of Buster Keaton, who made viewers feel the law of gravity was specifically legislated against him. Martin avoided obvious effeminacy and achieved a sublime Tomlinesque manner through hard practice. ''I rehearsed it by walking with my body entirely like her, and then subtracting her from half my body, rather than trying to add her. It was just a working process, really. You need something, and out of desperation you try to figure it out.'' All of Me provided him with both a New York Film Critics award as Best Actor and a wife — costar Victoria Tennant.

Three Amigos! (1986)
Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase play actors in cheesy silent-film Westerns who shoot it out with real banditos. Three Amigos! was dismissed by critics, but it has inspired a cult following on video. ''I think it's because kids like it — which is who it was designed for,'' says Martin, but some adults guiltily confess to Amigophilia, too.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
The highlight of this version of the Off Broadway musical is Martin's testosterone-crazed, leather-clad dentist, who sings with a Presleyan snarl and practices on masochistic patient Bill Murray. ''It was physically strenuous, but fun,'' recalls Martin of the minor role. ''The character wasn't the Fonz. (Director Frank Oz) used to say, 'He's dumb and dark — a bad combination.'''

Roxanne (1987)
''I worked on it for a long time, took it apart, put it back together,'' says Martin about his unusual reading of Cyrano, which costarred Daryl Hannah and Shelley Duvall. ''The only comfort I had when I fell into doubt was that the story had worked for almost a hundred years.'' Roxanne earned $39 million and won him a Writers Guild award for best screenplay adapted from another medium. ''That's one award I feel really great about, along with the New York and L.A. Film Critics', because you can't campaign for them,'' says the star.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Home Alone director John Hughes paired Martin and John Candy as reluctant companions on a traumatic cross-country trip. Martin, a disgruntled ad exec, is more or less the straight man. ''It was one of the first real people I'd ever played,'' he says, and the character was closer to the man than fans suspected. One choice scene: The two travelers, cuddled up in a motel bed under the unconscious impression they're home with their respective wives, awaken; Martin says, ''Why is your hand around my waist? Where's your other hand?'' Candy replies: ''Between two pillows.'' Martin shouts, ''Those aren't pillows!'' and both leap into a panicked dance of compensatory machismo.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Michael Caine plays an oleaginous con man relieving credulous women of excess wealth on the Riviera, Martin his gauche American apprentice. In a scam devised by Caine, con-in-training Martin impersonates an upper-class twit, Prince Ruprecht, whose table manners are so bad he stabs himself in the eye with the wrong fork. Martin has said Ruprecht is his favorite character, and it represents a departure in his comic acting: a jerk who is nothing like the Jerk, more like Cheetah in a too-snug tuxedo.

Parenthood (1989)
In Martin's first megahit ($99 million) in 10 years, his physical antics were strictly confined by the character, a painfully self-conscious father who always tries too hard when clowning for his kids. This makes one particular moment even more special: After his son makes a game-winning Little League catch, Martin does an indescribable jig on the field. ''It was something I'd seen a preacher do live on stage 25 years ago, actually,'' he says. ''Kind of a one-legged hop. I'd seen it and thought, what a great move that is — it's like a cross between Chuck Berry and Jimmy Swaggart.'' As Johnny Carson once told him during a commercial break on The Tonight Show: ''You'll use everything you ever knew.''

My Blue Heaven (1990)
Written by Nora Ephron and just released on video, this featherweight comedy — like the much scarier GoodFellas, scripted by Ephron's husband, Nicholas Pileggi — is about a mafioso relocated by the Federal Witness Protection Program. Martin plays the goombah with slick confidence and a towering coiffure. ''The hair stylist who created Vinnie's do actually based it on a Hollywood producer,'' says Martin. ''I'm serious.''

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