Obituary: Dean Martin

Gilbert Adair
Wednesday 27 December 1995 00:02 GMT

Look up "Martin, Dean" in the index of one of his biographies and you find 17 page references for Drinking, nine for Gambling, six for Women, one for Plastic Surgery (an aspiring prizefighter in his youth, Martin had a broken nose surgically reconstructed) - but none for either Acting or Singing. And though this absence should probably be attributed to the fact that Martin's accomplishments as both actor and singer constitute the raison d'etre of the book, it is none the less true that, at least where his public persona is concerned, such an order of priorities is curiously appropriate.

On screen this amiable, hard-drinking crooner seldom deigned to give a performance as such: he was content to lend his pleasant and slothfully laid-back presence to a number of mostly mediocre films. In the Fifties he tagged along with Jerry Lewis in a series of record-breaking comedies; in the Sixties with the so-called Rat Pack that gravitated around his gambling chum Frank Sinatra in a quartet of mildly amusing diversions, all of them, for some mysteriously talismanic reason, with numbers in their titles (Ocean's 11, Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas, Robin and the Seven Hoods) and apparently embarked on as much for the cast's pleasure as that of the audience; and in the Seventies, as Matt Helm, with a barely distinguishable bevy of blondes in a cycle of feeble James Bond spin-offs.

No matter what role he was supposed to be playing, however, Martin stubbornly remained his own suntanned, slick if not quite sleazy self - Dino, the Midas of glitz, Italo-American charm oozing forth from every shiny pore of his handsome, virile yet somehow also puffy-soft features. Even in the westerns in which he specialised late in his career he struck one as an improbably urban, gregarious creature to have strayed so far from a highball or a bar stool or a trendy bachelor pad. Indeed, his supernaturally relaxed demeanour proved to be his fortune - it might have been insured at Lloyd's, like Betty Grable's legs.

As a young man, apart from his abortive experience in the boxing ring, he was variously a steel-mill labourer, a professional gambler and a night- club singer. It was during an engagement in Atlantic City that he met and formed his partnership with Jerry Lewis. At first enormously popular on stage and television, they made 16 films together, from My Friend Irma (1949) to Hollywood or Bust! (1956), the best, because most manic, of which being those directed by the former cartoonist Frank Tashlin.

"The most sensible thing I ever did," Martin once remarked, "was to join up with Jerry Lewis. The second most sensible thing was to leave him." The team's dissolution, regularly threatened over the years by one or other of its members, was an acrimonious one; and, despite having been awarded gold discs for such quintessentially Fifties ballads as "That's Amore" and "Memories are Made of This", Martin, the straight man, looked far more vulnerable that Lewis as a solo performer. When his first film minus his ex-partner, a wheezily dated, traveloguish musical set in Rome, Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), was a critical and commercial flop, the vast (and sour) grapevine that is Hollywood definitively wrote him off as a movie actor.

Yet, without exactly disappearing from circulation, he contrived to make a remarkably convincing comeback, offering a trio of impressive dramatic performances: in Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions (1958: for the privilege of playing opposite Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift he accepted as insultingly nominal a fee as that paid to Sinatra when he revived his fading prestige in From Here to Eternity); Vincente Minnelli's stylish, gaudy melodrama Some Came Running (1959, alongside Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine); and Howard Hawks's now classic western Rio Bravo (also 1959).

From his subsequent filmography only one role deserves mention: it was arguably the most memorable of his entire career. By the mid-Sixties Martin was sufficiently comfortable with his boozy, lecherous swinger's image to satirise it with splendid good-humour in Billy Wilder's salacious comedy Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), in which he was cast as an over-age and chronically oversexed night-club singer named, precisely, Dino. But, having displayed this unexpected gift for disarmingly conscious self-parody, he gradually allowed himself to decline into the unconscious self-parody of his very last films, then retired from the cinema in 1975, leaving it much as he had found it.

Gilbert Adair

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