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Dean Martin

Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti; June 7, 1917 – December 25, 1995) was an American singer, film actor, television personality and comedian. He was one of the most well known musical artists of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin's hit singles included the songs "Memories Are Made Of This", "That's Amore", "Everybody Loves Somebody", "Mambo Italiano", "Sway", "Volare" and "Ain't That A Kick In The Head?" One of the organizers of "The Rat Pack," he was a major star in four areas of show business: concert stage, recordings, motion pictures, and television.

Early life

Martin, born in Steubenville, Ohio, dropped out of school in the 10th grade because, in his own words, he thought that he was smarter than the teachers. He delivered bootleg liquor, served as a speakeasy croupier, wrote crafty anecdotes, was a blackjack dealer, worked in a steel mill and boxed as welterweight. At the age of 15, he was a boxer who billed himself as, "Kid Crocett" (Kro-Shey). From his prizefighting years, Martin earned a broken nose (later fixed), a permanently split lip, and many sets of broken knuckles (as a result of not being able to afford the tape used to wrap boxers' hands). He won one of his 12 bouts. The prize money was small. For a while, he roomed with Sonny King, who like Martin, was just starting out in show business and had little money. Martin and King held bare-knuckle matches in their apartment, fighting until one of them was knocked out; people paid to watch the sight.

Eventually, Martin gave up boxing. He worked as a roulette stickman and croupier in an illegal casino located behind a tobacco shop where he had started out as a stock boy. At the same time, he sang with local bands. Billing himself as "Dino Martini" (after the then-famous Metropolitan Opera tenor, Nino Martini), he got his first break working for the Ernie McKay Orchestra. He performed in a crooning style heavily influenced by Harry Mills (of the Mills Brothers), among others. In the early 1940s, he started singing for bandleader Sammy Watkins, at which time Watkins suggested that he change his name to Dean Martin.

In October 1941, Martin married Elizabeth Anne McDonald, and during their marriage (ended by divorce in 1949), they had four children. Martin worked for various bands throughout the early 1940s, more on looks and personality than vocal ability until he developed his own smooth singing style. Martin famously flopped at the Riobamba when he succeeded Frank Sinatra there in 1943, but it was the setting for the two men's introduction.

To earn extra money, Martin repeatedly sold 10 percent shares of his earnings for up front cash. Martin apparently did this so often that he found he had sold over 100 percent of his income. Such was the power of his charm that most of his lenders forgave his debts and remained friends.

After being drafted into the United States Army during World War II, Martin served a year (1944–1945) in Akron, Ohio. He was then classified 4-F (possibly due to a double hernia; Jerry Lewis referred to the surgery Martin needed for this in his autobiography) and was discharged.

By 1946, Martin was doing relatively well, but he was still little more than an East Coast nightclub singer with an all-too-common style, similar to that of Bing Crosby. He could draw audiences to the clubs he played, but he inspired none of the fanatic popularity enjoyed by Sinatra.

Mafia connections

A biography on Martin titled Dean Martin: King of the Road by Michael Freedland alleges he had links to the Mafia in his earlier career. Martin was allegedly given help with his early singing career by mob bosses who owned saloons in Chicago, Illinois. In return, he performed in shows hosted by these bosses later when he was a star. The author suggests that Martin felt little loyalty to or sympathy for the Mafia and that he only did such people small favors if it were of little inconvenience to him. Reportedly, the FBI's bugs once picked up a mafioso making plans to injure or kill Martin because of a perceived lack of gratitude. Another book, The Animal in Hollywood by John L. Smith, depicted Dean Martin's longtime friendship with Mafia mobsters Johnny Roselli and Anthony Fiato. Anthony Fiato (a/k/a "the Animal") did Martin many favors, such as getting back money from two swindlers who had cheated Betty Martin, Dean's ex-wife, out of thousands of dollars of her alimony. His daughter Deana Martin was friendly with Detroit mob boss Peter Licavoli.

Teaming with Jerry Lewis

Martin attracted some attention from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, but a Hollywood contract was not forthcoming. He appeared destined to remain on the nightclub circuit until he met a young comic named Jerry Lewis at the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both men were performing. Martin and Lewis formed a fast friendship which led to their participation in each other's acts and the ultimate formation of a music-comedy team. More than a few people dubbed them "The Organ Grinder and the Monkey".

Martin and Lewis' official debut together occurred at Atlantic City's 500 Club on July 24, 1946, and they were not well received. The owner, Skinny D'Amato, warned them that if they didn't come up with a better act for their second show later that night, they would be fired. Huddling together in the alley behind the club, Lewis and Martin agreed to "go for broke", to throw out the pre-scripted gags that hadn't worked and to basically just improvise. Dean sang and Jerry came out dressed as a busboy, dropping plates and making a shambles of both Martin's performance and the club's sense of decorum. They did slapstick, reeled off old vaudeville jokes, and did whatever else popped into their heads at the moment. This time, the audience doubled over in laughter. Their success at the 500 led to a series of well-paying engagements up and down the Eastern seaboard, culminating with a triumphant run at New York's Copacabana. Club patrons were convulsed by the act, which consisted primarily of Lewis interrupting and heckling Martin while he was trying to sing, and ultimately the two of them chasing each other around the stage and having as much fun as possible. The secret, both said, is that they essentially ignored the audience and played to one another.

A radio series commenced in 1949, the same year Martin and Lewis were signed by Paramount producer Hal Wallis as comedy relief for the motion picture My Friend Irma.

Martin was thrilled to be out of New York. He liked California which, because of its earthquakes, had few tall buildings. Suffering as he did from claustrophobia, Martin almost never used elevators, and climbing stairs in Manhattan's skyscrapers was not his idea of fun.

Their agent, Abby Greshler, negotiated for them one of Hollywood's best deals: although they received only a modest $75,000 between them for their films with Wallis, Martin and Lewis were free to do one outside film a year, which they would co-produce through their own York Productions. They also had complete control of their club, record, radio and television appearances, and it was through these endeavors that Martin and Lewis earned millions of dollars.

Although there had been a number of hugely successful film teams before, Hollywood had not seen anything like Martin and Lewis. The fun they had together set them apart from everything else being done at the time. Both were talented entertainers, but the fact that they were such good friends on and off stage took their act to a new level.

Martin and Lewis were the hottest act in America during the early 1950s, but the pace and the pressure took its toll. Most critics of the time underestimated Dean's contribution to the team, as he usually had the thankless job of the straight man, and his singing had yet to develop into the unique style of his later years. Most critics praised Lewis, and while they admitted that Martin was the best partner he could have, most claimed Lewis was the real talent of the team and could succeed with anyone. It is worth noting that Lewis always praised his partner, and while he appreciated the attention he was getting, he has always said the act would never have worked without Martin. In the book Dean & Me he calls Martin one of the great comic geniuses of all time. But the harsh comments from the critics, as well as frustration with the formulaic similarity of Martin & Lewis movies which producer Hal Wallis stubbornly refused to change, led to Martin's dissatisfaction with the team. He put less enthusiasm into the work, leading to escalating arguments with Lewis. The two finally couldn't work together, especially when Martin told his partner he was "nothing to me but a dollar sign". The act broke up in 1956, 10 years to the day after the first official teaming.

But splitting up their partnership was not easy. It took months for lawyers to work out the details of terminating many of their club bookings, their television contracts, and the dissolution of York Productions. There was intense public pressure for them to stay together.

Lewis had no trouble maintaining his film popularity alone, but Martin, unfairly regarded by much of the public and the motion picture industry as something of a spare tire, found the going hard; his first solo film, Ten Thousand Bedrooms, was a box office failure. He was still popular as a singer, but with rock and roll surging to the fore, the era of the pop crooner appeared to be waning. It looked like Martin's fate was to be limited to nightclubs and to be remembered as Jerry Lewis's former partner.

Solo career

Never totally comfortable in films, Martin wanted to be known as a real actor. Though offered a fraction of his former salary to co-star in the war drama The Young Lions (1957), he eagerly agreed so that he could learn from Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Tony Randall already had the part, but talent agency MCA realized that with this movie, Martin would become a triple treat: they could make money from his work in night clubs, movies, and records. Martin replaced Randall in one of the best dramatic roles of the decade and the film turned out to be the cornerstone of Martin's spectacular comeback. Success on the big screen would continue as Martin starred alongside Frank Sinatra for the first time in the highly acclaimed Vincente Minnelli drama Some Came Running. By the mid '60s, he was a top movie, recording, and nightclub attraction, while Lewis's film career declined. Martin was acclaimed for his performance as Dude in Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks and also starring John Wayne and singer Ricky Nelson. He teamed up again with Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), somewhat unconvincingly cast as brothers.

Martin played a satiric variation of his own smoothly womanizing persona as Vegas singer "Dino" in Billy Wilder's adult comedy Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Kim Novak, and he was never above poking sly fun at his image in films such as the Matt Helm spy spoofs of the 1960s, on which he had status of a co-producer.

As a singer, Martin copied the styles of Bing Crosby and Perry Como until he arrived at his own and he could hold his own in countless duets over the decades with Sinatra and Crosby. Like The Beatles, he couldn't read music, but he recorded more than 100 albums and 600 songs. His signature tune, "Everybody Loves Somebody", knocked The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" out of the number-one spot in the USA 1964. The song was followed up the similarly-styled "The Door is Still Open to My Heart", which reached number six later that same year. Elvis Presley was said to have been influenced by Martin, and patterned "Love Me Tender" after his style. Martin, like Elvis, was influenced by country music. By 1965, some of Martin's albums, such as The Hit Sound Of Dean Martin, Welcome To My World and Gentle On My Mind were composed of popular country and western songs made famous by artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. Martin hosted country performers on his TV show and was named "Man Of the Year" by the Country Music Association in 1966. "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," a song Martin performed in Ocean's Eleven that never became a hit at the time, has enjoyed a spectacular revival in the media and pop culture in the mid-2000s (which can be traced back to its usage in 1993's A Bronx Tale).

For three decades, Martin was among the most popular acts in Las Vegas. Martin sang and was one of the smoothest comics around, benefiting from the decade of raucous comedy with Lewis. Martin's daughter Gail occasionally opened for him in Vegas and sang on his TV show. Though often thought of as a ladies' man, Martin spent a lot of time with his family; as second wife Jeanne put it, prior to the couple's divorce, "He was home every night for dinner."

His footprints were immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theater in 1964. Martin has not one but three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: One at 6519 Hollywood Blvd. (for movies), one at 1817 Vine (for recordings) and one at 6651 Hollywood Boulevard (for television).

The Rat Pack

As Martin's solo career grew, he and Frank Sinatra became close friends. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin and Sinatra, along with friends Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr. formed the legendary Rat Pack, so called by the public after an earlier group of social friends, the Holmby Hills Rat Pack centered on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, of which Sinatra had been a member.

The Martin-Sinatra-Davis-Lawford-Bishop group referred to themselves as "The Summit" or "The Clan" and never as "The Rat Pack," although this has remained their identity in the popular culture. The men made films together, formed an important part of the Hollywood social scene in those years, and were politically influential (through Lawford's marriage to Patricia Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy).

The Rat Pack were legendary for their Las Vegas performances, which were almost never preannounced. For example, the marquee at the Sands Hotel might read DEAN MARTIN---MAYBE FRANK---MAYBE SAMMY. Las Vegas rooms were at a premium when the Rat Pack would appear, with many visitors sleeping in hotel lobbies or cars to get a chance to see the three men together. Their act (always in tuxedo) consisted of each singing individual numbers, duets and trios, along with much seemingly improvised slapstick and chatter. In the socially-charged 1960s, their jokes revolved around adult themes, such as Frank's infamous womanizing and Martin's legendary drinking, as well as many at the expense of Davis's race and religion. Davis famously practised Judaism and used Yiddish phrases onstage, eliciting much merriment from both his stage-mates and his audiences. It was all good-natured male bonding, never vicious, rarely foul-mouthed, and the three had great respect for each other. The Rat Pack was largely responsible for the integration of Las Vegas. Sinatra and Martin steadfastly refused to appear anywhere that barred Davis, forcing the casinos to open their doors to African-American entertainers and patrons, and to drop restrictive covenants against Jews.

Posthumously, the Rat Pack has experienced a popular revival, inspiring the George Clooney/Brad Pitt "Ocean's" trilogy. An HBO film, "The Rat Pack," starred Joe Mantegna as Dean, Ray Liotta as Frank and Don Cheadle as Sammy. It depicted their contribution to JFK's election in 1960.

The 1960s and 1970s

In 1965, Martin launched his weekly NBC comedy-variety series, The Dean Martin Show, which exploited his public image as a lazy, carefree boozer. It was there that he perfected his famous laid-back persona of the half-drunk crooner suavely hitting on beautiful women with hilarious remarks that would get anyone else slapped, and making snappy if slurred remarks about fellow celebrities during his famous roasts. Few entertainers worked as hard to make what they were doing look so easy. During an interview he stated, and this may have been tongue-in-cheek, that although he was passionate about rehearsals, he had someone record them on cassette tape so he could listen to them; this is evidenced by his comments to this effect on the British TV documentary 'Wine, Women and Song' which was aired in 1983.

The TV show was a huge hit. Dean prided himself on memorizing whole scripts -- not merely his own lines. He disliked rehearsing because he firmly believed his best performances were his first. The show's loose format prompted quick-witted improvisation from Dean and the cast. On occasion, he made remarks in Italian, some mild obscenities that brought angry mail from offended, Italian-speaking viewers. This prompted a battle between Martin and NBC censors, who insisted on more scrutiny of the show's content. The show was often in the Top Ten. Martin, deeply appreciative of the efforts of the show's producer, his friend Greg Garrison, later made a handshake deal giving Garrison, a pioneer TV producer in the 1950s, 50% ownership of the show. However, the validity of that ownership is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by NBC Universal.

Despite Martin's reputation as a heavy drinker — a reputation perpetuated via his vanity license plates reading 'DRUNKY' — he was remarkably self-disciplined. He was often the first to call it a night, and when not on tour or on a film location liked to go home to see his wife and children. Shirley MacLaine in her autobiography confirmed that Martin was sipping apple juice (not liquor) most of the time onstage. He borrowed the lovable-drunk shtick from Joe E. Lewis, but his convincing portrayals of heavy boozers in Some Came Running and Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo led to unsubstantiated claims of alcoholism. More often than not, Martin's idea of a good time was playing golf or watching TV, particularly westerns -- not staying with Rat Pack friends Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. into the early hours of the morning.

Martin also starred in and co-produced a series of four Matt Helm superspy comedy adventures. A fifth, The Ravagers was planned starring Sharon Tate and Martin in a dual role, one as a serious killer, but due to the murder of Tate and the decline of the spy genre the film was never made.

By the early 1970s, Martin seemed to have the Midas touch, The Dean Martin Show was still earning solid ratings, and although he was no longer a Top 40 hitmaker, his record albums continued to sell well. His name on a marquee could guarantee casinos and nightclubs a standing-room-only crowd. He found a way to make his passion for golf profitable by offering his own signature line of golf balls. Shrewd investments had greatly increased Martin's personal wealth; at the time of his death, Martin was reportedly the single largest minority shareholder of RCA stock. Martin even managed to cure himself of his claustrophobia by reportedly locking himself in the elevator of a tall building and riding up and down for hours until he was no longer panic-stricken.

Despite his enormous success, Martin retreated from show business by the early 1970s. The final (1973-74) season of his variety show would be retooled into one of celebrity roasts, requiring less of Martin's involvement. After the show's cancellation, NBC continued to air the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast format in a series of TV specials through 1984. In those 11 years, Dean and his panel of pals successfully ridiculed and made fun of legendary stars like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. For nearly a decade, Dean had recorded as many as four albums a year for Reprise Records. That stopped in November 1974, when Martin recorded his final Reprise album - Once In A While, released in 1978. His last recording sessions were for Warner Brothers Records. An album titled The Nashville Sessions was released in 1983, from which he had a hit with "(I Think That I Just Wrote) My First Country Song," which was recorded with Conway Twitty and made a respectable showing on the country charts. A follow up single "L.A. is my home / Drinking Champagne" came in 1985. The 1975 film Mr. Ricco marked Martin's final starring role, and Martin limited his live performances to Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Martin seemed to suffer a mid-life crisis. In 1972, he filed for divorce from his second wife, Jeanne. A week later, his business partnership with the Riviera was dissolved amid reports of the casino's refusal to agree to Martin's request to perform only once a night. He was quickly snapped up by the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, and signed a three-picture deal with MGM Studios. Less than a month after his second marriage had been legally dissolved, Martin married 26-year-old Catherine Hawn on April 25, 1973. Hawn had been the receptionist at the chic Gene Shacrove hair salon in Beverly Hills. They divorced November 10, 1976. He was also briefly engaged to Gail Renshaw, Miss USA-World 1969.

Eventually, Martin reconciled with Jeanne, though they never remarried. He also made a public reconciliation with Jerry Lewis on Lewis' Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon in 1976. Frank Sinatra shocked Lewis and the world by bringing Martin out on stage. As Martin and Lewis embraced, the audience erupted in cheers and the phone banks lit up, resulting in one of the telethon's most profitable years. Lewis reported the event was one of the three most memorable of his life. Lewis brought down the house when he quipped, "So, you working?" Martin, playing drunk, replied that he was "at the Meggum" -- this reference to the MGM Grand Hotel convulsed Lewis. This, along with the death of Martin's son Dean Paul Martin a few years later, helped to bring the two men together. They maintained a quiet friendship but only performed together again once, in 1989, on Dean's 72nd birthday.

Later years

On December 1, 1983 while gambling at the Golden Nugget casino in Atlantic City, Martin and Sinatra intimidated the dealer and several employees into breaking New Jersey laws by making the dealer deal the cards by hand instead of by a shoe, as is required by law. Although Sinatra and Martin were implicated as the cause of the violation, neither was fined by the New Jersey Gaming Commission. The Golden Nugget, on the other hand, received a $25,000 fine and four employees including the dealer, a supervisor and pit boss were suspended from their jobs without pay. It's said that Sinatra and Martin picked up the tab for the suspended employees' pay.

Martin returned to films briefly with appearances in the two all-star Cannonball Run movies, but being a movie star no longer excited him and he found life on the set to be more tedious than ever. He did step back into a recording studio to score a minor hit single with "Since I Met You Baby" and made his first music video, which appeared on MTV. The video was created by Martin's youngest son, Ricci.

Decline

Martin's world began to crumble on March 21, 1987, when his son Dean Paul (formerly Dino of the 60s "teeny-bopper" rock group Dino, Desi & Billy) was killed when his jet fighter crashed while flying with the Air National Guard. A much-touted tour with Davis and Sinatra in 1988 sputtered, as Martin's heart was just not in it. On one occasion, he infuriated Sinatra when he turned to him and muttered "Frank, what the hell are we doing up here?" Martin, who always responded best to a club audience, felt lost in the huge stadiums they were performing in (at Sinatra's insistence), and he was not the least bit interested in drinking until dawn after their performances. His final Vegas shows were at the Bally's Hotel in 1989. It was there he had his famous final reunion with Jerry Lewis on his 72nd birthday. His last television appearance was in 1990 on the Sammy Davis Jr 60th Anniversary Celebration special (also Sammy's last TV appearance.) By 1991, Martin had unofficially retired from performing.

In addition to never completely recovering from losing his son, Martin was suffering from emphysema. He kept his private life to himself, emerging briefly for a public celebration of his 77th birthday with friends and family.

In September 1993, Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had been told he needed surgery on his kidneys and liver to prolong his life, but he refused. It was widely reported, though never confirmed, that Martin had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1991.

At his side in his last years was ex-wife Jeanne (Biegger) Martin, whom he had divorced years earlier. The pair became close again, although they resisted suggestions that they wed.

Martin died of acute respiratory failure, at his home on Christmas morning 1995, at the age of 78. It was widely believed, and perpetuated by Jeanne herself, that she was at his side at his death. However, she was giving her annual Christmas party into the late hours of the night and therefore was at her home with her daughter, Deana until about 4 a.m., with Dean having died about 3:15 am. Deana has attested to this on many occasions, including in her biography of her father.

The lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor. In 2005, Las Vegas renamed Industrial Road as 'Dean Martin Drive'.

Martin received a gold record in 2004 for his fastest-selling album ever, which also hit the iTunes Top 10. For the week ending December 23, 2006, the Dean Martin and Martina McBride duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" reached #7 on the R&R AC chart. It also went to #36 on the R&R Country chart - the last time Martin had a song this high in the charts was in 1965, with the song "I Will", which reached #10 on the Pop chart.

An album of duets, "Forever Cool," was released by Capitol/EMI in 2007. It features Martin's voice with Kevin Spacey, Shelby Lynne, Joss Stone, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Robbie Williams, McBride and more.

Marriages and children

Martin was married three times. Martin's first wife, Betty McDonald, tried by all accounts to be a good wife and mother to their four children, but her efforts were ultimately undone by her alcoholism. It remains a matter of speculation whether Betty's alcoholism led to the failure of her marriage to Dean, or whether Dean's infidelities led to Betty's alcoholism. Subsequent to their divorce, Martin gained custody of their children; Betty lived out her life in quiet obscurity in San Francisco.

Martin's second wife was Jeanne Biegger. A stunning blonde, Jeanne could sometimes be spotted in Martin's audience while he was still married to Betty. Their marriage lasted twenty-four years (1949-1973) and produced three children.

Martin's third marriage, to Catherine Hawn, lasted three years. One of Dean's managers had spotted the young beauty working the desk at a swank salon on Rodeo Drive, then arranged a meeting. Martin adopted Hawn's daughter, Sasha, but their marriage did not succeed. Dean initiated divorce proceedings.

Martin was the father of seven biological children and one adopted child.

First wife: Elizabeth (Betty) Anne McDonald

  • First child: Stephen (Craig) Martin, born June 29, 1942
  • Second child: Claudia (Dean) Martin, born March 16, 1944 - died 2001 (breast cancer)
  • Third child: Barbara (Gail) Martin, born April 11, 1945
  • Fourth child: Deana (Dina) Martin, born August 19, 1948

Second wife: Jeanne Biegger

  • Fifth child: Dean Paul Martin (Jr.), born on November 17, 1951 - died March 21, 1987 (plane crash)
  • Sixth child: Ricci James Martin, born on September 20, 1953
  • Seventh child: Gina Caroline Martin, born on December 20, 1956

Third wife: Catherine Mae Hawn

  • Eighth child: Sasha (adopted)

Dean Martin's uncle was Leonard Barr who appeared in several of his shows.

Discography

Filmography

Features:

Short Subjects:

  • Film Vodvil: Art Mooney and Orchestra (1946)
  • Screen Snapshots: Thirtieth Anniversary Special (1950)
  • Screen Snapshots: Hollywood, City of Stars (1956)
  • Rowan & Martin at the Movies (1968)

Further reading

  • Lewis, Jerry and James Kaplan. Dean & Me (A Love Story). New York: Doubleday, 2005. ISBN 0-7679-2086-4
  • Nick Tosches Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, 1992 for the first edition, Delta, USA, ISBN 0-385-33429-X

References

External links

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