For about the last four years of the 1970s and the first couple of the 80s there was no bigger star in comedy than Steve Martin. Somewhere around 1981 he decided to walk away from a stand-up career that was selling out arenas. Arenas. Before that he had been working on an act that was new, fresh and often not embraced by audiences. (The day after a Tonight Show appearance Martin walked into a store in Los Angeles. A woman behind the counter asked, “Are you the young man who was on the Tonight Show last night?” Martin, replied “Yes.” She uttered one work: “Yuck.”)
Martin walked away from a lucrative writing job in TV in order to work out the new kind of act he envisioned. There was a moment in the mid-70s when Martin says that after years of struggling he realized he “was no longer at the tail end of an old movement but at the front end of a new one.” And then he turned on the TV one October night in 1975 and saw the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live. The shock of seeing people he didn’t know performing the kind of “out there” comedy he was refining on the road was a momentary emotional setback. But soon the connection between Martin and SNL would be catalytic and no one could say whether SNL took Martin to the next level or if it was the other way around.
Either way, by the late 70s Martin was at the crest of a pop culture wave. He rode that wave to great success, inspired a lot of kids (read Judd Apatow’s thoughts about Martin in Apatow’s book, Sick in the Head), then got off and figured out what to do next. What he did next was make movies. He made lots of them. Some memorable, some not so much. Some experimental, some right down the middle. No matter what he did he brought an artist’s precision to his performance.
I’ve said for many years that Steve Martin is the most underrated dramatic actor in Hollywood. I love to see him in dramatic roles (Parenthood is a great one. See also: Shopgirl and The Spanish Prisoner). But even in some of his most comedic roles he brings a depth of humanity that rings true and deep. (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Roxanne, L.A. Story and Father of the Bride, are just a few good examples.)
Martin’s memoir, Born Standing Up, is one of the best first-hand accounts of life in show business ever written. I highly recommend it if you’re the least bit interested in Martin, comedy and/or the 1970’s in the U.S. If there is still such a thing as a Reniassance man — Steve Martin is most certainly one. Actor, Comedian, Author, Musician, Collector of Fine Art, Student of Philosophy.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Martin. And, many thanks for all the joy you’ve brought us.