Working as a Disneyland concessionaire in his teens, comedian Steve Martin's first experiences in entertainment were of the party performer variety -- he picked up skills in juggling, tap-dancing, sleight of hand, and balloon sculpting, among other things. He later attended U.C.L.A., where he majored in philosophy and theater before moving on to staff-writer stints for such TV performers as Glen Campbell, the Smothers Brothers, Dick Van Dyke, John Denver, and Sonny & Cher.
Occasionally allowed to perform as well as write, Martin didn't go into standup comedy full-time until the late '60s, when he moved to Canada and appeared as a semi-regular on the syndicated TV variety series Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour. As the opening act for rock stars in the early '70s, Martin emulated the fashion of the era with a full beard, shaggy hair, colorful costumes, and drug jokes. Comedians of such ilk were common in this market, however, so Martin carefully developed a brand-new persona: the well-groomed, immaculately dressed young man who goes against his appearance by behaving like a lunatic. By 1975, he was the "Comic of the Hour," convulsing audiences with his feigned enthusiasm over the weakest of jokes and the most obvious of comedy props. His entire act a devastating parody of second-rate comedians who rely on preconditioning to get laughs, Martin became internationally famous for such catch phrases as "Excu-u-use me!," "Happy feet!," and "I am...one wild and crazy guy!" It was fun for a while to hear audiences shout them out even before he'd uttered them, but it wasn't long before Martin was tired of live standup and anxious to get into films.
Though Martin had roles in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1977) and The Muppet Movie, Martin's true screen bow was The Jerk (1979), in which, with the seriousness of Olivier, he portrayed a bumbling, self-described poor black child-turned accidental millionaire. Had he been a lesser performer, Martin could have played variations on The Jerk for the remainder of his life, but he preferred to seek out new challenges. It took nerve to go against the sensibilities of his fans with an on-edge portrayal of a habitual loser in Pennies From Heaven (1981), but Martin was successful, even if the film wasn't. And few other actors could convincingly pull off a project like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1983), wherein, and with utter conviction, he acted opposite film clips of dead movie stars.
After a first-rate turn in All of Me (1984), in which he played a man whose body is inhabited by the soul of a woman, Martin's film work began to fluctuate in quality, only to emerge on top again with Roxanne (1987), a potentially silly but ultimately compelling update of Cyrano de Bergerac. Though he participated in a fair amount of misses in the '80s and '90s (Mixed Nuts (1994), Housesitter (1992), Leap of Faith (1992), and Sgt. Bilko (1996), to name a few), Martin was unarguably full of surprises, as witnessed in his unsympathetic portrayal in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1989), his hilariously evil dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), his angst-ridden father in Parenthood (1989), his smooth-talking Italian in My Blue Heaven, and his callow film producer in Grand Canyon (1991) -- though the public still seemed to prefer his standard comic performances in The Three Amigos (1986), Father of the Bride (1991), and L.A. Story (1991). Martin then went out on yet another artistic limb with A Simple Twist of Fate (1994) -- a film update of that high-school English-class perennial Silas Marner.
After starring in a very dark role in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (1997) and an unsuccessful return to comedy in The Out-of-Towners (1999), Martin again won acclaim for Bowfinger, a 1999 comedy-satire that cast him as its titular hero, an unsuccessful movie director trying to make a film without the aid of a real script or real star. Martin -- who also wrote the film's screenplay -- played the straight man against Eddie Murphy, once again impressing critics with his versatility. According to rumor, Martin based Heather Graham's character on former flame Ann Heche.
In addition to his Hollywood activities, Martin is well-known for his intellectual pursuits. His play Picasso at the Lapin Agile was produced successfully off-Broadway, and he has contributed numerous humor pieces to The New Yorker magazine, and penned the bestselling novella Shopgirl. Martin was also a featured artist in the PBS documentary series Art 21: Art in the 21st Century and discussed the visual arts as an integral form of self-expression.
The 2000's found Martin in a slew of smaller roles, including a cameo as a heckler in Remember the Titans (2000), and a supporting role in director Stanely Tucci's historical comedy drama Joe Gould's Secret (2000). In 2001's Novacaine, Martin found himself playing dentist for the second time in his life, though this dentist would be decidedly less sadistic than the one he had played in camp favorite Little Shop of Horrors (1986). Despite an all-star cast (besides Martin, Novacaine featured Oscar-winner Helena Bonham Carter and Laura Dern) the black comedy was dismally received. Luckily, 2003's odd-couple comedy Bringing Down the House with Queen Latifah, rapper and surprising Oscar nominee for her role in Chicago, fared relatively well in theaters. Martin teamed up with the likes of Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, and Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), in which he plays the evil Mr. Chairman, head of the monolithic Acme Corporation. A film version of Shopgirl starring Martin and Claire Danes is currently slated for a 2005 release.
Martin would remain a vital comedic actor in the years to come, appearing in films like Baby Mama and It's Complicated. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi