Steve Martin: But Seriously Folks

Actor-writer-philanthropist Steve Martin gives Lawrence Grobel the straight dope on who makes him laugh, how much his new-found respect means to him, and why he won't look his fans in the eye.


During the last days of shooting L.A. Story, Steve Martin's new movie, Rick Moranis began acting a little weird. He'd walk around the lot with a box filled with pictures of himself and ask anyone who said hello if he or she would like an autographed picture. He was doing it, he said, because a lot of people had kids and they were always asking for autographs, but there were no kids on the set, and some of the people he was signing pictures for were not even married. When Steve Martin came by he asked Moranis for a picture, which Moranis dutifully began to sign.

''Make it to my gardener,'' Steve said. ''And I'll have another one for my mechanic, and another for the mailman. How about giving me five or six, I've got a lot of people who would be real interested in this.''

Moranis wasn't fazed by Martin's gentle ribbing. It was part of the business, as far as he was concerned. But for the shyer, more introspective Martin, dealing with the public's desire for a piece of him is not the lark it is for Moranis. To dispense with having to give autographs, Martin had business-size cards made up, which he's signed, that read: ''This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.''

''This way,'' he says, ''I just give it to them and keep on walking.''

Some of the young crew members were disappointed by Steve's aloofness on the set of L.A. Story. His public persona--the records, the appearances on ''Saturday Night Live,'' the movies--led them to expect an extroverted, effortlessly hilarious guy. But Martin is no Robin Williams, entertaining everyone within earshot with a stream-of-consciousness rap. His demeanor is purely professional. He knows his lines, he does his work, and then he retreats into his trailer until the next shot. There he reads, plays Boggle, updates his script on his Compaq portable computer, and, when she's there, talks with his wife, Victoria Tennant.

On L.A. Story, in which they act together for the second time (they met while filming All of Me), he and Victoria had adjoining trailers. While she passed the time in hers reading a book by Russian Republic president Boris Yeltsin, Steve amused himself with William Goldman's book Hype and Glory. One day, when Victoria came in to tell her husband something, Steve gave her a particular passage in Goldman's book to read. It had to do with The Princess Bride and the casting of ''the prettiest girl in the world,'' for which, according to the story, Whoopi Goldberg had been suggested.

Fifteen minutes later Victoria returned and said, ''That's one of the two funniest things I've ever read. I've got to send this book to some people. It's especially funny since we know who Whoopi's agent is.''

''We do?'' Steve asked, pausing to think.

''Of course we do,'' Victoria continued. ''Everybody knows.''

''They do?'' Martin said, now becoming Navin Johnson, the naive, innocent, unworldly character Steve created in his first movie, The Jerk. When Victoria left, Steve sat staring at Goldman's book on the table in front of him and said to the book, ''I don't.''

LA. Story is Martin's 16th picture in 11 years. Like Woody Allen before him and Robin Williams after, Martin started as a stand-up comic. By the time he hit the movies in 1979, his act had become phenomenally successful: he regularly played to audiences of 20,000. His comedy albums like ''Let's Get Small,'' ''Wild and Crazy Guy,'' and ''Comedy Is Not Pretty,'' sold into the millions. His one book, Cruel Shoes, became an instant best-seller. His guest appearances on ''Saturday Night Live'' were among the most popular in the show's history. The guy from Garden Grove, California, who grew up learning magic and balloon acts at Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe Revue and performing them at Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theater, was quickly becoming America's top comedian.

After breaking into the movies with the hugely popular The Jerk, Martin made four films--Pennies From Heaven, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, The Lonely Guy--which weren't particularly well received. Then came All of Me with Lily Tomlin, and the critical raves suggested that Martin had finally broken through. But the box-office wasn't up to the reviews. Martin next appeared in Three Amigos!, with Chevy Chase and Martin Short. It was a film the actors had more fun making than audiences had watching. But Martin's movie career was on the launching pad, and his next five films--Little Shop of Horrors, Roxanne, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Parenthood--were both critically and commercially successful. (His most recent film, My Blue Heaven, was an unequivocal flop.)

In addition to the usual badges of success--homes in L.A. and Santa Barbara, for example--Martin has achieved a few of the more elusive ones: a happy marriage that he makes every effort to keep out of the public eye, and the kind of art collection that admittedly requires a superstar-level salary to assemble, but also bespeaks an abiding interest in art for more than its value as an investment. Steve Martin seems to have reached the pinnacle of Hollywood with most of his humanity intact.

Lawrence Grobel: You grew up in Southern California and you have a West Coast sensibility. In your new movie, L.A. Story, you're taking on Los Angeles as Woody Allen did New York in Manhattan. How do you see L.A.?

Steve Martin: When I think of L.A., I think of a big blue sky and a palm tree and a wide street. I think of warm, silky, summer nights. You don't think about it as a place where people are. It seems to be about emptiness. You always think of L.A. at its best, not as it really is: a smoggy, traffic-laden city. The way it's presented in the movie is very fantasy-like. It's presented as the greatest place on earth.

LG: Is L.A. Story a departure for you?

SM: I see it as a synthesis of everything I do. It's dramatic, it's comedic, it's got jokes, it's got situation comedy, it's surreal, it's silly. I don't think I could ever write it again, this is my last shot--my only shot at something like this.

LG: What makes L.A. Story so different?

SM: It's got a different version of beginning, middle, and end. Its conclusion is not implied at the beginning. It's not standard plot stuff.

LG: Sounds like it must have been hell to pitch: it doesn't start at the beginning and it doesn't have a standard plot line.

SM: Yeah. It's about different things. It's about meeting the right person in your life. It's about the intensity of romantic feelings. It's about magic.

LG: You've gone from being a comedy actor to becoming a dramatic actor. Are these the natural stages of a comic's career?

SM: I don't know, but it seemed the natural order for me.

LG: Critics are beginning to compare you to Chaplin, and to Buster Keaton as well.

SM: If it were only true, it would be great. It's nice to have it said about you, but there is a long way to go before I get into that status. Chaplin was very much an inspiration, but not in my formative years--he was too adult, too sophisticated for me.

LG: So we're seeing a humble Steve Martin here.

SM: I feel like I have a niche, but I'm not going to put any qualitative value on it. What I've done or am still doing is slightly off-base. There isn't anybody really doing it. Don't ask me why. I always feel like I do things, finish them, and move on to something else. Like stand-up comedy, then my early films which were kind of silly, dopey comedies, and then they started changing, getting into more legitimate stories. I feel that L.A. Story is the end of some kind of cycle for me. I don't know what I'll do next.

LG: Some of your choices after The Jerk didn't go over very well. Was that discouraging?

SM: My early films are less logical than my later ones and so they are probably harder to catch on to. But a lot of them do have this sort of afterlife. Like The Man With Two Brains--they even showed it on TV in England. Pennies From Heaven is the same thing. It was vilified when it came out. But I was extremely proud to be in something with that goal and that sophistication.

LG: Still, Pennies was quite a leap after The Jerk.

SM: I didn't want to do Jerk II. I remember I was in Vegas after The Jerk doing my act. And I thought, what am I going to do? This act? Then The Jerk again? And is that it? I wasn't so much depressed as I was tired. And Vegas is the worst place to be tired and questioning what you do. And then Pennies From Heaven came along.

LG: You never liked being on the road, did you?

SM: I'd been on the road for 12 years and my only memories are hotel rooms and a spotlight. I didn't even see the halls I was playing in. You walked out and just saw a spotlight, you couldn't see anything else.

LG: Still, you were pulling in a small fortune by the time you were doing Vegas.

SM: I was making $450,000 a week. The highest I ever got was half a million a week. By then I thought, I've worked hard to get this act together, I've got to run it into the ground. I had to exploit it or I would have been an idiot. But I only did it for three years, and then I stopped.

LG: Was it more fun before you were a hit?

SM: Before I was a hit I had infinite room for experimentation. But when you are a hit you have to go over. You can't take five minutes out of your hour show to try something when you've got 18,000 people out there.

LG: Ten years ago you thought Richard Pryor was the funniest person in America. What happened to Pryor?

SM: I think he got tired. I saw him at ''The Comedy Store Special'' two years ago, he was brilliant. And I said, ''God, he's still got it.'' I remember when I was in college studying philosophy I had this chart of when people do their best work. With poets it was generally 20 to 25; philosophers started at 75 to 90. I tend to think about that a lot. Comedy comes in the mid-thirties to mid-forties. Like Jerry Lewis.

LG: Where does Bob Hope fit in, since he's still going?

SM: He proves the case, because he was brilliant and then became a card reader.

LG: What do you think of Jackie Mason?

SM: He's really funny. My first encounter with him was when I was a writer on the Smothers Brothers show. He came on and did 20 minutes and was fantastic. I'd never seen anything like it before. I saw his show on Broadway and it was hilarious.

LG: Your friend Chevy Chase doesn't like him, thinks he's dated.

SM: You don't have to agree with what someone is saying in order to enjoy it. It's like looking at a painting of the Madonna, you don't have to be a believer to appreciate the painting.

LG: So who's the funniest guy in America today?

SM: I was going to say John Cleese but... for a while I thought Sam Kinison was a funny guy, but he sort of fell. Kevin Kline is certainly funny as an actor. He was really hilarious in A Fish Called Wanda. I know he was funny because I saw it and I wasn't jealous.

LG: When do you feel jealous?

SM: It's mainly over very petty things like when I think my film is better and their film does better.

LG: That sounds like what Chevy Chase said in his Movieline interview. He was upset that your pictures and Robin Williams's pictures got more critical respect than his. He said, ''They're good, but Steve's pictures aren't all that much better or worse than mine.''

SM: I read that.

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