9 Milestones in the Evolution of Steve Martin

In this weekend's The Big Year, Steve Martin stars as a wealthy retiree who spends his free time spanning the globe in search of rare bird species -- a passion that gives way to a competition against his similarly "birding" enthused friends played by Jack Black and Owen Wilson. So just how does a Texas-born stand-up transform himself into the only successful actor/comedian/author/playwright/banjo player/Emmy winner/onscreen bird watcher in Hollywood history?

You can always trace a direct line through a few important roles to illustrate what led to an actor's current success. As such, let's look at nine pivotal performances that track the evolution of Steve Martin.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1968)

Although born in Texas, Martin was raised in California where he studied magic, worked with a comedy troupe at Knott's Berry Farm and eventually studied philosophy as an undergraduate at California State University, Long Beach. By the age of 23, Martin had transferred colleges, switched majors (to theater), appeared on an episode of The Dating Game and was ready for his big Hollywood break: The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. After being hired as a writer on the show (which would earn him an Emmy his first year), Martin was occasionally pulled onstage by the stars of the series for comedy routines that in some cases (like below), involved his adolescent hobby, magic.

Saturday Night Live (1976)

Although, contrary to popular belief, Martin was never a cast member on the NBC sketch comedy series, the actor has hosted the show fifteen times beginning with an appearance in 1976 that would help popularize the comedian with American audiences. It was during the mid-to-late '70s that the actor's comedy career took off because of his television appearances, his comedy albums (that went platinum) and his "King Tut" single, which the actor performed during one of the most expensive SNL sketches at the time. Thanks to that national exposure, the single sold over a million copies and helped his album A Wild and Crazy Guy win a Grammy. Having achieved success in writing, recording and small screen comedy, the multi-talent was now poised for his big screen breakthrough.

The Jerk (1979)

Bringing us to The Jerk, which remains many Steve Martin fans' favorite Steve Martin movie as well as his feature screenwriting debut and his big screen acting breakthrough. (Months before, Martin served Kermit and Miss Piggy as "Insolent Waiter" in The Muppet Movie.) Martin starred as Navin R. Johnson, a simple-minded fellow who finds fortune through an unlikely invention -- even though he is so imbecilic that he doesn't realize that because his parents are black, and he is white, he must be adopted. The film was a hit with critics (well, except for Roger Ebert, who "didn't find The Jerk very funny). This was also Martin's first of four collaborations with director Carl Reiner -- who went on to direct the writer/actor in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains and All of Me.

Pennies From Heaven (1981)

Instead of coasting off The Jerk's success by cranking out a few cash-grab comedies, Martin followed his big screen breakthrough with his first dramatic role in Herbert Ross's musical film Pennies From Heaven. Martin was so dedicated to the project -- which was based on a British miniseries he considered "the greatest thing [he'd] ever seen -- that he spent six months learning to tap dance. As a married sheet music salesman who falls for a schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters), Martin was criticized for giving a heartless (although technically proficient) performance. Later that decade, Martin would more successfully combine darkness and dancing in the adaptation format with Little Shop of Horrors, where he played a sadistic singing dentist.

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  • Chris says:

    OMG...How could you leave out LA Story? Probably Steve Martin's most critically acclaimed film...

  • Chasmosaur says:

    I know it's not a milestone, but I have always loved Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. It was so well done, both as a send-up and an homage.