The Kennedy Center

Steve Martin

Video and Audio

  • Loading the player...

    Steven Reineke previews Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

  • Loading the player...

    First Rehearsal of BRIGHT STAR

  • Loading the player...

    In the Studio with Bright Star


Steve Martin (Actor, writer; born in Waco, Texas, August 14, 1945)

Steve Martin is America's Renaissance comedian. He is without doubt one of the most versatile and popular actors before the public, a performer with happy feet who wears many hats well beyond his signature arrow-through-the-head gear. He is a hit playwright, a reluctant literary light, an urbane and witty social commentator, an astute art collector, a mean banjo player, a dancing King Tut, an Oscar Award host, and a clown. His dashing looks landed him on People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" List in 2003 (just barely: he was #50). He has interpreted Samuel Beckett on stage, David Mamet on screen, adapted Rostand with panache, created an unforgettable movie jerk as well as television's most attractive wild and crazy guy, written and starred in blockbusters from Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid to L.A. Story and Shopgirl, and all the while-never taking himself too seriously-he continues to nurture his considerable gifts with tongue firmly in cheek.

He has never quite abandoned the zaniness of his roots, but he has come a long way since his days as a philosophy undergraduate. "If you study geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all," Martin recalled of his days at California State University at Long Beach, "but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life."

Life has been good, not least for his fans. Stephen Glenn Martin was born in Texas and raised in Southern California. His father, Glenn Vernon Martin, was a real estate salesman and an aspiring actor; his mother Mary Lee Stewart was a housewife. The teenage Steve Martin after school worked at the Magic Shop in Disneyland, where he learned to make balloon animals, to juggle and to play the banjo-all bits he would later keep for his comedy act. He developed a musical routine with his classmate Kathy Westmoreland that headlined at the Bird Cage in Knott's Berry Farm. In college at Long Beach, he seriously considered becoming a philosophy professor, but in 1967 he transferred to U.C.L.A. and became a theater major.

His path to show biz was sweet, from an appearance in The Dating Game while still in college to a precocious job writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour-a job that won Martin an Emmy Award for writing in 1969. At this time Martin also wrote material for John Denver, as well as for the hit shows Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. His own act, despite mixed reception on the road at first, brought him to Johnny Carson's attention, and Martin became a frequent comedy guest on the Tonight Show. The 1970s also witnessed his Saturday Night Live! debut and the release of a series of popular comedy albums that unleashed catch phrases such as "Excuse me!" and "I'm a wild and crazy guy." This last became the signature line for the Czechoslovakian playboy duo Martin created with his friend Dan Aykroyd. "King Tut," an improbable but wildly successful single from one of Martin's early albums, was the icing on the cake for a rash of hits that included Grammys for Best Comedy Recording in both 1977 and 1978.

The movies beckoned. He wrote a short film, The Absent-Minded Waiter, co-starring in it opposite Teri Garr and Buck Henry, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He then wrote and starred in his first full-length feature film, The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner. Steve Martin never looked back.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, and All of Me-all directed by Reiner-followed in quick succession and turned the popular comedian into a bankable movie icon. Three Amigos!, opposite his SNL buddies Martin Short and Chevy Chase, emerged as comic gold alongside the musical Little Shop of Horrors, in which Martin played a truly wild and crazy dentist. Roxanne, his adaptation of Rostand's classic Cyrano de Bergerac, was a surprise hit that let the uninitiated in on the fact that here was more than just a great comedian: it earned Martin an award from the Writers Guild of America. Challenges followed and were conquered with versatility and ease: David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, Neil Simon's The Out-of-Towners, Martin's own Shopgirl, each an acting gem created by a comic who also happened to be growing in stature as a major writer. His play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a witty cerebral romp, premiered at Chicago's prestigious Steppenwolf Theater and has gone to score a major national and international success. Martin's own refined taste in art has been reflected both in his own collection as well as in his work as a trustee for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as benefactor of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. While waiting for his next book, play or movie, fans can quench their thirst for Martin with his frequent pieces for The New Yorker.

"I believe entertainment can aspire to art, and can become art," Steve Martin has said, "but if you set out to make art you are an idiot." He has a point.

September 2007
Photo of Steve Martin