Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Thursday, December 16, 2004

A new article made of old info
The Detroit News
Saturday, December 11, 2004
Wild 'n' crazy guy proves his brilliance
Funnyman Steve Martin takes on 'Pink Panther' remake and film adaptation of 'Shopgirl' novella
By Wolf Schneider / Hollywood Reporter

A famous coach has been murdered and his priceless ring -- known as the Pink Panther -- stolen. The French government needs a master detective to solve the crime and recover the gem. He's not available, so they tap Inspector Jacques Clouseau, played by Steve Martin.

With the "wild and crazy guy" as his suave alter ego and the attention-grabbing "Well, excuuuuuse me!" as his careerlong mantra, Steve Martin has made a gold mine of sending up the human condition.

His journey from selling 25-cent guidebooks to Disneyland at age 11 to nabbing a reported $17.5 million paycheck for MGM's upcoming reinterpretation of "The Pink Panther" has been a natural evolution for the film star and writer, whose situational comedy and light drama draws as much on absurdist principles as it does on deeper satirical paradoxes.

By synthesizing the clever, the cerebral and the goofy with his brand of postmodern self-referential humor, Martin has won Emmy and Grammy awards, filled 20,000-seat arenas as a stand-up comic, starred in 40 feature films during a 25-year span, hosted the Academy Awards and proved his own manifesto, "Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is."

"This idea of jokes that keep folding in on themselves, it's his comedic process," says Kevin Kline, who appears with Martin in the recently wrapped "Panther."

"It's uniquely his; it just keeps commenting on itself and taking another turn," Kline says. "I mean, he can do slapstick, farcical acting and he can do witty repartee -- and in his writing, it spans a spectrum from low humor to high wit."

At 57, Martin proved his urban-youth appeal by slouching undercover hilariously as a stoic father who becomes an Eminem-imitating "white homeboy" opposite Queen Latifah in 2003's "Bringing Down the House," which grossed $132.5 million domestically.

Later that year, Martin made "Cheaper by the Dozen" with director Shawn Levy, who also is helming "Panther," in which Martin fills the late Peter Sellers' shoes as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Levy says that while Martin can "create absurdist circumstances and play them straight...he can also take the real world and a realistic context and find the absurd therein."

Although characterized as a romantic comedy, Buena Vista's upcoming release of "Shopgirl" is as melancholy as it is trenchant. Martin also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film, based on his own best-selling novella, with Claire Danes. In telling of an affair between a listless department store employee and a wealthy older businessman, Martin writes of a philanderer who "is using the hours with her as a portal to his own need for propinquity."

"(The script) was even more strangely intimate than I had anticipated," Danes says. "It's based on an actual relationship that he had." That made for a set with a shifting emotional undertone.

"We're all so accustomed to his clownish, extroverted persona; he's not antithetical to that (in actuality), but he's very observant and thinking," Danes says. "Occasionally, he'd crack a joke, and I'd go: 'Oh, right! You're an iconic comic; you're one of the funniest people on the planet.' But we'd all forget."

Perhaps what Martin does best, then, is find humor in pain.

"I think turning angst into art -- turning existential agony into art, and yes, turning misery into art -- is very much a part of it," Levy says. "When he does that conversion, it's not just with humor -- it's with genuine humanity."

Behind it all, this humane brain is operating in overdrive.

"That's what he's aces at doing: using his brain," says Martin's "Father of the Bride" costar Diane Keaton. "He thinks more than anyone I know or am friends with, with the exception of only one other person: Woody Allen.

Martin friend Brian Grazer, who has produced four Martin movies, agrees. "He's always ahead of everybody or deeper into the truth of what's actually going on," Grazer says.

Comedy always has been Martin's calling. The 59-year-old was born in Texas, to a homemaker mother and a Baylor University drama instructor father, he grew up glued to Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movies. By the time he graduated high school in 1963, Martin had perfected his enthusiastic delivery of, "Well, excuuuuuse me!" as well as the wearing of an "arrow through head" prop -- all of which he would use in his stand-up routines. After studying theater at UCLA, Martin during the late 1960s became a writer on CBS' "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which led to a decade of increasing popularity as a TV comedy writer, stand-up comic and frequent guest star on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

In 1979, Martin collaborated with director Carl Reiner, who some credit with launching Martin's career.

"He and his friends had written a thing called 'Easy Money,' and David Picker, who was going to produce the picture, needed a director," Reiner says. "Steve already was a major rock-star comedian: He would sell out bowls, the big venues and ballparks doing his crazy, funny thing. The movie is based on his act: There was one line in his act -- 'I was born a poor black child' -- and from that, we built this whole movie."

"Easy Money" was retitled "The Jerk," Martin came away with a girlfriend in co-star Bernadette Peters, and Reiner guided Martin into the '80s, with three more films.

"He's got what we call 'a little curvature of the brain,"' Reiner says. "He knows the cliche and avoids it like the plague, but he can take cliches and turn them into something new Martin recalled his Texas roots for the 1986 cowboy-comedy sendup "Three Amigos" -- in which he co-stars with "SNL" cronies Chevy Chase and Martin Short. Ever adept at physical comedy, Martin twirls guns, renders rope tricks, rides horseback and executes some fancy footwork and tush-wiggling during the movie's "My Little Buttercup" sequence.

Frank Oz helmed Martin as a demented dentist in the 1986 comedy "Little Shop of Horrors" before directing Martin again in the farcical 1988 feature "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," in which Martin plays a dimwitted swindler.

Off-screen, though, Caine was surprised by Martin. "He is so schizophrenic," Caine says. "If you meet him, you think you're going to meet this wild and crazy nut case... (but) he's the quietest, most intellectual sort of computer nerd."

Caine was impressed when, after rehearsing a scene in which his character dominates, Martin told Oz: "Let's not shoot this tonight; this isn't funny enough. I'll write something for Michael."

Says Caine: "The next day, he gave me two pages of very funny dialogue to say! He'd gone to all this trouble for another actor.


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