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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,591

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This is the grave of Dean Martin.

Born in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio, Dino Crocetti grew up in an immigrant household. His father was a barber who had migrated from Pescara and his mother was Italian-American, born in Ohio. The family spoke Italian at home and Martin didn’t know English until 1922. The kid was a punk. By the time he was in high school he was bootlegging liquor and he dropped out in the tenth grade. He also started boxing and was terrible at it. So he started working as a croupier in an illegal gambling operation run behind a tobacco shop.

But Crocetti could sing. Boy could he sing. He began calling himself Dino Martini and became a locally popular singer. But he also was good enough to get broader attention when bigger bands came into town and heard him. Ernie McKay, who led a band out of Columbus that toured the town of the Midwest, hired him and then so did the Cleveland-based bandleader Sammy Watkins. It was Watkins who suggested the name change to Dean Martin, and so it was.

Martin was briefly in World War II, but had a bad hernia and was discharged without seeing any action. After the war, though initially still based out of Cleveland, Martin began singing in New York and Atlantic City clubs. There, he met a comedian named Jerry Lewis. They became fast friends and began working up acts together. Turns out Martin could act as well as sing and of course he had the looks that Lewis did not. Their early work was basically old slapstick vaudeville stuff and audiences loved that stuff. They soon had a successful act that would be gold for both of their careers. I am not going to blame Martin for Lewis, it’s not his fault. At first this act was super popular and they started doing a bunch of movies together. But the movies weren’t very good and they were all the same. Martin started getting antsy. The personal relationship between the two men declined, the friendship effectively ended, and they broke up in 1956. Well, they both did fine. Jerry Lewis always had France after all.

Now, Martin’s future wasn’t exactly set. He was known at this time only for dumb slapstick films. His songs were more successful in the UK than the US. The crooner era was under serious challenge from the rise of rock and roll. Martin also really wanted to be taken seriously. The real break toward a new era of stardom was his casting in The Young Lions. Now, this was the 3rd biggest role, behind Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. He didn’t care. They weren’t going to pay him much either. He didn’t care about that either. Tony Randall was already cast in the part. Well, the studio took care of that. Realizing that if they could make Martin a serious star that they could make money off him in a variety of different ways since he was multi-talented, they threw a bunch of money at Randall to give up the role. It all worked. Martin did well and was a star again.

This was in 1958. That same year, he worked with Frank Sinatra for the first time, in Some Came Running. Then he was cast with John Wayne in Rio Bravo. I can never watch this without finding it weird that Dean Martin is in this role, but even though it is a classic miscasting, it kind of works too. He got a Golden Globe nomination for Bells Are Ringing, also starring Judy Holliday.

Now, after the early 60s, Martin was mostly basically playing Dean Martin. He was taken seriously, but he wasn’t exactly pushing himself too much once he and Sinatra started doing the Rat Pack films. Oceans 11 kind of works, but the Soderbergh remake is way better. He literally played himself in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid and basically played himself in the Matt Helm films in the late 60s. There were plenty of dumb films in there too–Robin and the 7 Hoods, 4 for Texas, etc. He occasionally did the interesting role in here, such as Ada and Toys in the Attic, but these aren’t exactly classics. He was also in Airport, for whatever you want to think of the disaster movies of the period. At the very least, those movies were good at getting stars paid.

Despite his singing style being out of style, he actually had his biggest song successes in the U.S. in the mid-60s. In fact, it was his doing “Everybody Loves Somebody” that ended The Beatles’ “It’s a Hard Day’s Night” at the top of the pop charts in 1964. Martin did some country cover albums by the late 60s. I have never heard any of these. Maybe I will check one out, see if they hold up at all. Elvis loved Martin’s singing and patterned his later style after Martin. I’ll try to not hold late Elvis against him, just like I try not to hold Jerry Lewis against him.

Then there’s the Dean Martin Show, which ran for an amazing 274 episodes between 1965 and 1974. It’s interesting how he remained relevant through the counterculture. Some of it was his all-time great bit–something he perfected over the years–which was his reputation as a massive drunk. In truth, he really wasn’t. He did drink, but nothing near his reputation. But it was a bit and he rolled with it. His Vegas performances with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and occasionally Peter Lawford or the other minor Rat Pack members were filled with jokes about his drinking. So was his show. He even bought a vanity license plate that read DRUNKY. Some of this too was that he was good at playing a drunk, which he certainly did with conviction in Rio Bravo.

By the mid 70s, Martin chose to go into semi-retirement. He sang some, showed up in occasional movies, but he had so much money that he didn’t need to work anymore, so he mostly didn’t. He also reconciled with Lewis on the latter’s famous telethon. He showed up in Cannonball Run. After his son died when he was a pilot with the California Air National Guard, he really did become an alcoholic and he didn’t show up at all much after that. Davis and Sinatra brought him on some big stadium shows to help him recover, but Martin hated shows that big and it didn’t really work. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993. He did stop smoking then but he also rejected surgery and he died in 1995. He was 78 years old.

Also, to continue a repeated theme in these LA graves, Martin was a lifelong Republican, if not a particularly right-wing version. But again, the idea of Hollywood as filled with liberals just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Dean Martin is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other Rat Pack members, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Sinatra is in Cathedral City, California and Sammy Davis Jr. is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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