Dean Martin, who overcame the breakup of his comedy partnership with Jerry Lewis to become a successful film, television, recording and nightclub star in his own right, died Monday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 78.
"Dino," as he was known to his show biz cronies and generations of fans, died of acute respiratory failure at 3:30 a.m., said his longtime publicist, Warren Cowan.
"Dean was my brother--not through blood but through choice," said Frank Sinatra in a written statement. "Our friendship has traveled down many roads over the years and there will always be a special place in my heart and soul for Dean.
"He has been like the air I breathe--always there, always close by," the statement said.
Lewis, on tour Monday, was "completely shattered and grief-stricken" at the news of Martin's death, said Lewis' manager, Joe Stabile.
"I'm going to have a drink right now for him," joked another old friend, comic Alan King.
The multifaceted Martin, whose rugged Italian good looks and melodic baritone voice charmed women but also appealed to men, perfected an on-camera and onstage image of the laid-back alcoholic.
More than one guest on his phenomenally popular television variety show, which regularly attracted 40 million viewers from 1965 to 1974, went to Martin's dressing room after the show expecting to find a paralytic drunk only to be offered coffee and cake. The glass that Martin carried onstage usually contained nothing stronger than apple juice.
"You son of a bitch," one guest said, cracking up the joke-loving star, "you're stone-cold sober!"
Martin, who established an unheard-of one-rehearsal-only rule for a weekly program, nevertheless showed up on time and worked hard when scheduled, and fully understood his show's appeal.
"Wanna know why this show's a hit?" he once said. "The reason is that it's me up there on that screen. It ain't nothin' phony; that's really me. You take everybody else on TV--they're puttin' on an act, playin' something they aren't. But when people tune me in, they know they're getting Dean Martin."
Known as chief deputy to the chairman of the board in Sinatra's "Rat Pack," Martin followed in the tradition of Sinatra, Perry Como and other Italian singers, frequently commenting that they all copied the style of veteran crooner Bing Crosby. Among Martin's gold records were "That's Amore" in 1953, "Return to Me" and "Volare" in 1958, and what became his theme song, "Everybody Loves Somebody" in 1964.
Despite those successes, he once told Variety: "I'm no singer. I can carry a tune and I have an easy style. But we crooners get by because we're fairly painless."
Although he was best known for comedy, Martin's more than 50 films include a handful of critically acclaimed serious acting roles--"The Young Lions" with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in 1958, "Some Came Running" with Sinatra in 1959, and Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" with John Wayne, also in 1959.
"I call it a wonderful job, working in pictures," Martin once told The Times. "And if any actor tells you it's tough, tell 'em they're full of beans. . . . To become half a success in what you do, you have to enjoy it or else you become a griper. The good Lord gave me a talent and I'll use it until I run dry."
Although he once told an interviewer that if he had life to live again he'd do it as a golf pro, Martin particularly delighted in working nightclubs, where he had started.
"I like people. I love what I am doing and I think people can tell that," he said. "You know more men want to see me than girls. You know why? I never sing to the girl. I figure that some guy is paying the bill and here I am singing to his girl, then he's going to get threatened. I don't flirt with the girls like Wayne Newton does. I sing over their heads."
Dino Paul Crocetti was born in Steubenville, Ohio, the son of an Italian immigrant barber. Bored with high school, he dropped out in the 10th grade, only to spend his adult life embarrassed by his poor English grammar and lack of education.
He boxed in the welterweight class as Kid Crocetti, permanently scarring his hands. He also stole hubcaps, bootlegged booze and worked as a gas jockey, soda jerk and steel mill laborer.
Then he got into gambling in the "Little Chicago" area of Ohio where he grew up, working as a stickman on roulette and a croupier on blackjack. He hummed as he worked, to patrons' delight, and sang after hours with a band at Walker's Cafe.
He first sang professionally in Columbus, as Dino Martini, a name picked because of its similarity to that of a popular opera star. He got $50 a week--an amount he said he could steal each week in the gaming rooms. Then he got a contract to sing in Cleveland, and the name was shortened permanently to Dean Martin.
Married with a growing family, Martin was drafted in World War II. But he was mustered out after 14 months because of a hernia.
In 1946, Martin met the young Jerry Lewis when both were appearing at the Glass Hat in New York. Soon after, they were put on the same bill at the 500 Club in Atlantic City, N.J.
They made up their own material, with Martin attempting to sing while Lewis interrupted as a bumbling busboy. A legendary team that was to delight the nation for a decade was born.
The odd couple--the handsome Italian crooner and the awkward, goofy kid--moved on to New York's Copacabana nightclub, television's "Ed Sullivan Show" and, in 1948, to Hollywood.
Martin and Lewis made 16 movies, from "My Friend Irma" in 1949 to perhaps their best remembered and final film, "Hollywood or Bust" in 1956. In 1952 the duo moved into first place in the annual Motion Picture Herald listing of the top 10 movie stars.
But the partnership broke up in 1956 when Martin refused Lewis' directive that he play a lowly police officer in "The Delicate Delinquent," which Lewis wrote. Martin said that he no longer could deal with Lewis' egocentric demands.
"Two of the greatest turnin' points in my career were, first, meetin' Jerry Lewis, second, leavin' Jerry Lewis," Martin said in 1967. "I became a real actor because of these two things."
They downplayed their bitter feud publicly, meeting a couple of times onstage at charity events. When nightclub hecklers yelled, "Where's Jerry? ," Martin's gracious standard reply was: "I don't know where he is, but wherever he is, I hope he's doing just fine."
Critics doubted that Martin could survive without the manic Lewis, and for a while Martin agreed with them. His first solo movie, "10,000 Bedrooms," did poorly.
"At first, I wasn't that big a hit, by myself," he reflected in 1987. "It took me about a year to develop my own style. I got Sammy Cahn to write a few special lyrics for me, and I started doing this Joe E. Lewis-type thing [pretending drunkenness]. Mostly, I made it up as I went along."
After foundering for a couple of years, with occasional nightclub singing dates, Martin rebounded with the recording "Volare" which sold 3 million copies in 1958.
About that time, he got a bid to join Brando and Clift in "The Young Lions," at a miserly salary of $20,000, considerably less than he was used to earning for a film. He leaped at the chance, however, saying he would have done it for nothing to work with the acclaimed dramatic stars.
"Some Came Running"--in which he played a boozy gambler--followed, resurrecting Martin's mood as well as his box office appeal.
"It was the happiest picture I've ever been in," he said later. "A part like that will never come my way again. Being with Shirley MacLaine and Frank [Sinatra]--I don't know, it was just happy."
Martin considered Sinatra his greatest friend and would drop anything to substitute for him in Las Vegas or stump for Sinatra's favored political candidates.
"Too many times I've been asked to say something about friends who are gone--this is one of the hardest," said Sinatra in his statement Monday.
Although Martin was surrounded by a large family, his daily golfing buddies and the Sinatra Rat Pack of entertainers--including Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Sammy Cahn and occasionally MacLaine and Ruta Lee--he was known as a loner.
"When I met Dean Martin, it was love at first sight," his second wife, onetime Orange Bowl queen Jeanne Beigger, told an interviewer. "I married him knowing nothing about him. I divorced him 23 years later, and I still know nothing about him."
Christmas Eve parties at the Martin home were legendary--but Martin himself often sneaked away and went to bed early.
At one party in his house, recalled Cowan, "he disappeared about 9 p.m., went upstairs and called police, and said there was a lot of noise at the Martin house."
Greg Garrison, who directed Martin's television shows, said Martin once invited him to drop by, and the two screened a movie, hardly talking.
"That was the only time in the past 16 years," Garrison said in 1978, "that I've gotten a call from Dean saying, 'Why don't you come over to the house.' "
Garrison said that during their long and productive association he had only a couple of calls from Martin--one seeking the number of the television show's scenic designer for his third wife's decorating project and one complimenting Garrison's Andalusian horse that Martin had seen on a country music show.
Martin admitted for years to a fear of elevators and once described himself as a "pathological shoplifter."
"When I go into a haberdashery and spend $500," the millionaire once told the Saturday Evening Post, "I steal a necktie or a pair of gloves or a pair of socks. I'm sure that the owners know it, but I'm such a good customer they don't really care. Everyone has a little larceny in him, a little bit of original sin, only some of it's not too original."
Martin was married and divorced three times--to Elizabeth McDonald from 1940 to 1949, with whom he had four children, Craig, Claudia, Gail and Deana; to Beigger from 1950 to 1972, with whom he had three children, Dean Jr. (known as Dino), Ricci and Gina, and to beauty parlor receptionist Cathy Hawn form 1973 to 1976.
Dino, an actor and member of the short-lived 1960s teen pop group Dino, Desi and Billy, served as a captain in the Air Force National Guard. He was killed in 1987 when his Phantom jet fighter crashed into a California mountain during a snowstorm.
"I don't think [Dean] ever quite recovered from the death of his son," said Cowan and other friends Monday.
Despite repeated bouts with ulcers, which belied his relaxed style, Martin kept himself in relatively good physical condition with daily golf and other exercise and a reasonable diet.
"With all the children and grandchildren, I'm old," he joked in 1984 when he was 67. "But I don't feel old. . . . Death don't come to me. I'm not going."
However, his health finally deteriorated in the 1990s and he stopped working about three years ago, Cowan said.
Funeral services will be private.
Associated Press contributed to this story.
Highlights of Dean Martin's Career
"The Colgate Comedy Hour," 1950-55.
"The Dean Martin Show," 1965-73.
"The Dean Martin Comedy Hour," 1973-74.
"That's Amore," 1953.
"Memories Are Made of This," 1955.
"Return to Me," 1958.
"Everybody Needs Somebody," 1964.
"Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," 1965.
Movies (with Jerry Lewis):
"My Friend Irma," 1949.
"My Friend Irma Goes West," 1950.
"At War With the Army," 1951.
"That's My Boy," 1951.
"Sailor Beware," 1952.
"Jumping Jacks," 1952.
"The Stooge," 1953.
"Scared Stiff," 1953.
"The Caddy," 1953.
"Money From Home," 1954.
"Living It Up," 1954.
"Three Ring Circus," 1954.
"You're Never Too Young," 1955.
"Artists and Models," 1955.
"Hollywood or Bust," 1956.
"Ten Thousand Bedrooms," 1957.
"The Young Lions," 1958.
"Some Came Running," 1959.
"Rio Bravo," 1959.
"Who Was That Lady?" 1960.
"Bells Are Ringing," 1960.
"Ocean's Eleven," 1960.
"All in a Night's Work," 1961.
"Sergeants 3," 1962.
"Who's Got the Action?" 1962.
"Toys in the Attic," 1963.
"Four for Texas," 1963.
"Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?" 1963.
"What a Way to Go!" 1964.
"Robin and the Seven Hoods," 1964.
"Kiss Me, Stupid," 1964.
"The Sons of Katie Elder," 1965.
"Marriage on the Rocks," 1965.
"The Silencers," 1966.
"Texas Across the River," 1966.
"Murderers' Row," 1966.
"Rough Night in Jericho," 1967.
"The Ambushers," 1967.
"How to Save a Marriage--and Ruin Your Life," 1968.
"Five Card Stud," 1968.
"The Wrecking Crew," 1969.
"Something Big," 1971.
"Mr. Ricco," 1975.
"Cannonball Run," 1981.
"Cannonball Run II," 1984.