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Remembering Dean Martin: A Crafty Charade of Nonchalance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Charles Champlin is a regular contributor to Calendar

Dean Martin, who died on Christmas Day at the age of 78 after several years in retirement, made a career of not seeming to take himself seriously.

Like many such charades, it was deceptive, although the enduring image of him will undoubtedly be of Dino in a tux, singing in that easy baritone of his, with a tumbler of a brown liquid in his hand and a cigarette held between the second and third fingers.

Like Bing Crosby before him and Perry Como who survives him, Martin sang the way all men imagine they sound in the shower. That too was something of an illusion. He sounded a lot better than the gents in the shower, and he knew what he was doing. He worked that deep, mellifluous voice of his with a casual grace that somehow carried a weight of romantic implication other crooners never quite achieved.

He had come up a hard and bruising road from his steel town beginnings, and he learned audiences and knew what worked, which is to say that he knew his strengths and his limits. Insouciance worked for him, and he perfected it.

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Martin made a surprising number of films in a 35-year career, playing with a naturalness that is itself an illusion within the technical illusion of film.

Naturalness, after rehearsals, blockings and several takes, is an aspect of the craft, deliberately achieved like a tragedian’s tears on cue. As in his singing, he knew what he did best, and the nonchalance served him, and the audience, very well in the bedroom comedies, the westerns, the adventures. He did not aspire to do Lear.

It’s getting harder to remember when Las Vegas was an intimate town with lights, not a megalopolis with swollen hotels and family attractions. In those days, the hottest hotel in town was the Sands, because it was where Frank and Dean and Sammy sang individually and as the “Rat Pack,” augmented by Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

The act was a kind of organized shambles, an occasionally self-indulgent boys’ night out with just enough performing to let you know they could do it if they wanted to. And it was the toughest reservation in town because it was as unpredictable as live television used to be. No telling what Dean would say, or Frank. Lawford was the straight man for all of them.

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Although Martin himself came to fame as an indulgent straight man for Jerry Lewis, it became clear in his solo years that he had a line in sardonic comedy that was distinctly his. He also could be a fast man with an ad-lib.

One Monday morning he and an entourage were flying back to Los Angeles. The pilot announced that the flight would be momentarily delayed, awaiting a passenger. Through the open door, we could all see George Jessel, in his Israeli Army uniform, hobbling along on a cane, escorted by a nurse of Wagnerian dimensions. One of Martin’s group said, “I wonder what happened to George.”

“I think he fell off his nurse,” Martin replied thoughtfully.

Whatever their public personas, entertainers lead private lives as well. The death of his son, Dean Paul, in a plane crash in 1987 seemed to take the gusto out of Martin’s life. The insouciance was a harder act to play in the face of tragedy, and he did not perform much longer.

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In the great days, not many people got to see the man behind the nonchalance. In the end he could be seen clearly, a mortal among us, a father who had lost a son.


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