Classic Hollywood: Dean Martin does TV his way

Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney on "The Dean Martin Show" in May 1968.
(Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times)

Dean Martin didn’t have any interest in doing a weekly musical-variety series when NBC approached him in 1965.

“In those days you were either a movie star or a TV star,” said his daughter Deana Martin, who is also a singer. “He came home one night and said, ‘They are going to offer me a TV show. I don’t want to go in every day and do a TV show.’”

Martin was a huge star at the time. Despite the “British Invasion” of such musical groups as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Martin’s albums continued to land at the top of the charts. In fact, his 1964 recording of “Everybody Loves Somebody” knocked the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” out of the No. 1 spot. His engagements in Las Vegas were sellouts. Plus there was his flourishing movie career — Martin made several films with Rat Pack buddies Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, such as 1960’s “Ocean’s 11" as well as such highly regarded movies as 1958’s “The Young Lions” and 1960’s “Bells Are Ringing.”

But NBC didn’t take no for an answer. “They called him again,” his daughter recalled. “He said, ‘They want to have a meeting with me.’ He told all [of the family], ‘When I go in tomorrow, I am going to ask them for a ridiculous amount of money so they will turn me down. I am going to tell them I don’t want to rehearse, so I’m sure they will turn me down. And then I am going to tell them I only want to tape it on Sunday afternoons after 1. So for sure they won’t go for it.’


“He came home that night and said, ‘They went for it. So now I have to do it.”’

So for nine seasons, he headlined “The Dean Martin Show” at 10 Thursday nights on the Peacock network (it was moved to Friday evenings its last season). An enjoyable, loosey-goosey romp — Martin, true to his word, didn’t rehearse before the taping — the show featured Martin playing his drunken playboy persona to the hilt, singing tunes, performing in sketches and welcoming guests such as Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, John Wayne and Peggy Lee.

“It was a cocktail party,” said Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media Study in New York.

On Tuesday, three DVD sets of “The Best of the Dean Martin Variety Show” are being released. On June 7, a new Martin picture-book music collection, “Cool Then, Cool Now” will hit stores.


Though Sinatra and Davis tried their hands at weekly series, Martin was the only Rat Pack member to succeed. “Frank, I think, was too intense and passionate to do a weekly series,” Simon said. “Sammy, I think, was so multifaceted and talented, you were never sure what talent you should focus on. They never came up with a persona for Sammy that would work week in and week out. Dean Martin was very comfortable with the persona.”

The “Dino” character developed after he broke up with Jerry Lewis in 1956 following a 10-year partnership as the enormously popular music-comedy team of Martin and Lewis.

“Everybody needs a gimmick,” said Deana Martin, who performed on her dad’s series numerous times.

“When he started to redo his nightclub act, he started at the Sands Hotel, he had some writers helping him,” Martin explained. “It was like Jack Benny who had the violin thing and made fun about being cheap. It was something identifiable with him. Dad was so handsome, very cool and debonair. They just thought, ‘We will put a drink in his hand and a cigarette.’ Every man wanted to be him, and every woman wanted to be with him.”


But Martin, who died in 1995 at age 78, maybe played the role too well. His daughter is still shocked to this day that after her concerts, “I go out and talk to people and they come up and say, ‘I adored your dad. I never missed a show. I can’t believe he could do all of that and drink that much.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

The truth be told, Martin was swigging apple juice and not hard liquor in his glass when he performed. “He would be home for dinner every night,” recalled his daughter. “He would come home and he and mom would have their one cocktail at the bar. They had their half-hour alone time. He was kind. He would get up early in the morning and play golf. He was so different from what everybody thought he was. There was no one who could do Dean Martin better than Dean Martin.”