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Steve Martin: Through The Years

For the comic legend, it's been a wild and crazy ride

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    A Magical Start at Disneyland

    Born in Waco, Texas, in 1945, Steve Martin and his family moved to Hollywood when he was 5 years old so his dad could pursue an acting career. It didn’t work out for the elder Martin, but it sure did for his son. At 10, he landed his first “show business job”: handing out guidebooks at Disneyland. From there he moved to a cashier gig at the park’s Merlin’s Magic Shop, where he learned tricks and honed a magic act that he performed at local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.

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    'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour'

    In 1967, at 21, Martin was hired as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, joining a staff that included future comedy stars Rob Reiner and Albert Brooks. With his fellow TV writers, Martin won an Emmy in 1969 for best comedy writing. During his Smothers Brothers years, he played local comedy clubs and worked on the stand-up act that would define his next decade.

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    Stand-Up Superstardom

    Appearances on programs such as The Dick Cavett Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour gained him a following. After ditching TV writing to hit the road full time with his stand-up act, he quickly became a sensation. His offbeat act eschewed traditional jokes with setups and punch lines — he favored props and silliness. In one bit, he claimed he could make a phone book funny, then began reading one while cracking eggs on his head and mugging for the crowd.

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    'Saturday Night Live'

    His rise to the top of the comedy world coincided with the 1975 debut of Saturday Night Live, and Martin and the sketch show seemed made for each other. Along with Dan Aykroyd, he created the legendary “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” skit about the Festrunk brothers, a pair of culturally clueless Czech immigrants excited to hit the New York dance club scene and woo American women. In all, Martin has hosted SNL 15 times, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 times.

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    Dropping the Mic

    By the late ’70s, Martin’s stand-up career was in full stride. Where most comics were happy to fill a club, he routinely sold out 20,000-seat arenas. “King Tut,” a novelty song he wrote for his act when the Tutankhamen exhibit was touring American museums, hit the top 20 in Billboard. Suddenly, in 1981, fresh off a week of sold-out shows in Atlantic City, he walked away from stand-up for good — with no announcement or fanfare. “My act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary act was extinction,” he wrote in his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. He would not perform stand-up again for 35 years.

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  • Alamy

    'The Jerk'

    Released in 1979, The Jerk — which Martin also cowrote — proved he had the comedy chops to carry a movie. Directed by Carl Reiner, The Jerk starred Martin as Navin Johnson, a clueless mope who strikes it rich by inventing a contraption that prevents eyeglasses from slipping and then who loses it all when it’s later discovered the invention causes wearers to go cross-eyed. Made for only $4 million, The Jerk grossed nearly $75 million and made Martin a bona fide movie star.

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    'Roxanne'

    A string of comedies followed in the wake of The Jerk, but Martin’s movie career gained new depth and range with this 1987 romantic comedy, a modern-day take on Cyrano de Bergerac. Martin, wearing a prosthetic nose that curved downward like the drop of a roller coaster, plays a sad-sack small-town fire chief in unrequited love with a local beauty, played by Darryl Hannah. The role earned him raves and a Golden Globe nomination for best actor.

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    'Parenthood'

    Though Martin played a dad trying to get home for the holidays in 1987’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles, it was Ron Howard’s 1989 family comedy that allowed him to move gracefully away from the single-guy persona he perfected in his early career and into the dad roles that would define his next phase. 

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    'Father of the Bride'

    In this 1991 remake that proved even more popular than the 1950 original, Martin stepped into the Spencer Tracy role of a dad in a state of shock at the cost of his only daughter’s wedding — and in bittersweet denial that his little girl is all grown up. Its success spawned a 1995 sequel, but Martin has shot down recent rumors that a third installment may be in the works.

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    Plays, Books and Memoirs

    From his early days in TV, Martin has always been a writer, but his acting success sometimes deflected his attention away from the craft. As the 1990s progressed, he turned his focus back to it. His stage play Picasso at the Lapin Agile debuted at Chicago’s  Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993. He became a regular contributor to the New Yorker. His novella Shopgirl was published in 2000, followed by his best-selling memoir, Born Standing Up.

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    Strummin' on the Old Banjo

    Writing wasn’t the only passion to which he returned. Martin, who first played the banjo as a teenager and worked the instrument into his ’70s stand-up act, released his first album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, in 2009. All it did was win the Grammy for best bluegrass album. Over the last decade, he has toured extensively as a banjo act, often alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers. In 2016, Bright Star, a bluegrass musical he wrote with Edie Brickell, opened on Broadway and earned a Tony nomination for best musical.

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    Hollywood Royalty

    Even with interests as varied as art collection and bluegrass music, Martin has never strayed too far from Hollywood. Over his career, he has hosted the Oscars three times, most recently in 2010, when he shared emcee duties with Alec Baldwin. Though he’s never been nominated for an Academy Award, in 2013 he received an honorary Oscar. “I can’t possibly express how happy I am tonight,” he said while accepting the trophy. “Because the Botox is still fresh.”

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    Returning to His Roots

    In 2016, Martin returned to the stand-up stage for the first time since 1981, performing a surprise 10-minute opening act at a Jerry Seinfeld show. Now he’s back on the road and touring in a music and comedy show with frequent collaborator Martin Short. With more than 8.5 million followers, Martin is a social media force on Twitter. And he’s a late-in-life first-time dad: He and his wife, Anne Stringfield, had a daughter in 2012. “It’s been a gentle uphill slope,” he said recently in an AARP The Magazine cover story, “to a real, real happiness.”

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