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9 Wild and Crazy Things You Didn’t Know About Steve Martin

Get an inside look at the beloved actor in a new film, ‘STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces’

spinner image Steve Martin sitting in a chair looking off into the distance in the Apple TV Plus documentary STEVE! (martin) a documentary in two pieces
Courtesy: Apple TV+

Steve Martin, 78, may be the most private man in show business. As friend Eric Idle, 81, says in the utterly fascinating new film STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces (on Apple TV+) by Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville, 56, Martin is “very, very, very, very, very, very, very shy.” But Martin reveals plenty in the doc about his art and his long-concealed heart, even fighting back tears when talking about his late father and his beloved late costar John Candy from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Martin gets deep about his flops and triumphs, his tormented younger years and his startlingly happy life as what he calls a “grownup,” with close friends including Jerry Seinfeld, 69. Others such as Diane Keaton, 78, Tina Fey, 53, and Lorne Michaels, 79, cast fascinating light on his personality and work.

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Here are nine things you might not know about Steve Martin, but you’ll find out in the documentary.

spinner image Steve Martin with his banjo while wearing his arrow through the head toy onstage in Chicago
Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage

He honed his skills at Disneyland

From the ages of 10 to 18, Martin worked in the theme park, selling 25-cent programs so he could hang out there for free all day, and working at Merlin’s Magic Shop in Fantasyland. “That changed my life, to perform tricks all day, a dream come true,” Martin says. Besides learning to juggle, he studied (and heisted jokes and card tricks from) his first mentor, Magic Shop stand-up comic Wally Boag. Years later, Martin used the bunny ears and arrow-through-the-head toys he sold at Disneyland in his own stand-up act, which sold 9 million albums and countless concert tickets.

Because home life was grim, Disneyland was “a nice escape for him,” his sister Melinda Martin recalls in the film. “Steve kind of got the frustrating end from our dad. He would just blow his stack at him. I don’t remember hugs. I don’t remember affection.” The comedian says he did have a happy childhood — “outside the house.”

spinner image Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Ringo Starr, John Stewart and others onstage on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Steve Martin, second to left, guest stars on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
Photo by Henry Diltz/Corbis via Getty Images

He got a great break at 22, followed by terrifying failure

While studying philosophy in college and thinking of becoming a professor (“I always felt that teaching was show business,” he says), he polished his extraordinarily peculiar stand-up comedy act by night at L.A.’s Prison of Socrates nightclub. He was broke, and few got his humor — except for Mason Williams, 85. After Martin’s ex-girlfriend Nina Goldblatt, a dancer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, urged head writer Williams to see his act, Williams hired Martin in 1967 as a writer for the hit TV show, teaching him to put the punch line of a joke at the end instead of the middle. “I was launched into the stratosphere, from nowhere to somewhere in a week,” Martin says.

He was great on the show, and you’ll giggle at clips of him cracking up Cher in his stint on her show. When he quit to perfect his stage act, his audiences dwindled, and he once performed at a drive-in theater where people honked car horns instead of applauding (sample joke: “When people say, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ I say, ‘No, do you mind if I fart?’ ”). He gave himself until age 30 to hit big or quit.

Bizarrely, he hit, and the doc captures the head-spinning exhilaration of his skyrocket ascent. Once an entire audience followed him out of a theater; he saw an empty swimming pool, ordered them into it, then swam over their heads.

spinner image Steve Martin holding a trophy at The American Guild of Variety Artists 9th Annual Entertainer of the Year Awards
Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Success wasn’t good enough for his dad

His father, Glenn Martin, was a thwarted actor stuck in a dull job, and not his son’s fan. “My work was really trying to get approval from him,” Martin says, but even when he made it big onstage and in movies such as The Jerk, his dad said, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” Martin recalls, “He couldn’t quite be proud of an unconventional showbiz act that he didn’t quite understand.” Later in life, Martin reconciled with his father, but his life was haunted by the relationship, and it made him a lonely man until he found peace, happiness and parenthood with his wife, Anne Stringfield, 52, his former New Yorker magazine fact-checker.

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Saturday Night Live scared him, so he joined it

He was alarmed when Saturday Night Live popularized a subversive comedy style akin to his own, but both he and the show got more famous when he hosted it — 16 times so far, most recently with his Only Murders in the Building costar Martin Short, 74, his best friend and a star of the documentary.

spinner image Steve Martin performing King Tut on Saturday Night Live in 1978
Minneapolis Star Tribune/ / Alamy

He made SNL more musically funny

His biggest SNL moment was his 1978 hit tune “King Tut,” satirizing the blockbuster “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition. It was the show’s most ambitious production number, with a band featuring his old Disneyland Magic Shop pal John McEuen, 78, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who has great stories to tell in the doc. “King Tut” hit number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, launching Martin’s parallel career as a music star.

spinner image Edie Brickell and Steve Martin acknowledge the crowd during the curtain call of the Broadway musical Bright Star
Singer Edie Brickell, left, and Steve Martin on opening night of "Bright Star" at The Cort Theatre on March 24, 2016 in New York.
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

He’s a banjo wizard as well as a comedian

Martin taught himself to play banjo at 17, used the instrument in his comedy act, jammed with Jerry Garcia and, after two Grammy wins for best comedy album in the late ’70s, he picked up three more trophies strictly for his music — best country instrumental performance, best bluegrass album and best American roots song. Teamed with singer Edie Brickell, 58, he cowrote the musical Bright Star, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the 1940s, which earned five Tony nominations, including nods for best book and best score, plus a Grammy nomination for best musical theater album.

Steve Martin’s success secret: aging

Martin’s Smothers Brothers writing partner Bob Einstein told him, “You know what’s going to help you? Age.” Martin says, “He was right, because [my] act looked juvenile. That’s why it helped when my hair turned gray. You always had to think that a grown man was doing this.” That made the silliness funnier and Martin more distinctive in the days when everyone looked like a hippie and did politically topical humor, not balloon animals and surrealist patter.

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At first, he had long hair and a beard that his dad said made him look “like a simian at the San Francisco Zoo, or the San Diego Zoo, which is even worse. I don’t think it does anything for your career."

In the doc, we see Martin cut his hair and beard and switch to the famous white suit. “Instead of looking like a hippie from the ’60s, I looked like somebody new from the ’70s. Like someone from the future.”

In a scene from a Steve Martin/Martin Short stage show, Short speaks the truth: “May I say to you, young Stephen, you look fantastic. I guess that’s the benefit of looking 70 since you were 30.”

spinner image Steve Martin during the opening of The Private Collection of Steve Martin at the Bellagio Hotel Gallery of Fine Art in Los Angeles
Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage

He’s equally obsessed with art — and loneliness

He owns artwork by Picasso, Francis Bacon, Georges Seurat, Willem de Kooning, Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein and many more, and sold an Edward Hopper painting at Sotheby’s for $26.9 million. In the doc, Martin’s friend Adam Gopnik says, “Are you aware that everything you collect has in common, whatever period it’s from, a quality of plaintive isolation?”

Martin notes that his movies and plays are all about longing, even the comedies, such as Bowfinger. Tina Fey says of his imagination, “It’s a bittersweet chocolate bar. It’s Hershey’s Special Dark — it’s not milk. There is a longing at the center of pretty much everybody he shows us. There’s a melancholy, and the only person who can fix it is Martin Short.” Martin tells Seinfeld, “But that’s dissipated. I had more melancholy younger.”

Miserable for decades, he's blissfully happy in his 70s

He says he’s achieved “pihentagyú,” a Hungarian word meaning “with a relaxed brain.” “My brain is relaxed,” Martin says. “I’m not under the pressure that I put myself under. I’m not out to prove anything.” And he says his work is better — he’s amazed to have an Emmy-magnet hit show at 78.

“Usually you get married, you have a child, you work, and then your child is grown, and then you’re 60 or 70, and the children are out of the house,” he observes. “My life is completely backwards. I worked very hard early on, and then I have a happy marriage and have a fantastic child at this end. And I love it.” He tells Martin Short in the doc, “You know, as you get older, you either become your worst self or your best self. I’ve become a better driver. I’ve become nicer, kinder, more open.”

“Yeah,” Short retorts, “because for about 50 years there, you were a real p---k.”

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