Few individuals need less of an introduction than Dean Martin. He was known as the “king of cool” due to his charismatic nature and is one of the most iconic comedians, actors, and singers of the 20th century.
Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti on 7 June 1917 in Jefferson County, Ohio. His parents were Italian immigrants and so Dean didn’t even start learning to speak English until the age of five and because of the language barrier, he was often bullied in his younger years. As a teenager, he began to develop a love of music and took up playing the drums. Like many young people, Dean had a bit of a rebellious streak and chose to drop out of high school because he thought he was more intelligent than his teachers. After dropping out, he picked up all sorts of different jobs working variously as a blackjack dealer, a steel mill worker, and even a welterweight boxer and bootlegger during the prohibition years.
By late 1941, Dean Martin had met and married Elizabeth McDonald and the couple had four children, Craig, Claudia, Gail, and Deana. However, the marriage was an unhappy one and ended in divorce in 1949 with Dean gaining custody of the children. During this period, he was a member of several different bands but succeeded almost entirely on his personality and looks. However, he eventually managed to develop his own singing style that began to attract some attention to his vocal skills as well.
He married again as soon as his divorce from Elizabeth came through, marrying a former Orange Bowl queen from Florida called Dorothy Jean Biegger. Their marriage was much more successful and lasted 24 years producing a further three children for Dean. The first of these was also named Dean and was born on 17 November 1951. The second was Ricci born in 1953 and then Gina born in 1956. He did marry for a third time but that marriage, to Catherine Hawn only lasted three years and produced no children although Dean did adopt Catherine’s daughter Sasha.
Whilst working in New York, Dean Martin met the comedian Jerry Lewis who, although famous now, was, like Dean, a nobody back in the 40s, and the two of them performed together at Atlantic City’s 500 Club. The only problem was that their act was very poorly received, so much so that the owner told them that if their next performance was no better, then they were both fired. With the hindsight of history, we can now smile knowing how successful these two became; however, the two of them were desperate to improve their act and so they began formulating a plan in the back alley behind the club and the two of them agreed that if they were going to go out, then they were going to go out with a bang and so they decided to go for broke.
The plan meant that they would turn their show into a variety performance with different sections which included some ad-libbed comedic jokes and skits as well as music. This would serve as a template for Dean Martin’s comedic career that was to blossom in later years.
After many successful years with Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin desired creative changes that ultimately led to his partnership with Lewis coming to an end. He decided to try his hand at acting and so turned his attention towards Hollywood. His first solo film, Ten-Thousand Bedrooms in 1957 failed miserably at the box office. He was by now a well-known singer who was also known for slapstick comedy but rock ‘n’ roll was taking over the music scene pushing crooners like Dean Martin aside and it was also difficult for people to see him as a serious actor.
However, a short time after Ten Thousand Bedrooms he was offered a co-starring role along with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in the movie Young Lions in 1958. The movie did well and as a result, Dean Martin was offered more roles and so his Hollywood star began to rise and his career began to recover with successes in such films as Some Came Running in 1958, Rio Bravo in 1959 where he starred alongside John Wayne, The Sons of Katie Elder, also starring John Wayne in 1965, and even occasionally dipping back into comedy films like Who Was That Lady? which premiered in 1960 and also starred Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.
Dean Martin first starred in a movie with Frank Sinatra in 1958. It was called Some Came Running and he went on to work with Sinatra on several other movie projects including 1960’s heist movie Ocean’s 11. He and Sinatra became friends and along with Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford they formed the Rat Pack. The group not only performed on stage together but also starred in movies, including the aforementioned Ocean’s 11. The Rat Pack became very popular, especially on Sunset Strip in Las Vegas. Their shows consisted mainly of singing but also included some comedy.
The 1960s continued to be successful for Dean Martin as not only were his movie and music careers making him fabulously famous and wealthy but he also became a household name for television audiences as in 1965 he was given the chance to host his own television show. The Dean Martin Show was a variety comedy series inspired by his experiences with Jerry Lewis many years previously and more recently the Rat Pack. It was a phenomenally successful weekly show that ran for over 260 episodes until the mid-1970s and despite it having ended over 50 years ago, the Dean Martin show is still popular in reruns to this day.
Like so many famous individuals though, and despite a phenomenally successful public life within which he won many awards including Golden Globes, Dean Martin’s personal life was quite a bit less successful. He married three times and divorced three times, and his home life was often in a bit of a shambles and was not improved any by the extensive use of alcohol throughout his career.
Some have attempted to claim that Dean Martin only played the drunk as a part of his stage performance and was actually quite a moderate drinker, but these claims are disputed, and it is generally accepted that Dean Martin was indeed a heavy drinker often drinking into the early hours following live shows.
In 1987, Dean Martin’s 35-year-old son Dean was killed when the F-4 Phantom II fighter jet he was flying crashed whilst he was working for the California Air National Guard. The depression over the loss of his son was not easy for him to cope with and although he still kept a fairly busy performance schedule, many believe that after the event he was a changed man. He toured again with Frank and Sammy but his heart wasn’t really in it and he was left feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of audiences that they were playing to in various stadiums, preferring the more intimate shows of his earlier career. His last two television appearances were in 1989 and 1990 at Sammy’s 60th anniversary special and for Frank Sinatra’s 75th birthday.
As well as being a heavy drinker, Dean Martin had also been a heavy smoker and he was diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1993. He rejected the surgery that could have prolonged his life and so on Christmas Day 1995 Dean Martin died. He was 78 years old.
Dean Martin has three stars on the Hollywood walk of fame, one each for his careers in movies, television and music and he was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.