Steve Martin Reveals Why He Got Into Comedy Movies — And Why He Got Out

He got tired of the movies just when the movies got tired of him
Steve Martin Reveals Why He Got Into Comedy Movies — And Why He Got Out

It was 1980, and America’s wild and crazy guy was in a rut. 

Steve Martin was the biggest stand-up comedian in the world, maybe the biggest in history when you consider the stadiums he was selling out at a time when comics were relegated to dark clubs and seedy Vegas showrooms. But as Martin reveals in his new book, Number One is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions, the joy was waning. 

Shout Factory

Nothing sexier in comedy than a banjo and a prop arrow through the skull.

Martin likened his 1980 self to a prima ballerina, sans the tutu and toe shoes: “I know the steps; they’re the same every night. Now I have to perform them to perfection.” There was just one problem. On the nights when Martin did repeat his comedy steps exactly as planned, “the performance went up in smoke, hazily dissipating in my and the audience’s mind.”

Admittedly, life on the road can suck. Martin was lonely. The travel was a grind, making all manner of relationships a challenge. As for his act? It was meta before that was a thing, comedy about comedy, making fun of the hacks that preceded him with arrows through the head and a white suit that had escaped from a groomsman’s nightmare. But as Martin told Judd Apatow in Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, that kind of conceptual comedy eventually runs out of gas. Maybe he could reinvent himself as a different kind of stand-up, “but I couldn’t have kept doing that act, I don’t think. I didn’t want to do the same old thing, and I didn’t want to look like I was doing the same old thing.”

Luckily for Martin, by the beginning of the 1980s, he “was on a speeding train called stand-up comedy, but coming in the other direction was a speeding train called movies.”

Movies! Of course. As a kid, Martin loved nothing more than Oliver Hardy being unable to find his hat (while he was wearing it), Peter Sellers’ squishy shoes after tumbling into a fountain, Bob Hope breaking the fourth wall and directing zingers right out at young Steve in the theater audience. And Martin had just what he needed to throw his luggage on the ol’ movie train — clout, based on his number one comedy albums and popular turns on TV shows like Saturday Night Live

Number One is Walking takes the form of a graphic novel, strolling through a visual history of Martin’s comedy movies including The Jerk, All of Me, The Three Amigos, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood and even lesser lights like The Pink Panther in Paris. (That movie's producers let him bring his dog to the Ritz Hotel.) There are a number of fun anecdotes sprinkled throughout, including a story about the book’s title.

“On a movie call sheet, the actors are listed numerically,” Cartoon Steve explains to a group of woodland creatures. (It’s comic-strip style storytelling — just go with it.) “The lead is number one, the second lead is number two, etc.” While making The Jerk, Martin was kinda, sorta embarrassed when the assistant director would follow him to the set, whispering into his walkie-talking that “Number One is walking.”

Over time, Martin got used to it. On movies like Bowfinger, Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House, he’d hear his customary call, “Number One is walking.” So it was a little bit of a shock when he made It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. 

Celadon Books

It’s enough to take a guy down a peg.

But life as one of the world’s biggest comedy movie stars definitely has its perks. Martin’s new book is peppered with stories about run-ins with super-celebs, including Peter Sellers, Fred Astaire, Robin Williams, Jackie Onassis and Gene Kelly. When Martin shook hands with aging comedy superstar Milton Berle after honoring Kelly at an event, Uncle Miltie told him, “I hated your bit and let go of my hand.” Martin is pretty sure Berle was joking. Pretty sure.

The comedy movie days lasted for decades. But then a few years ago, Martin found himself in the same situation that he was in back in 1980. “I lost interest in the movies at exactly the same time the movies lost interest in me,” he writes. There were lots of reasons. The harsh reviews. The whims of the box office. The time away from family and friends. But in the end, the reason Martin left comedy movies was essentially the same reason he left stand-up: “Eventually, you run out of gas.”

So about 15 years ago, Martin transitioned into lower-profile pursuits. He renewed his interest in the banjo, occasionally venturing out on the road with the Steep Canyon Rangers. (Martin’s tip to aspiring banjo players who want a bigger audience? “Be very creative and already be famous.”)

He wrote Broadway plays. He went on a three-continent tour with his Three Amigos buddy Martin Short. That success led to teaming up with Selena Gomez on Only Murders in the Building. He’s already making noise that he’s done with acting altogether after that show wraps, but as he’s proven in the past, he may only be moving on to his next creative endeavor.

Still, he professes to be done with movies. He ends the cinematic portion of his new book with a story he heard from old pal Charles Grodin about hiring Elizabeth Taylor’s publicist. Grodin assumed no one could be better than Taylor’s guy — until he learned she’d hired him to keep her name out of the papers.

That was Martin’s approach in recent years. “I called my agent and said, ‘Can you not get me any movies?’”

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