It isn't quite right to say that Dean Martin is forgotten, but it's certainly true that few Americans under the age of 50 have any notion of how big a star he was at the height of his career. His decade-long comedic partnership with Jerry Lewis made Martin a household name—they appeared together in 16 movies and a hit TV series—and after Martin grew tired of Lewis's self-aggrandizing behavior and broke up the act, he went on to play challenging dramatic roles in such films as Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (holding his own opposite no less a titan of the screen than John Wayne), become a hugely successful pop singer, and host a TV variety show that was comparably successful throughout most of its nine-year run.
Tom Donahue covers all these things in King of Cool, his new documentary on Turner Classic Movies. His main interest, though, is in Martin's famously opaque personality. As Nick Tosches makes clear in Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, the 1992 biography on which Donahue drew in making King of Cool, Martin kept his distance from everyone with whom he worked. When a TV producer invited him to lunch so that they could get to know one another, he replied, "Nobody gets to know me."
Most of the interviewees in King of Cool agree. Angie Dickinson, who co-starred with Martin in Rio Bravo, puts it succinctly and insightfully: "He was always quiet. When you're that quiet, people don't know you. I don't think he wanted us to know him." Not so Martin's family, however, and their shared perspective, especially that of Deana, the third of his four daughters, is one of the most illuminating things about the documentary. For Martin, it turns out, was a devoted family man, one whose uncomplicated love for his parents and children is easy to see in the home-movie footage that is on prominent display in King of Cool.
The son of a barber and a seamstress, both of them first-generation Italian émigrés, Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a coal-mining and steel-making town, in 1917. He spoke only Italian until he was six, cutting him off from the English-speaking world around him and causing him to look inward to his family as a source of security. Yet Martin had irresistible charm, and though he had no knack for book learning, he was also a natural-born singer with a warm, dark-grained baritone voice.
It appeared at first that his future lay with pop singing. Then, in 1946, he shared a nightclub bill with a 19-year-old comic who had a wildly anarchic streak and was sorely in need of a foil for his manic on-stage persona. Martin turned out to be a straight man of genius, but he brought far more than that to the table: He was a preternaturally gifted comic in his own right who was unfazed by Jerry Lewis's lunatic antics. The two men became Martin & Lewis, and though Martin continued to cut solo recordings for Capitol, among them "That's Amore," an amiable novelty with a catchy tune ("When the moon hits your eye/Like a big pizza pie/That's amore") that was his first big hit, he never appeared in public without Lewis by his side.
Martin was delighted at first by the partnership. "I think the biggest and most wonderful break in my life was meeting Jerry Lewis," he told Edward R. Murrow. Their feature films were consistent money-makers, and The Colgate Comedy Hour, their TV series, made them superstars. But he grew tired of being pushed into the background by Lewis, who hungered to write and direct his own films, so he called it quits in 1956 and started trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Though he had trouble finding his footing, Rio Bravo and Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions, a dead-serious 1958 war movie in which he shared the screen with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, revealed that he was as naturally gifted an actor as he was a singer. What came next, though, if less surprising, was ultimately more important to Martin's future: Frank Sinatra, with whom he had a casual friendship, booked him into the Sands, the Las Vegas casino where Sinatra performed regularly. Never previously having had need to develop a solo nightclub act, Martin worked with one of his TV writers and came up with the meticulously rehearsed stage persona of a hard-drinking, happy-go-lucky playboy, one to which he would stick unswervingly for the rest of his life. (In fact, the shot glass he carried around always contained apple juice.)
Now that Martin had put Lewis behind him, he was in a position to concentrate on his singing, on stage, in the recording studio, and, later, on The Dean Martin Show, the weekly TV variety show launched in 1965 in which he regularly featured himself as a vocalist. "I hate guys who sing serious," he claimed, and there was something to it. Martin loved to spoof the familiar songs he sang, and only two of his Capitol albums consist exclusively of the standards in which Sinatra specialized, Sleep Warm (conducted by Sinatra) and This Time I'm Swingin' (arranged by Nelson Riddle). Unmentioned in King of Cool, these gorgeous albums are Martin's road not taken, though the deceptive casualness with which he sang, here as elsewhere, was the mirror image of his don't-give-a-damn stage persona. "They call me the king of rock and roll," Elvis Presley once told Deana Martin, "but your dad is the King of Cool."
My favorite sequence in King of Cool is a clip from a 1967 guest appearance on The Dean Martin Show by the Mills Brothers, the much-loved black vocal group whose smooth, swinging performances were extravagantly admired by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Lester Young. Making no secret of his delight in sharing a stage with the group, on whose records (and those of Crosby, his biggest influence) he had modeled his own style, Martin joined them in a version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River," one of the group's biggest hits. While he was in no way a jazz singer, his singing was deeply informed by jazz, and he fits in with miraculous ease.
Increasingly uninterested in performing after The Dean Martin Show was canceled, Martin withdrew into his family circle, dying of lung cancer (he had always been a heavy smoker) on Christmas Day in 1995. By then his reputation as the King of Cool was in eclipse, but Mr. Donahue's documentary, deficient though it is on the musical side of his career, does a very good job of reminding us how cool Dean Martin was in every other way—and why, unlike Sinatra, he was content to keep himself to himself. He knew what he was, and liked it.
Dean Martin: King of Cool airs tonight on TCM.
Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.