Dean Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti in 1917 in Steubenville Ohio, to Italian immigrant parents. He dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked as a croupier in semi-legal gambling operations. He was also a boxer in his teens, without much success.
He began his career in show business singing for the Ernie McKay Orchestra, and spent a year in the army in 1944. By 1946 he was established as a singer, but his career did not seem to be going anywhere.
Partnership with Jerry Lewis
Martin’s big break came when he paired up with aspiring comic Jerry Lewis in 1946. They hit on their enduring double act out of semi-desperate improvisation: Martin was the supposedly sophisticated ladies’ man, with Lewis as the zany comic foil who would constantly disrupt Martin’s attempts to sing, smooch or whatever.
Their live act became a huge success. They worked on radio and TV, but are best known for their movies. They first appeared as comic support in the film ‘My Friend Irma’ (1949), and went on to star in a series of 15 hugely successful movies. As the series wore on, Martin found himself relegated to the role of Lewis’s straight man, rather than an equal partner, and resented Lewis’s increasing desire to control the films. This led to furious arguments, and by their last film (‘Hollywood or Bust’, 1956), they were no longer talking. They performed their final live show together in June 1956, and went their separate ways.
The critical consensus was that Dean Martin would crash and burn without Lewis; he in fact went from strength to strength. Martin had maintained a second career as a recording artist, independent of Lewis, and had already recorded two of his biggest hits by the time the partnership ended: ‘That’s Amore’ and ‘Memories Are Made Of This.’ His recording career continued, and although he suffered a lull in the early 1960s, ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ (1964) brought him back to the top of the singles chart. He never tried to compete with rock and roll stars (although his vocal style allegedly inspired that of Elvis Presley), but his records remained popular until he retired in the 1980s, with a few of his tracks still considered classics.
Martin was a huge live draw, usually playing in casinos and hotels in Las Vegas. His act was a mix of humorous one-liners and snatches of his famous songs, and he continued to pull big crowds in until his retirement.
He also did surprisingly well in films. Following his break with Lewis, he established himself as a serious actor, appearing in films like ‘The Young Lions’ (1957) and ‘Some Came Running’ (1958) to some acclaim. Probably his most enduring role is as the washed up drunk gunfighter in the John Wayne classic ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959). In the 1960s Martin gradually moved away from serious roles, perhaps feeling more at home in films like the tongue-in-cheek ‘Matt Helm’ spy series.
The Rat Pack
Martin is perhaps best known today as part of ‘the Rat Pack’ a select group of Frank Sinatra’s friends which included Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford. They performed together en masse in Las Vegas – the so-called ‘Summit’ – in 1960, in a mixture of music, comedy and general coolness. The Pack made a few films together, including the original ‘Oceans 11’, but these are usually dismissed as lightweight and self-indulgent. Largely at Sinatra’s insistence, they campaigned for John F Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election. Although Martin was personally unimpressed by Kennedy, he was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement.
TV stardom and later career
‘The Dean Martin Show’ ran on NBC from 1965 to 1974, and made Martin immensely wealthy. It was a similar mixture of music and humor as his live show, but the comedy was increasingly crass. Martin’s adopted persona – that of a lazy, amiable drunkard – was becoming the reality. In the later 1970s and 1980s Martin made TV specials and a few movies, but did not feel the need to work full time. His last films were the ‘Cannonball Run’ movies, which teamed him with Sammy Davis (and Sinatra in the sequel).
Martin left a Rat Pack reunion tour partway through in 1988, much to Sinatra’s annoyance. After that his performances were confined to TV tributes to fellow Rat Packers.
Martin was married three times. His first wife, Betty McDonald, suffered from alcoholism, and they divorced in 1949. They had four children. He was married to Jeanne Biegger from 1949 to 1973, with whom he had three children. He divorced Jeanne to marry the much younger Catherine Hawn, but divorced her in 1976. He was reconciled with Jeanne following this, although they did not remarry. In 1976, Frank Sinatra engineered a surprise reunion with Jerry Lewis during a live Telethon, and the two former partners became friends, although they did not return to performing together.
Martin’s later years were dominated by his love of golf. His biographer, Nick Tosches, describes him as increasingly unwilling to engage with the world as he got older, seemingly just out of laziness. He suffered the devastating loss of his son Dean Paul, who died in a plane crash in 1987, which further distanced him from the world.
Dean Martin suffered lung cancer in his final years, and died from emphysema in 1995.