Question: Mr. Televisionary, I'm confused. After seeing the remake, some friends and I rented the original Ocean's Eleven and we got to talking about Dean Martin and his career. Isn't it true that by the time he got his own TV show, he was barely trying? Basically, was he really drunk the whole time? Thanks. Paul W., Rockville, Md.
Televisionary: Well, Mr. W., according to Martin himself, who was backed up by many who knew him at the time, the whole point was to act like he was barely trying and he managed to fool a lot of people by doing just that. What you reportedly saw on his show much of the time was a glass of apple juice. Of course, the man liked his drink and wasn't shy about social imbibing, but according to those who worked with him closely enough to break through the persona and see the real man, he wasn't nearly the hardcore partier he appeared to be and he never let it get in the way of the job.
"How could a drunk get up at six o'clock in the morning, play nine holes of golf and then spend the rest of the day working on a show he's never even seen before, with music cues, tricky arrangements and all the rest of it?" an anonymous but close colleague remarked to TV Guide in 1967. "Dean is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise guy... And he hates parties. He probably doesn't go to more than three or four a year," a friend added. "Once, when some of his children were having a party with a rock and roll group providing the music, Dean couldn't sleep. Finally he called the police and said, 'I'm a neighbor of the Martins, and they're making too much noise over there.'"
Certainly Martin was a multifaceted man and performer. Born Dino Crocetti, he dropped out of school in ninth grade to work as a drugstore clerk, gas jockey, coal miner, $25-a-match boxer and blackjack dealer before moving into singing, changing his name to Dino Martini and then Dean Martin. He sang his way around the club circuit before teaming up with the younger Jerry Lewis to do comedy on stage and in movies. Their break-up was legendary ("I hated being a dumb stooge," Martin said afterward) and from there Martin teetered on the precipice of career failure after his first solo film, Ten Thousand Bedrooms, bombed. But a huge pay cut and a role as a draft dodger alongside Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in 1958's The Young Lions put him right back in it. He became so successful as a singer, actor, Vegas performer and key member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack that many questioned why he'd bother weighing himself down with a regular TV show. (From 1965-1974, The Dean Martin Show was a weekly fixture on NBC and his Dean Martin Presents musical-variety summer shows were hits for the network from 1968-73.)
"When the idea was brought to me, I thought it was so crazy that I made a farce of it," Martin said of his TV career in 1966. "Then I said I wanted to own the package 100 percent after the first showing of the series. I also said I wanted to work Sunday only, and I reserved the right not to sing on the show if I didn't want to. What I asked should have been thrown back into my face, but the network accepted it and it was lucky for me, because the show has done wonderful things for my records and it has given me a recognition that one doesn't get from movies."
It gave him a lot of money, too. By 1968, for example, he'd signed a three-year contract with the network for $34 million. The year before, he earned $750,000 plus participation for each of three films, $2 million-plus for 30 installments of The Dean Martin Show, $825,000 for his records and $150,000 for three weeks of work at the Sands. Not a bad take, and certainly not one pulled in by a slacker. Martin cared about his career, so much so that he suffered from multiple ulcers for many of his adult years.
"I been that way all my life. Let 'em think I'm a drunky," Martin, whose exotic Stutz Blackhawk bore a license plate with that word on it, told TV Guide while discussing his run of TV specials in 1976. "Aw, now, say you owned a network and you put up five-six million for a TV show. For a drunk? No way. When I work, I really work."Indeed he did. As Martin told the interviewer in his trademark faux-blitzed mode: "I am in full command of all my facilities uh, faculties."