Actor-comedian Dean Martin, who died of respiratory failure Monday at age 78, parlayed his velvet voice, natural comedic talent and easy acting style into a unique career that made him one of the few people who reached the very top on stage, records, television and in movies. Teamed with comic Jerry Lewis, his boozy, laid-back style was the perfect foil to his crew-cutted partner's physical, antic comedy and the pair took the world by storm. In the late 1960s and '70s Martin was arguably America's most popular all-around entertainer. He recorded hundreds of singles and more than 60 albums. In 1964 at the height of Beatlemania, he astounded his teenage kids by fulfilling a promise to them that, even at age 47, he would knock the Beatles off the top of the Billboard charts -- with 'Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.' He made 55 movies, ranging from schlocky but enormously successful comedies with Lewis to a string of Westerns and Matt Helm cop-flicks, to such acclaimed dramas as 'The Young Lions,' in which he drew praise from acting legends Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Although he was almost unfailingly described by those who worked with him as a nice guy and the antithesis of the temperamental Hollywood star, he had a dark, uncommunicative side and was an enigma to virtually everyone who knew -- or pretended to know -- him. Almost nobody got past his defenses. He scorned actors and musicians who took themselves too seriously and his basic philosophy, according to biographer Nick Tosches' 'Dino,' was 'screw it.'
Born Dino Crocetti on June 7, 1917, the son of a barber, he was raised on the tough streets of one of America's most corrupt and wide- open cities of the Depression, Steubenville, Ohio. As a youth he was a dealer in mob gambling joints in the Ohio Valley of the 1930s and had a brief boxing career, but always he sang and was finally talked into going on stage at the clubs. In the late 1940s in Atlantic City, N.J., he met Lewis, a struggling young Jewish comic, and their 10-year union was a real phenomenon. They were top draws in nightclubs and movie theaters in the United States and Europe. Martin's off-screen activities were as well known as his performances. Always a prolific if not self-promoted ladies man, women including such movie queens as Lana Turner -- threw themselves at the tall, dark and handsome crooner. He was a member of the old Frank Sinatra-led 'Rat Pack' -- originally called 'The Clan' -- whose membership included Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley MacLaine, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. The 'pack' was considered the ultimate in 'cool' in its heyday, a gang of freewheeling hipsters who hobnobbed with mobsters such as the notorious Sam Giancanna and with John F. and Bobby Kennedy, neither of whom Martin respected. Fans knew little of the dark underside of the Camelot-Rat Pack myth, with its shared girlfriends and shady deals. The first Martin and Lewis movie was 'My Friend Irma' in 1949, followed by such other box-office hits as 'At War with the Army,' 'Jumping Jacks,' 'That's My Boy,' 'The Stooge' and 'The Caddy.' The duo was acknowledged box-office champions of 1952. But as their popularity grew, the millions rolled in and success mounted there was growing disaffection between the stars. Lewis wanted to work all the time. Martin chose to relax and enjoy life. Their parting was bitter and they sniped at each other in the press and did not speak for years. But when Sinatra talked Martin into surprising Lewis by showing up at one of Jerry's telethons, the hugs and grins were genuine. Lewis called and wrote, trying to set up another meeting, but Martin never called. When Martin and Lewis split up in 1961, many thought Martin would fade away because he had seemingly ridden the mercurial Lewis' coattails. But his role in their success had been underestimated, and it was he, not Lewis, who went on to bigger and better things. He caricatured himself in a weekly television variety series that was No. 1 for several of its nine years. He appeared to show up drunk, frequently staggering on camera and squinting off stage to read cue cards. The humor turned increasingly raunchy and the show was heavily criticized by groups offended by his seeming drunkenness and continual jokes about homosexuals and 'broads.' At first Martin drank only moderately and much of the boozy image was contrived. But in later years the drunken image was not an act, and it was reinforced by an addiction to the painkiller Percodan. From 1957 on Martin appeared in such movies as 'Ten Thousand Bedrooms,' 'The Young Lions,' 'Some Came Running,' 'Rio Bravo,' 'Toys in the Attic,' 'The Sons of Katie Elder,' 'Airport,' 'Showdown,' 'Mr. Ricco,' 'Cannonball Run,' and 'Bonjour Monsieur. ' In the early 1960s, the 'Rat Pack' made several movies, including 'Ocean's Eleven.' Martin's last movie was 'Cannonball Run II' in 1984. In his later years, Martin lived in one of the largest mansions in the exclusive Bel-Air area where he frequently showed movies, mostly Westerns, in his own projection room. He played high-stakes golf almost every day with his cronies. Martin, who appeared so laid-back as to be nearly comatose, did uncounted benefits and once said, 'For a man who doesn't like to work, I seem to do more of it than anybody I know.' He was the father of four children by his first wife, Betty: Craig, (born 1942), Claudia (born 1945), Gail (born 1946) and Deana (born 1948). His second wife, Jeanne, bore him three children: Dean Paul, Ricci (born 1953) and Gina (born 1957). He divorced Jeanne in 1973 after a long property dispute that cost him $6.5 million. After brief flings with models and starlets, he married model Cathleen Hawn, who was about a third his age. They were divorced in November 1976. After he left Jeanne his popularity slipped. His appeal had much to do with the fact that his image as a leering, hard-drinking n'eer-do- well-was anchored by a seemingly stable homelife. In the 1980s, Martin's emotional and physical health declined further when his son, Dean Paul Martin, known as Dino, was killed March 21, 1987, at 35 when the California Air National Guard F4-C Phantom jet he was flying crashed in the San Bernardino Mountains during a practice bombing run. His body and that of his co-pilot were found four days later. The crash scene was in the same area where four people, including Sinatra's mother, were killed in 1977. Martin, Sinatra and Davis started a 'Rat Pack' reunion tour in March 1988 that was to have covered 29 cities to give folks who had not seen the superstars in Las Vegas or Atlantic City a glimpse of the old glory. Martin left the tour in Chicago after only a week. The story given to the press was that Martin had suffered a flare-up of an old kidney problem, but biographers said the real reason was that the millionaire who had been everywhere and done everything simply looked out at the audience and wondered, 'What the hell am I doing here?' As part of the cover, Martin was flown to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, but it was a sham and a few days later, with weeks left on the scheduled tour, Martin opened as a solo in Las Vegas. He was replaced on tour by Liza Minelli. In his early 70s Martin was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and drifted further inside himself.