In his youth Dean Martin delivered bootleg liquor, ran numbers and craps games for hoodlums, and fought as a prizefighter under the sobriquet of ‘Kid Crochet’. He worked at the Club Alabama in New York City, an establishment owned by Louis Buchalter (a.k.a. Louis Lepke), the killer who ran Murder Incorporated. When Lepke went to the electric chair, Martin sat with his family throughout the execution. .
Louis Lepke – Murder Inc.
He was ten years older than his comedy duo partner Jerry Lewis. When Sinatra first saw their act at mobster Frank Costello’s Copacabana Night Club in 1948, he was unimpressed by Dean. ‘The Dago’s lousy’, he observed, ‘but the little Jew is great’. At the Copa the duo earned $5,000 a week at a time when the average national income was just $1,500 per annum! When they took their show from the east coast to California, they did so with financial backing from gangster Mickey Cohen. In fact, most of their early bookings were in Mob establishments. Lewis initially had no idea who his employers were, but Dino knew most of them from way back. They were his friends and associates. They did favors for him and he did favors for them.
Martin & Lewis
Jerry’s over-weening ambition was in direct contrast to Dino’s lackadaisical approach to everything, including his career. Whereas Dino just wanted to enjoy himself, his partner was on an ego trip that spiraled out of control. Jerry took charge of everything, even selecting the musical arrangements for Dean’s songs. In fairness to Lewis, however, if he had not done so their extraordinarily successful rise to the top might never have happened. Martin was just too laid back to initiate anything. If the duo was approached in a bar or restaurant and offered work at some club or casino, Dean would simply jerk his thumb at Lewis and say, ‘talk to the Jew”. He had no interest in details. Only in having a good time.
Their break-up was inevitable and it was not an amicable one. By then, Lewis was virtually treating Martin as his employee, ordering him about and criticizing his lack of zeal. The final straw came when he told Dean to don a policeman’s uniform for a comedy sequence in The Delicate Delinquent. Dean had grown up in tough neighborhoods, hating policemen, and had no intention of wearing the uniform. Heated words were exchanged and Martin walked out. Once the duo had fulfilled certain contractual obligations they went their separate ways. They did not speak again for twenty years.
Lewis goes it alone
As a solo performer, one that was not in demand, Dean devised his ‘drunk’ persona for his stage act. It was a roaring success. He did not actually have a drinking problem until his later years, but to stay in character he always carried a glass with him even on the golf course. It usually contained apple cider. Oddly enough, virtually everybody he worked with agreed that, off camera, he was by far the funnier of the duo, a fact Lewis’s fragile ego could never come to terms with. In 1957, within a year of the breakup, Dean debuted solo at the Sands in Vegas. An instant success, he found himself doing six-week stints there, twice yearly, for the next thirty years. He was paid $300,000 a year for just twelve weeks work, a workload that suited him to perfection.
He was one of only a few people who could talk back to Sinatra and still retain his friendship. Very much his own man, he would often wander off to his hotel room to read comics or watch westerns on TV, rather than join Frank and his cronies in all night binges and partying. When his hit song ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’ knocked the Beatles off the number one spot on Billboard, he good-naturedly cabled Elvis Presley who had long been an admirer of his. ‘If you can’t handle the Beatles, I’ll do it for you, pally’, the cable read.
The Dean Martin Show began on TV in 1965 and remained the most successful program on the tube throughout the next decade. Initially, he didn’t want to do it, but the salary of $40,000 a week for one day’s work changed his mind. In fact, he rarely needed more than about three hours in the studio each week to fulfil his commitment. By 1967 the pay per episode had jumped to an unprecedented $285,000! Not bad for just 3-4 hours work.
The Dean Martin Show
His daughter Deana recalled the day his XKE Jaguar broke down on Sunset Boulevard ‘for the umpteenth time’. He stepped out of the vehicle, produced a derringer from his boot and shot it as he would a horse with a broken leg. It was typical of his zany brand of humor.
In 1987, his son, Dino Jr, flew his Air National Guard Phantom Jet into the side of Mt San Gorgonio near Palm Springs and was killed. He was thirty-five. By a strange coincidence, ten years earlier Dolly Sinatra, Frank’s mother, died when the airplane in which she was a passenger collided with the same mountain.
Martin never got over his son’s death. In his final months he would sit in his private booth at his favorite bar, preferably alone, listening to his albums being played in the background and drinking quietly. When asked what he was doing he would reply, ‘waiting to die’. After declining major liver and kidney surgery to prolong his life, he passed away on Christmas Day, 1995.
On December 28, 1995 the city of Las Vegas turned off the lights on the Strip for one minute as a sign of respect for the popular entertainer. The only previous time this had happened was when Sammy Davis Junior died. Dean was buried in a crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park a few yards from Marilyn Monroe. The plaque on his tomb reads: ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’.
As from the year 2002, the date June 7 has been declared a public holiday in the state of Ohio. Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio on that day in 1917. It was the first time anywhere in the United States that an entertainer had been so honored.