Suave Hollywood icon Dean Martin’s effortless charm and self-deprecating wisecracks won him millions of fans.
His polished image rightfully earned him the crown King of Cool. Yet behind the supposed boozing and womanising, The People can reveal clean Dean was not all that he seemed.
One of the world’s most popular entertainers, he starred in a string of hit films with Jerry Lewis , was in Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and hosted his own TV variety show. But the relaxed crooner used humour to hide his shyness.
Dean was born Dino Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, to an Italian immigrant barber. He didn’t speak English until he was five and was then teased at school for his faltering language skills.
As the centenary of his birth approaches on June 7, it’s hard to believe he was ever anything but a born star. Yet he confessed to keeping quiet because of his English.
He said: “When Jerry Lewis and I were big, we went to parties and everybody thought I was big-headed and stuck-up, I wasn’t.
“It was because I didn’t know how to speak good English, so I used to keep my mouth shut.”
Growing up in the US during the Depression you had to be tough and adaptable to survive, and Dean was both.
He was a successful welterweight boxer, winning 24 of his 30 bouts as Kid Crotchet. Typically, later in life, he would joke he had 12 fights adding: “I won all but 11.”
Boxing was abandoned when he went to work as a croupier in an illegal casino behind a tobacco shop. He was singing with local bands and had already changed his name to Dino Martini. On the advice of a band leader he altered it again, to Dean Martin.
He made a good living singing in east coast clubs, even standing in for Sinatra in 1943. But success didn’t come overnight for Martin, who was two years into the first of his three marriages and a dad of one.
Meeting comedy actor Jerry Lewis would change that. Lewis became his screen, stage and nightclub partner for the next decade.
But one of the most successful double acts ever nearly died before it could start. The owner of Atlantic City’s 500 Club threatened to fire them after their first show in July 1946.
They pulled it out of the bag for the second show of the night by singing and cracking jokes. They became one of the most bankable partnerships in showbiz.
They only received $75,000 for the 16 films they did together but they made millions working in clubs, on radio and TV and by making records.
Lewis called his partner a comic genius but Martin said he hated their films.
He said: “They were Jerry Lewis movies. I played an idiot in every one.”
The end of their partnership in 1956 was characterised by bitterness and backstabbing. Lewis took the split hard and refused to listen to Martin’s records for years.
On the night of their break-up, Jerry had to take sleeping pills. But according to second wife Jeanne Biegger, Martin came home, had a fried-egg sandwich and watched TV as if nothing had happened.
But Martin in his inimitable style would pay his ex-partner a backhanded compliment by saying the two biggest turning points in his career were “meeting Jerry Lewis” and “leaving Jerry Lewis”.
Martin, who eventually had eight kids, would go on to sell millions of records with 40 hit singles between 1950 and 1969, including That’s Amore and Everybody Loves Somebody, which became his signature tune.
The modest crooner even kept The Beatles off the top of the charts when they broke through in the US. By then, Martin was MVP (most valuable player) in Sinatra’s Rat Pack along with Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
The gang’s chemistry shone through in their 1960 cult film Ocean’s 11, remade by George Clooney and Brad Pitt , as well as on stage in Vegas with their long-running residencies at the Sands Hotel. The tuxedo-wearing performers would sing and tell risqué jokes about Sinatra’s womanising or Martin’s drinking, and Davis Jr’s race.
Martin always had a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey cocktail in the other. But the drunk, cool-guy act was just that – the booze was actually apple juice.
Backing singer Patti Gribow said: “Dean had a larger-than-life persona but he was not a womaniser or skirt-chaser. He was just a sweetheart of a guy. On stage, he was in control and acted like he was a drunk or he was going to chase the girl. He was always mischievous, off stage he was shy.”
He had affairs but Jeanne said: “He was home every night for dinner.”
In fact, the idea Martin was a party animal who hung out with Mafia wise-guys was not true.
Comedian Tom Dreesen, who opened for Sinatra in the 80s and 90s, said: “Dean had hands the size of a ham and he could handle himself. He didn’t say a whole lot.
“Sinatra respected Dean more than any man alive. He was the brother Frank never had. Frank longed to be a tough guy, Dean was a tough guy who didn’t take any cr*p from anybody, especially Frank.
“If Frank said, ‘Hey, we’re all going to stay up until dawn,’ we’d all stay up until dawn. If Dean wanted to go to bed, Dean would go to bed. It’d p*** (off) Frank. I think subconsciously, Frank respected that he was his own man.”
By the mid 60s The Dean Martin Show earned the singer the equivalent of £2million an episode. But the star, who rubbed shoulders with the likes of actress Sophia Loren, had a clause in his three-year contract meaning he did not have to rehearse.