He was the wingman to “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and MVP of the Rat Pack.
Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were more than compadres, they were brothers who found each other at a time when Hollywood was seeping with glitz and glamor and clamored for larger than life personalities to entertain.
Ask anyone who saw the two Rat Packers perform together. They had a natural chemistry that came from a deep place. They fed off each other and spun gold every time. Dean with a perpetual twinkle in his eyes and Frank with a mischievous grin.
“To watch them on stage together was brilliant because you could see the love in their eyes, the respect for each other,” daughter Deana Martin said.
The two even had matching pinkie rings Frank had made for them, each with an emerald-cut diamond. Dean never took his off.
Friends for more than 40 years, the legendary performers who made Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs their stomping grounds were formidable on stage, often making each other laugh during comedy bits. A straight face was a rarity when those two were together. It was as if there was a perpetual inside joke between the two.
“If you were a girl, I would probably go for you. Darn it. Why aren’t you a girl?” Dean asked Frank in one of their funnier television skits.
The two sat on a park bench, Dean holding a bouquet of roses for Frank after a dating computer blindly set them up because they apparently were perfect for each other.
“You even got the sense of humor I like,” reiterated Dean — a skit likely created to play off their affinity for each other.
As the skit closes, both of them are chuckling and doing the Tango, while the live audience erupts in laughter.
“They just played off each other. They just had fun,” recalled Rancho Mirage resident Patti Gribow, a former member of the Golddiggers, who served as a backup singer and dancer for Dean Martin.
“The closest thing I can think of today is Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon. You know how they interact, they are just having a great time. And they are so talented, that’s who they remind me of. And I haven’t seen anyone in all these years that remind me of that fun chemistry they had,” she said.
By 1944, Dean was performing at the Riobamba nightclub in New York, serving as a replacement for Sinatra, whom some say he met that year. But his initiation into the Rat Pack was still years away. And well after a decade long music-comedy partnership with Jerry Lewis that ended in 1956.
As members of the Rat Pack in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Frank, Dean and the other members — Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford — enjoyed phenomenal success as entertainers.
Frank and Dean made a number of movies together, including: “Some Came Running” in 1958, “Ocean’s 11” in 1960, “Sergeants 3” in 1962, “4 for Texas” in 1963 and “Marriage on the Rocks” in 1965.
“In ‘Oceans 11,’ they seemed like teenage boys on the loose, though they were all in their mid-40s. That film was a great success and became a cult favorite, not least for the glimpse it offered of the inner workings of the Rat Pack,” recalled Deana Martin in her book about her father, “Memories are Made of This.”
Dean adored his friends and had fun running around with the Rat Pack, but when it came to partying, he was often the first to bail out — opting for some family time, sleep and an early morning game of golf over raucous ragers.
The “king of cool” was very much a family man. He had four children with first wife Elizabeth “Betty” McDonald — Craig, Claudia, Gail and Deana. Following their divorce, he acquired sole custody of all four, creating a blended family with his second wife Jeanne, with whom he had another three children — Dean Paul “Dino,” Ricci and Gina.
The Martins and Sinatras spent a lot of time together in Los Angeles and in Palm Springs, Frank and Dean buying homes in the desert. Upon his divorce from Jeanne in 1973, Dean gave her the Alexander home at 1123 Via Monte Vista in Palm Springs’ Vista Las Palmas neighborhood.
“The Sinatras were a big part of our lives and the kids from the two families were great pals,” Deana recalls in her book.
“Tina was my best friend at Marymount in Brentwood. Tina was beautiful and just like her father — tough, strong and opinionated. Tina and I hung out together all the time. At their house in Palm Springs, known as the Compound, we’d spend hours listening to her favorite Johnny Mathis albums sitting out by the pool with reflectors trying to get an even suntan.”
One of Deana’s fondest family moments, however, occurred on stage for all of America to see.
It was the Dean Martin Christmas Special in 1967 with the Sinatra Family.
The two patriarchs sang, told jokes and played off each other. The kids even got to shine, singing duets with one another — Gail Martin and Nancy Sinatra, and Dean Martin Jr. and Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Deana Martin and Tina Sinatra got to sing with their dads.
“We sang “Doe a Deer” and we danced around and it was great. It was a beautiful, beautiful, Christmas special,” she said.
The show also included an almost 10-minute medley with Dean and Frank. “You can see how much they loved each other and the fun they had,” she said.
Dean’s life changed drastically when his son “Dino” died. It was about 10 years after that infamous Christmas special.
“I know he was very close to all his children. And when (Dino) died. That changed him. Because family was everything to him. Dean was never ever the same. That was when he aged. Because when he’d go on stage, he was so debonair, so handsome, so solid, and after (Dino) died, he became a little hunched over and his zest for life changed at that point,” Gribow said.
Known during his early teenage years as “Dino,” he was the ambitious, multi-talented son who sang, acted, played professional tennis and also flew jet fighters for the California Air National Guard.
On the afternoon of March 21, 1987, Dean Paul Martin Jr., 35, a Captain in the Air National Guard, flew his F-4C Phantom fighter aircraft out of March Air Force Base on a routine training mission over desert bombing grounds. Also aboard was weapons system officer Capt. Ramon Ortiz, 39.
Their aircraft flew in the middle of a formation of three Phantoms, assigned to the 163rd Tactical Fighter Group. Ten minutes into the flight, Martin’s aircraft disappeared from radar screens in a mountainous area, shrouded by clouds.
The plane vanished from radar after the formation had been told to turn left to avoid 11,500-foot Mt. San Gorgonio, Southern California’s highest peak.
For four days, search helicopters and planes scoured the rugged mountainside, but found no sign of the missing plane. In her book, “Memories are Made of This,” Martin’s daughter, Deana Martin states, “Ronald Reagan, now the President of the United States and a family friend, rang to offer his assistance. He even sent up the military’s top spy plane to look for Dean Paul’s jet.”
Dean held out hope his son would be found alive.
Deana Martin, also recalls in her book, the conversation between Sinatra and her dad the day her brother’s plane disappeared.
“If there’s anything I can do, pal,” Sinatra said, his voice shaking. “Anything at all.”
The news was especially poignant for Sinatra whose mother, Natalie “Dolly” Sinatra of Cathedral City had been killed in a plane crash in the same vicinity while flying from Palm Springs to Las Vegas in 1977 to see her son open at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The Lear jet she was on slammed into Mt. San Gorgonio during a snowstorm. The plane was located and the bodies recovered after a three-day search.
“Dad, too numb for conversation, thanked him and put down the receiver. Those who were with him said he sat drinking scotch, lighting one cigarette from another, and staring at the telephone,” recalled Deana in her book.
Two psychics were hired. One, who touched Dean Paul Martin’s flight suit, said he was dead. Another, named Char, was recommended by pal Shirley MacLaine, the book states.
Char and Dean Jr.’s brother, Ricci, went to the air base to pour over maps of the mountainous area where the plane had disappeared. Soon after, they boarded a chartered helicopter and flew toward the area Char had identified as giving off the strongest “signals.”
As they approached the foothills known as the Little San Gorgonio Mountains, news came across the radio that Dean Jr.’s jet had been found. It was in the exact area Char the psychic had pinpointed.
“Later that night, a colonel from the base called on Dad and Jeanne (Martin Sr.’s ex-wife),” Deana said in her book. “His cap in hand, he told the assembled family that Dean Paul’s Phantom jet had disintegrated when it crashed into the side of a mountain at 550 mph during a freak blizzard. There were no survivors.”
Newspaper accounts of the crash said the jet — last appearing on radar at 9,300 feet — slammed into a granite wall and the pilot and his weapons officer “never knew what hit them.”
Dean was never the same.
“He couldn’t handle it,” his late friend, singer Jerry Vale of Palm Desert, said in a People Magazine interview. “After (Dino’s death), it seemed like he was just walking through life.”
Dean was born Dino Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio — a tough guy in a tough town — where he bootlegged liquor, dealt blackjack, worked as a speakeasy croupier and boxed. He even had his nose broken in a fight and had to have it reset.
Frank liked men who were strong and tough. He longed to be one himself, recalls Tom Dreesen, Sinatra’s opening comic in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Dean was the toughest of the three. Frank was a scrapper — a Billy Martin-type barroom scrapper. Dean Martin was a tough guy. He fought in the ring as Kid (Crochet). Dean had hands the size of a ham and he could handle himself. He didn’t say a whole lot, but he was a tough guy,” he said.
“Frank Sinatra respected Dean Martin more than any man alive, for a lot of reasons. For one, he loved him. Two, he was the brother Frank never had. Frank longed to be a tough guy, Dean was a tough guy. Dean didn’t take any crap from anybody, especially Frank,” recalled Dreesen.
“If Frank said, ‘Hey, we’re all going to stay up until dawn,’ we’d all stay up until dawn because, you know, it’s going to be fun. If Dean wanted to go to bed, Dean would go to bed. It would piss Frank (off), but he did what he wanted to do. And I think subconsciously, Frank respected that more than anything. Because he was his own man.”
Dean was not impressed with the mafia-types, unlike Frank, who enjoyed swimming with the sharks and was associated with Chicago Mafia Boss Sam Giancana and others.
On occasion, the Rat Pack performed for mobster friends of Frank’s. One show in particular was the Villa Venice Club in Chicago in 1962.
When Dean did those shows, he did them out of friendship and loyalty to Frank and no other reason, Dreesen said.
“Whenever they came to Dean, the wise guys, when they did the shows they did — Frank, Sammy and Dean — they’d come to Dean and say, ‘We want to thank you for help(ing) us out’ and Dean would say, ‘No. I did it for Frank.’ He’d point at Frank. ‘I did it for him.’”
Dean was the epitome of cool. On talk shows, he often had a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey cocktail in the other. And when he was joined by Sammy and Frank and all of them would drink and joke around, all bets were off.
“If this don’t straighten my hair, nothing will,” was the running joke Sammy Jr. would say after taking a sip of his stiff drink.
Those close to Dean, though, knew it was just apple juice — Martinelli brand apple juice to be exact — and the drunk, slurred speech was all an act.
And though he commanded attention on stage, off stage he wasn’t much for chitchat and was a loner at heart.
“Dean had a persona of that being bigger than life and being basically a womanizer, and a skirt chaser, which he was not. He was just a sweetheart of a guy,” said Gribow, who worked with Dean on and off for about 15 years in the ’70s and ’80s.
“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 and he’d get off stage and he was shy,” she said.
As a member of the Golddiggers, Gribow started working with Dean in 1973 on his show and would tour with him and Frank Sinatra.
The one thing she recalls is, he didn’t rehearse.
For his TV show, there was a stand-in for Dean, so the Golddigers would rehearse with the stand-in and when it was time to perform, he followed their lead. If there wasn’t a football game on, he might watch the rehearsal, though, from his dressing room monitor.
“His whole gig was his spontaneity. That’s what made him so great. So we would literally have to drag him around,” she said.
As proof of his instinctive ease, a photo of her and Dean sits on a table inside her Rancho Mirage home — coincidentally just half a mile from Dean Martin Drive — that shows the two sharing a laugh. The expression on Dean’s face shows the playful banter they had on stage.
“We’re laughing together because he would always go up on his lines,” she said. Essentially, he would forget his lines.
But to distract, he would hit his head or do something silly, and people loved it.
What was especially comical was that with each guest appearance, Dean was truly surprised to see them because he never knew who was coming on.
“Then the guest stars would come on like Frank or Jack Benny, or whomever, he would not know who he would sing with. He just knew he was going to perform with someone and that was just brilliance … because the interaction, just all the fun little things would happen — like what happens with Fallon,” said Gribow, again comparing Dean’s comedic performances to Jimmy Fallon.
Before each show, Dean would hug each Golddigger for good luck and if one forgot to show him some affection, he took notice.
He would also, though, alongside Frank, make sure the girls were taken care of and safe.
“We went out to a nightclub after one of the performances and we had an area roped off for us. And there’s eight of us and eight bodyguards. They took really good care of us,” she said.
She also recalls one time on tour when they ran out of tissue and Frank took care of it. She remembers him standing at the top of the staircase that led to their dressing room.
“I told them you don’t have enough Kleenex and it’s going to be taken care of right now,’ ” Gribow said, imitating Frank.
“He got all over people because we didn’t have enough Kleenex in our dressing room. He wanted everything perfect. But he was very genteel and sweet to us,” she said.
After four decades of friendship, Dean and Frank’s relationship hit a bump after a reunion tour didn’t go as anticipated.
It was 1988, a year after Dino died, and Dean had agreed to join Frank and Sammy on a 29-city national tour that was conceived in Palm Springs by Frank and Sammy. Many say Frank just wanted to get Dean out of the cloud his son’s death had created.
“My Dad didn’t want to go out. Frank wanted Dad to get out and do things. He got out there and it was too much work,” Deana Martin said.
After a handful of shows, Martin quit. There were reports of him forgetting his lyrics, slurring his lines and, in one case, flicking a lit cigarette into the audience.
Dreesen says he knows what went down the night Dean quit in Chicago.
“What really happened that night was afterward, they went to the Ambassador East, where Frank always stayed, and I stayed, and Frank was going to party all night long. He got Sammy out of bed and everybody was going downstairs and Dean said no. Frank said, ‘Come on, we’re all going downstairs,’ and Dean said, ‘No.’ Dean had it. He later that night got in his private jet and went back to Los Angeles,” he said.
Sinatra had to get Liza Minnelli to replace Dean on the tour.
“That’s when the falling out started. But they became friends again before they died,” Dreesen said. “In my opinion, at that particular time, I think Frank was wrong. Dean was up in years and he didn’t want to party. He didn’t want to hang out all night long,” Dreesen said.
According to Deana Martin, her dad finally gave in and went to the party, but questioned his decision and wished he was back at his room watching westerns. When he got home, he checked himself into the hospital for kidney issues.
“Frank was upset with that, but he understood and they became close friends again,” recalls Deana Martin.
Throughout his life, when Frank noticed Dean was pulling back or becoming withdrawn, as a friend, he wanted to help.
He didn’t like the fact that Dean and Jerry Lewis weren’t friends any longer after such a successful and vibrant relationship, so he set out to fix it.
In one such effort, to lift his spirits about six months after his divorce from third wife Catherine Hawn, Frank invited Dean to join him as his special guest on Lewis’ muscular dystrophy telethon. It was September 1976.
“Uncle Frank thought it was time for these special friends to unite. He felt that getting the two of them back together again might be just the right boost dad needed,” Deana said in her book.
Gribow was at that telethon and witnessed the “special” moment orchestrated by Frank.
“Frank, he did not like the idea that they were not friends. He just didn’t like it. And from what I understand, if Mr. Sinatra doesn’t like it, he’s going to make it right. And I say that in a good way,” Gribow said.
This gesture underscored Frank’s affection and devotion for a man who had been more than a friend and sidekick for most of his career.
Their relationship was summed up quite eloquently by Frank in a statement he shared after Dean’s passing on Christmas Day in 1995.
“Dean has been like the air I breathe, always there, always close by. He was my brother not by blood, but by choice.”
Reporters Denise Goolsby and Bruce Fessier contributed to this report.