The life and times of Dean Martin were tinged with fame, fortune, worldwide celebrity and a late-in-life tragedy — and they’re concisely and lovingly documented in “Dean Martin: King of Cool,” premiering Friday (Nov. 19) at 8 p.m. on TCM.
The new documentary, directed by Tom Donahue, features a treasure trove of personal photos, home movies, archival television appearances and interviews with Martin’s friends and family, including his daughter, Deana Martin, talking about this performer who kept his inner feelings hidden behind a carefree public persona of a guy from working-class Ohio (Steubenville) who just wanted to play golf and watch television.
Martin’s image is the impetus that drives “King of Cool” as it digs deep into the arc of his childhood and teenage years as the son of Italian immigrants to discover his “Rosebud” (what made him tick) in tracking his rise to the heights of stardom with the comedy team of Martin & Lewis (Jerry Lewis is heard on audio recordings), the Sinatra Rat Pack years, “The Dean Martin Show,” etc. The answer? No one really knows. Martin died at the age of 77 in 1995 on Christmas Day — a broken man, ravaged by health problems who never recovered from the death of his son, Dean Paul Martin, a captain in the Air National Guard who was killed in 1987 piloting a plane during a routine mission.
Still, there’s something noble about the “unknowable” aspects of Martin’s life, particularly when filtered through the prism of today’s social media-obsessed celebrities who share every detail of their personal lives (does anyone really care?) Martin, to his dying day, kept his private lives, and his thoughts, close to the vest and never deviated from that pattern, despite leading a very public life on the nightclub circuit, on movie and television screens and as a recording star (including “That’s Amore” and “Everybody Loves Somebody”). That’s why he was the “King of Cool” — he marched to his own drummer, eschewed the high-profile celebrity lifestyle and could tell Frank Sinatra off without caring about the repercussions. (There were none — Sinatra idolized him along with everyone else.)
Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson in New York City in 1984.
Donahue cast a wide net in conducting sitdown interviews with celebrities (and the not-so-famous) to talk about their memories of Martin, including Bob Newhart, Angie Dickinson, George Schlatter, Frankie Avalon and (sadly) Florence Henderson and Regis Philbin, both of whom have passed away in recent years. Nothing is glossed over, including Martin’s first marriage, his much-happier second marriage to Jeanne Martin (they divorced after 24 years) and, of course, his relationship with Jerry Lewis, which soured in the late ’50s. (Martin would never speak his name, or let anyone else mention him in his presence. It was that vicious). They were estranged for nearly 20 years until their memorable 1976 “reunion” on Lewis’ annual Labor Day MDA telethon — brokered, of course, by Sinatra. There’s a clip of that, too. (It was short-lived; they spoke over the phone on occasion but, as Martin’s friends point out, it was never the same.)
TCM is airing “Dean Martin: King of Cool” as an entree into four of his movies (two apiece airing on consecutive Friday nights): “The Caddy,” “Rio Bravo,” “Ocean’s 11” and “Robin and the Seven Hoods.” All show Martin at the top of his professional game but, as you’ll see in “King of Cool,” his offscreen life was an enigmatic, unsolvable jigsaw puzzle — which is just the way he wanted it.