He and Jerry Lewis formed the immensely popular comedy duo Martin and Lewis with Martin serving as the straight man to Lewis's slapstick, and afterwards he was a member of the "Rat Pack", and a star in concert stages, nightclubs, recordings, motion pictures, and television. He was the host of the television variety program The Dean Martin Show and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.
Martin's relaxed, warbling crooning voice earned him dozens of hit singles, including his signature songs "Memories Are Made of This," "That's Amore," "Everybody Loves Somebody," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," "Sway," "Volare," and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?"
Martin was born on June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, to an Italian father, Gaetano Alfonso Crocetti (1894–1967), and an Italian-American mother, Angela Crocetti (née Barra; 1899–1966). They were married in 1914. His father, who was a barber, was originally from Montesilvano, in Abruzzo, and his maternal grandparents' origins are believed to be also from Abruzzo although it is not clearly known. Martin had an older brother named William Alfonso Crocetti (1916-1968). Martin's first language was an Abruzzese dialect of Italian, and he did not speak English until he started school at the age of five. He attended Grant Elementary School in Steubenville where he was bullied for his broken English. He later took up the drums as a hobby as a teenager. Martin then dropped out of Steubenville High School in the 10th grade because he thought he was smarter than his teachers. He bootlegged liquor, served as a speakeasy croupier, was a blackjack dealer, worked in a steel mill and boxed as a welterweight.
At 15 he was a boxer who billed himself as "Kid Crochet". His prizefighting earned him a broken nose (later straightened), a scarred lip, many broken knuckles (a result of not being able to afford tape used to wrap boxers' hands), and a bruised body. Of his 12 bouts, he said: "I won all but 11." For a time, he shared a New York City apartment with Sonny King, who, like Martin, was starting in show business and had little money. It is said that Martin and King held bare-knuckle matches in their apartment, fighting until one was knocked out; people paid to watch. Martin knocked out King in the first round of an amateur boxing match. Martin gave up boxing to work as a roulette stickman and croupier in an illegal casino behind a tobacco shop, where he had started as a stock boy. At the same time he sang with local bands, calling himself "Dino Martini" (after the Metropolitan Opera tenor, Nino Martini). He got his break working for the Ernie McKay Orchestra. He sang in a crooning style influenced by Harry Mills (of the Mills Brothers), among others. In the early 1940s, he started singing for bandleader Sammy Watkins, who suggested he change his name to Dean Martin.
In October 1941 Martin married Elizabeth "Betty" Anne McDonald. They had four children before the marriage ended in 1949. Martin worked for various bands throughout the early 1940s, mostly on looks and personality until he developed his own singing style. Martin flopped at the Riobamba, a nightclub in New York, when he followed Frank Sinatra in 1943, but it was the setting for their meeting. Martin was drafted into the United States Army in 1944 during World War II, serving a year in Akron, Ohio. He was reclassified as 4-F and discharged, possibly because of a double hernia; Jerry Lewis referred to the surgery Martin needed for this in his autobiography). By 1946, Martin was doing well, but he was little more than an East Coast nightclub singer with a common style, similar to that of Bing Crosby.
Martin attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, but a Hollywood contract was not forthcoming. He met comic Jerry Lewis at the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both were performing. Martin and Lewis formed a fast friendship which led to their participation in each other's acts and the formation of a music-comedy team. Martin and Lewis's debut together occurred at Atlantic City's 500 Club on July 24, 1946, and they were not well received. The owner, Skinny D'Amato, warned them that if they did not come up with a better act for their second show that night, they would be fired. Huddling in the alley behind the club, Lewis and Martin agreed to "go for broke", they divided their act between songs, skits, and ad-libbed material. Martin sang and Lewis dressed as a busboy, dropping plates and making a shambles of Martin's performance and the club's decorum until Lewis was chased from the room as Martin pelted him with breadrolls.
They did slapstick, reeled off old vaudeville jokes, and did whatever else popped into their heads. The audience laughed. This success led to a series of well-paying engagements on the Eastern seaboard, culminating in a run at New York's Copacabana. The act consisted of Lewis interrupting and heckling Martin while he was trying to sing, with the two ultimately chasing each other around the stage. The secret, both said, is that they ignored the audience and played to each other. The team made its TV debut on the first broadcast of CBS-TV network's The Ed Sullivan Show (then called "The Toast Of The Town") on June 20, 1948, with composers Rodgers and Hammerstein also appearing. Hoping to improve their act, the two hired young comedy writers Norman Lear and Ed Simmons to write their bits. With the assistance of both Lear and Simmons, the two would take their act beyond nightclubs.
A radio series began in 1949, the year Martin and Lewis signed with Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis as comedy relief for the movie My Friend Irma. Their agent, Abby Greshler, negotiated one of Hollywood's best deals: although they received only $75,000 between them for their films with Wallis, Martin and Lewis were free to do one outside film a year, which they would co-produce through their own York Productions.
They also controlled their club, record, radio and television appearances, and through these they earned millions of dollars. In Dean & Me, Lewis calls Martin one of the great comic geniuses of all time. They were friends as well, Lewis acting as best man when Martin remarried in 1949. But harsh comments from critics, as well as frustration with the similarity of Martin and Lewis movies, which producer Hal Wallis refused to change, led to Martin's dissatisfaction. He put less enthusiasm into the work, leading to escalating arguments with Lewis. Martin told his partner he was "nothing to me but a dollar sign". The act broke up in 1956, 10 years to the day from the first teaming. Martin's first solo film, Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), was a box office failure. He was still popular as a singer, but with rock and roll to the fore, the era of the pop crooner was waning.
Martin wanted to become a dramatic actor, known for more than slapstick comedy films. Though offered a fraction of his former salary to co-star in a war drama, The Young Lions (1958), his part would be with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Tony Randall already had the part, but talent agency MCA realized that with this film, Martin would become a triple threat: they could make money from his work in night clubs, films and records. Martin replaced Randall and the film turned out to be the beginning of Martin's comeback. Martin starred alongside Frank Sinatra for the first time in the Vincente Minnelli drama, Some Came Running (1958). By the mid-1960s, Martin was a movie, recording, television and nightclub star. Martin was acclaimed as Dude in Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks and also starring John Wayne and singer Ricky Nelson. He would team again with Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), cast as brothers. In 1960, Martin was cast in the film version of the Judy Holliday stage musical comedy Bells Are Ringing. He won a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the 1960 film comedy Who Was That Lady? but continued to seek dramatic roles, portraying a Southern politician in 1961's Ada and starring in 1963's screen adaptation of an intense stage drama, Toys in the Attic, opposite Geraldine Page, as well as in 1970's drama Airport, a huge box-office success.
He and Sinatra teamed up for several more movies, the crime caper Ocean's 11, the musical Robin and the 7 Hoods and the western comedies Sergeants 3 and 4 for Texas, often with their Rat Pack pals such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, as well as a romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks. Martin also co-starred with Shirley MacLaine in a number of films, including Some Came Running, Artists and Models, Career, All in a Night's Work and What a Way to Go! He played a satiric variation of his own womanizing persona as Las Vegas singer "Dino" in Billy Wilder's comedy Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Kim Novak, and he poked fun at his image in films such as the Matt Helm spy spoofs of the 1960s, in which he was a co-producer. In the third Matt Helm film The Ambushers (1967), Helm, about to be executed, receives a last cigarette and tells the provider, "I'll remember you from the great beyond," continuing sotto voce, "somewhere around Steubenville, I hope."
As a singer, Martin copied the styles of Harry Mills (of the Mills Brothers), Bing Crosby, and Perry Como until he developed his own and could hold his own in duets with Sinatra and Crosby. Like Sinatra, he could not read music, but he recorded more than 100 albums and 600 songs. His signature tune, "Everybody Loves Somebody", knocked the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" off number one in the United States in 1964. This was followed by "The Door is Still Open to My Heart", which reached number six that year. Elvis Presley was said to have been influenced by Martin, and patterned "Love Me Tender" after his style. Martin, like Elvis, was influenced by country music. By 1965, some of Martin's albums, such as Dean "Tex" Martin Rides Again, Houston, Welcome to My World and Gentle on My Mind, were composed of country and western songs by artists such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Martin hosted country performers on his TV show and was named "Man Of the Year" by the Country Music Association in 1966. The final album of his recording career was 1983's The Nashville Sessions.
But the image of Martin as a Vegas entertainer in a tuxedo has been an enduring one. "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?", a song Martin performed in Ocean's 11, did not become a hit at the time, but has enjoyed a revival in the media and pop culture. For three decades, Martin was among the most popular acts in Las Vegas. Martin sang and was one of the smoothest comics in the business, benefiting from the decade of comedy with Lewis. Martin's daughter, Gail, also sang in Vegas and on many TV shows including his, co-hosting his summer replacement series on NBC. Daughter Deana Martin continues to perform, as did youngest son Ricci Martin until his death in August 2016. Eldest son Craig was a producer on Martin's television show and daughter Claudia was an actress in films such as For Those Who Think Young. Though often thought of as a ladies' man, Martin spent a lot of time with his family; as second wife Jeanne put it, prior to the couple's divorce, "He was home every night for dinner."
As Martin's solo career grew, he and Frank Sinatra became friends. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin and Sinatra, along with friends Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr. formed the Rat Pack, so-called after an earlier group of social friends, the Holmby Hills Rat Pack centered on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, of which Sinatra had been a member (The Martin-Sinatra-Davis-Lawford-Bishop group referred to themselves as "The Summit" or "The Clan" and never as "The Rat Pack", although this has remained their identity in popular imagination). The men made films together, formed part of the Hollywood social scene, and were politically influential (through Lawford's marriage to Patricia Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy).
The Rat Pack was legendary for its Las Vegas Strip performances. For example, the marquee at the Sands Hotel might read DEAN MARTIN—MAYBE FRANK—MAYBE SAMMY. Their appearances were valuable because the city would flood with wealthy gamblers. Their act (always in tuxedo) consisted of each singing individual numbers, duets and trios, along with seemingly improvised slapstick and chatter. In the socially charged 1960s, their jokes revolved around adult themes, such as Sinatra's womanizing and Martin's drinking, as well as Davis's race and religion. Sinatra and Martin supported the civil rights movement and refused to perform in clubs that would not allow African-American or Jewish performers. Posthumously, the Rat Pack has experienced a popular revival, inspiring the George Clooney/Brad Pitt "Ocean's Trilogy."
In 1965, Martin launched his weekly NBC comedy-variety series, The Dean Martin Show, which ran for 264 episodes until 1974. He won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Television Series Musical or Comedy in 1966 and was nominated again the following three years.
The show exploited his image as a carefree boozer. Martin capitalized on his laid-back persona of the half-drunk crooner, hitting on women with remarks that would get anyone else slapped, and making snappy if slurred remarks about fellow celebrities during his roasts. During an interview on the British TV documentary Wine, Women and Song, aired in 1983, he stated, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that he had someone record them on cassette tape so he could listen to them. His TV show was a success. The show's loose format featured quick-witted improvisation from Martin and his weekly guests. This prompted a battle between Martin and NBC censors, who insisted on more scrutiny of the content. The show was often in the Top Ten. Martin, appreciative of the show's producer, his friend Greg Garrison, made a handshake deal giving Garrison, a pioneer TV producer in the 1950s, 50% of the show. However, the validity of that ownership is the subject of a lawsuit brought by NBCUniversal.
Despite Martin's reputation as a drinker – perpetuated via his vanity license plate "DRUNKY" – he masked his self-discipline. He was often the first to call it a night, and when not on tour or on a film location, liked to go home to see his wife and children. He borrowed the lovable-drunk shtick from Joe E. Lewis, but his convincing portrayals of heavy boozers in Some Came Running and Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo led to unsubstantiated claims of alcoholism. Martin starred in and co-produced four Matt Helm superspy comedy adventures during this time, as well as a number of Westerns. By the early 1970s, The Dean Martin Show was still earning solid ratings, and although he was no longer a Top 40 hitmaker, his record albums continued to sell. He found a way to make his passion for golf profitable by offering a signature line golf balls and the Dean Martin Tucson Open was an event on golf's PGA Tour from 1972–75. At his death, Martin was reportedly the single largest minority shareholder of RCA stock.
Now comfortable financially, Martin began reducing his schedule. The final (1973–74) season of his variety show would be retooled into one of celebrity roasts, requiring less involvement. After the show's cancellation, NBC continued to air The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast format in a series of TV specials through 1984. In those 11 years, Martin and his panel of pals made fun of stars in this order: Ronald Reagan, Hugh Hefner, Ed McMahon, William Conrad, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, Barry Goldwater, Johnny Carson, Wilt Chamberlain, Hubert Humphrey, Carroll O'Connor, Monty Hall, Jack Klugman & Tony Randall, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Leo Durocher, Truman Capote, Don Rickles, Ralph Nader, Jack Benny, Redd Foxx, Bobby Riggs, George Washington, Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, Hank Aaron, Joe Namath, Bob Hope, Telly Savalas, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Landon, Evel Knievel, Valerie Harper, Muhammad Ali, Dean Martin himself, Dennis Weaver, Joe Garagiola, Danny Thomas, Angie Dickinson, Gabe Kaplan, Ted Knight, Peter Marshall, Dan Haggerty, Frank Sinatra, Jack Klugman, Jimmy Stewart, George Burns, Betty White, Suzanne Somers, Joan Collins, Kent McCord, Martin Milner, and Mr. T.
For nearly a decade, Martin had recorded as many as four albums a year for Reprise Records. That stopped in November 1974, when Martin recorded his final Reprise album, Once in a While, which was released in 1978. His last recordings were for Warner Brothers Records. The Nashville Sessions was released in 1983, from which he had a hit with "(I Think That I Just Wrote) My First Country Song", which was recorded with Conway Twitty and made a respectable showing on the country charts. A follow-up single, "L.A. Is My Home"/"Drinking Champagne", came in 1985.
The 1975 film drama Mr. Ricco marked Martin's final starring role, in which he played a criminal defense lawyer. He played a featured role in the 1981 comedy The Cannonball Run and its sequel, both starring Burt Reynolds. In 1972, he filed for divorce from his second wife, Jeanne. A week later, his business partnership with the Riviera hotel in Las Vegas dissolved amid reports of the casino's refusal to agree to Martin's request to perform only once a night. He was taken by the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, where he was the featured performer on the hotel's opening night December 23, 1973, and also signed a three-picture deal with MGM Studios. Less than a month after his second marriage had dissolved, Martin married 26-year-old Catherine Hawn, on April 25, 1973. Hawn had been the receptionist at the chic Gene Shacrove hair salon in Beverly Hills. They divorced November 10, 1976. He was also briefly engaged to Gail Renshaw, Miss World–U.S.A. 1969.
Eventually, Martin reconciled with Jeanne, though they never remarried. He also made a public reconciliation with Lewis on the Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon in 1976. Frank Sinatra shocked Lewis by bringing Martin out on stage. As Martin and Lewis embraced, the audience cheered and the phones lit up, resulting in one of the telethon's most profitable years. Lewis reported the event was one of the three most memorable of his life. Lewis quipped, "So, you working?" Martin, playing drunk, replied that he was "at the Meggum" (meaning the MGM Grand). This, with the death of Martin's son Dean Paul Martin more than a decade later, helped bring the two men together. They maintained a quiet friendship, but only performed again once, in 1989, on Martin's 72nd birthday.
Martin was married three times. With his first wife, Elizabeth Anne "Betty" McDonald (died 1989), whom he married in 1941, he had four children: Craig Martin (born 1942); Claudia Martin (March 16, 1944 – 2001 of breast cancer); Gail Martin (born 1945); and Deana Martin (born 1948). Following Martin's divorce from Betty, in 1949, he gained custody of their children, and she lived out her life in quiet obscurity in San Francisco. Martin's second wife was Jeanne Biegger (died August 24, 2016), a former Orange Bowl queen from Coral Gables, Florida. Their marriage lasted 24 years (1949–1973) and produced three children: Dean Paul Martin (November 17, 1951 – March 21, 1987, jet-fighter crash), Ricci Martin (September 20, 1953 – August 3, 2016) and Gina Martin (born 1956). Her marriage made Martin the father-in-law of the Beach Boys' Carl Wilson. Figure skater Dorothy Hamill and actress Olivia Hussey were his daughters-in-law during their marriages to Dean Paul Martin. Martin's third marriage, to Catherine Hawn, lasted three years. Martin initiated the divorce proceedings. Martin adopted Hawn's daughter, Sasha. Martin's uncle was Leonard Barr, who appeared in several of his shows. In the 1960s and early 1970s, he lived at 363 Copa De Oro Road in Bel Air, Los Angeles, before selling it to Tom Jones for $500,000 in June 1976.
Martin returned to films briefly with appearances in the star-laden, critically panned but commercially successful The Cannonball Run and its sequel Cannonball Run II. He also had a minor hit single with "Since I Met You Baby" and made his first music video, which appeared on MTV. The video was created by Martin's youngest son, Ricci. On March 21, 1987, Martin's son, actor Dean Paul Martin (formerly Dino of the 1960s "teeny-bopper" rock group Dino, Desi & Billy), died when his F-4 Phantom II jet fighter crashed while flying with the California Air National Guard. Later, a tour with Davis and Sinatra in 1988 sputtered. Martin, who responded best to a club audience, felt lost in the huge stadiums they were performing in at Sinatra's insistence, and he was not interested in drinking until dawn after performances. His final Vegas shows were at Bally's Hotel in 1990. There he had his final reunion with Jerry Lewis on his 72nd birthday. Martin's last two TV appearances involved tributes to his former Rat Pack members. On December 8, 1989, he joined stars in Sammy Davis Jr's 60th anniversary celebration, which aired a few weeks before Davis died from throat cancer. In December 1990, he congratulated Sinatra on his 75th birthday special.
Martin, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in September 1993, and was told that he would require surgery to prolong his life, but he rejected it. He retired from public life in early 1995 and died of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema at his Beverly Hills home on Christmas Day, 1995 at the age of 78. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor.
Martin's body was interred at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. The crypt features the epitaph "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime", the title of his signature song.
In 1996, Ohio Route 7 through Steubenville was rededicated as Dean Martin Boulevard. Road signs bearing an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Martin's likeness designate the stretch with a historical marker bearing a small picture and brief biography in the Gazebo Park at Route 7 and North Fourth Street. An annual Dean Martin Festival celebration is held in Steubenville. Impersonators, friends and family, and entertainers, many of Italian ancestry, appear. In 2005, Clark County, Nevada, renamed a portion of Industrial Road as Dean Martin Drive. A similarly named street was dedicated in 2008 in Rancho Mirage, California. Martin's family was presented a gold record in 2004 for Dino: The Essential Dean Martin, his fastest-selling album, which also hit the iTunes Top 10, and in 2006 it was certified "Platinum". For the week ending December 23, 2006, the Dean Martin and Martina McBride duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" reached No. 7 on the R&R AC chart. It also went to No. 36 on the R&R Country chart – the last time Martin had a song this high in the charts was in 1965, with the song "I Will," which reached No. 10 on the Pop chart.
An album of duets, Forever Cool, was released by Capitol/EMI in 2007. It features Martin's voice with Kevin Spacey, Shelby Lynne, Joss Stone, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Robbie Williams, McBride and others. His footprints were immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1964. Martin has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one at 6519 Hollywood Boulevard for movies; the second at 1617 Vine for recordings; and a third at 6651 Hollywood Boulevard for television. In February 2009, Martin was honored with a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Four of his surviving children, Gail, Deana, Ricci and Gina accepted it on his behalf. In 2010, Martin received a posthumous star on the Italian Walk of Fame in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
A number of Martin songs have been featured across popular culture for decades. Hits such as "Ain't That a Kick in the Head", "Sway", "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You", "That's Amore", and Martin's signature song "Everybody Loves Somebody" have been in films (such as the Oscar-winning Logorama, A Bronx Tale, Casino, Goodfellas, Payback, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Sexy Beast, Moonstruck, Vegas Vacation, Swingers and Return to Me), television series (such as American Dad!, Friends, The Sopranos, House MD and Samurai Jack), video games (such as The Godfather: The Game, The Godfather II, Fallout: New Vegas and Mafia II), and fashion shows (such as the 2008 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show).
Danny Gans portrayed Martin in the 1992 CBS miniseries Sinatra. Martin was portrayed by Joe Mantegna in the 1998 HBO movie about Sinatra and Martin titled The Rat Pack. Mantegna was nominated for both an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for the role. British actor Jeremy Northam portrayed the entertainer in the 2002 made-for-TV movie Martin and Lewis, alongside Will & Grace's Sean Hayes as Jerry Lewis. Martin is the subject of Dean Martin's Wild Party and Dean Martin's Vegas Shindig, a pair of video slot machines found in many casinos. The games feature songs sung by Martin during the bonus feature and the count-up of a player's winnings. A compilation album called Amore! debuted at Number One on Billboard magazine's Top Pop Catalog Albums chart in its February 21, 2009, issue.
In 1998, The MTV animated show Celebrity Deathmatch had a clay-animated fight to the death between Martin and comedian Jerry Lewis. Martin wins by whacking Jerry out of the ring. The Rat Pack: Live from Las Vegas has been a successful tribute show, featuring Martin impersonators, on stage in Europe and North America since 2000. The walk-up song for Francisco Cervelli, a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, is the Dean Martin tune "That's Amore". In DePatie-Freleng's animated theatrical cartoon series The Ant and the Aardvark, the Ant's voice was performed by John Byner as an imitation of Martin.