- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

It’s a funny thing about Steve Martin. Every time we pigeonhole him, he wriggles free with either a new persona or yesterday’s model spruced up with a fresh coat of paint.

The erstwhile “wild and crazy guy” picks up the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — a career honor — Sunday at the Kennedy Center, but even at 60 his body of work remains in flux.

The performer, who declined our interview request, regained some of his former box office magic with 2003’s “Bringing Down the House” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

These twin farces gave us the “old” Mr. Martin, the slapstick stooge whose rubbery limbs helped pave the way for pranksters like Jim Carrey.

What’s next, “The Jerk 2: Even Jerkier?”

Mr. Martin’s more recent work seemed to glide along a maturing curve, greased by the pithy novella “Shopgirl” and some respectfully received plays.

Why would he revisit his goofy side just as he was approaching the age for Social Security benefits?

Mr. Martin’s career began in near-textbook comedy fashion. He worked as a Disneyland concessionaire in his teens, juggling and tap dancing for passersby before graduating to writing for such performers as Dick Van Dyke and the Smothers Brothers.

Stand-up comedy came next, and while his fellow comics adopted fashionably countercultural stances in both dress and material, Mr. Martin played it straight — until he slipped that broken arrow prop around his head. He rode the bit and his silly “King Tut” ditty on “Saturday Night Live” to concert ticket and record sales more befitting a rock star than a stand-up comedian. He stood before us prematurely gray and as lean as a racehorse, but he moved like a man who just grabbed the business end of a live wire.

That energy coursed through “The Jerk,” the smash 1979 comedy that launched his film career. More cagey comedies would follow, like the underappreciated “The Man With Two Brains” (1983) and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), all collaborations with director Carl Reiner.

Yet, early on, his need to explore other facets of his talent gnawed at him. The 1981 musical “Pennies From Heaven” didn’t revive that long dormant genre, but neither did it embarrass the young star.

Respect wouldn’t come swiftly.

Some critics applauded his physical comedy in 1984’s “All of Me,” while others warmed to his turn as both performer and writer in “Roxanne,” his 1987 twist on “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

The late 1980s proved his film zenith, with hilarious turns in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988) and 1989’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” as slow-burning straight man to John Candy. He proved equally comic in the poignant “Parenthood” and helped steer 1991’s “Father of the Bride” to box office glory.

The mid-to-late 1990s saw Mr. Martin’s film career tumble, while his writing prospects took off. Busts like 1996’s “Sgt. Bilko” and 1999’s “The Out-of-Towners” meant more time to admire his cerebral play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and the best-selling novella “Shopgirl.” He also became an irregular contributor to the New Yorker magazine.

Sunday’s ceremony, to be broadcast at 9 p.m. Nov. 9 on WETA-TV, will find the contemplative comic surrounded by such show business chums as fellow Mark Twain Prize winners Carl Reiner and Lily Tomlin.

What we won’t see is any one Mr. Martin. Sure, we’ll likely get glimpses of the childless star looking paternal in clips from “Parenthood” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” And no doubt we’ll get a glimpse of him in that King Tut garb speak-singing his 1970s novelty hit.

Mr. Martin’s immediate future promises more big screen features. First up is “Shopgirl” — he both wrote the screenplay and stars as its aging Lothario. Next on the schedule are the obligatory “Dozen” sequel and an attempt at resurrecting the “Pink Panther” franchise early next year.

We could keep scratching our heads over his ability to leap from dumb and dumber comedy to more refined fare, but this year’s Mark Twain Prize winner may be showing us it’s best the real Steve Martin still refuses to stand up.

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