The king of cool, as he was often called, is one of the most enduring television performers of the 20th century. He rose to fame performing comedy routines in nightclubs with Jerry Lewis, and eventually, they moved up to radio shows, television and films.
After his time working with Lewis came to an end, Martin pursued a solo career as an actor and singer. Some of his most popular songs are “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” “Memories Are Made of This,” “That’s Amore,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” and “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You.” Martin is a well-known member of the Rat Pack, an informal group of entertainers that also featured Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
In 1965, Martin had his own television program titled “The Dean Martin Show,” which aired until 1974. The series was a variety-comedy show on NBC that featured solo performances from Martin and other musical acts, as well as various comedic bits. From 1974 to 1984, he was the host and roastmaster of “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast,” a series that poked fun at actors, politicians, and other celebrities.
Outside of his legendary career and his time with the Rat Pack, Martin was a family man. He was married three times in his life and had eight children. One of his daughters, Deanna, has opened up about her father’s life and settled some old rumors. Keep reading to learn more about Martin’s upbringing, career, some lesser-known details about his personal life, and what he was like with his children.
Dean Martin (circa 1965), (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Martin was born on June 7, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio. His parents were Italian, and his father, Gaetano Alfonso Crocetti, was from Montesilvano, Abruzzo. Martin’s mother was Angela Crocetti, an Italian-American. Martin grew up speaking Italian at home with his family and didn’t learn to speak English until the age of five. He attended Grant Elementary School in Steubenville and said he was bullied for his limited English.
The star dropped out of Steubenville High School in the tenth grade, claiming he was smarter than his teachers. Before becoming a performer, Martin worked in a steel mill, at a speakeasy as a blackjack dealer, and was a welterweight boxer. He began competitive boxing when he was 15, under the name “Kid Crochet.” It is said that he fought in 36 fights total and won 25 of them. It was while boxing that he broke his nose, which is something he had surgically fixed in his late 20s.
After his short-term boxing career was over, Martin went to work at an illegal casino as a roulette stickman and croupier. During this time, he was also singing with local bands with the stage name “Dino Martini,” which was inspired by the Metropolitan Opera tenor, Nino Martini. In 1940 he began singing for Cleveland bandleader Sammy Watkins, who it is said was the one that suggested he change his name to Dean Martin.
In the fall of 1943, Martin began performing in New York City. It was not long after this that he was drafted into the military during World War II. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, he was discharged with a hernia after 14 months.
While performing in New York City, Martin met comedian Jerry Lewis at the Glass Hat Club one night while they were both there to perform. They really enjoyed each other’s work. The two became fast friends, and they eventually formed the musical-comedy duo, Martin and Lewis. The act worked together for nearly ten years, separating in 1956.
Despite deciding to break up, the two men remained friends. Martin’s daughter, Deana, told Fox News in 2017: “They kept in touch with each other. Jerry just loved my dad and my dad loved Jerry. I think Jerry would have liked to have been closer after that but my dad was … if he wasn’t working, he was playing golf.”
Even though Martin was a talented singer, he did not have any technical training. When his daughter Deana wanted to take vocal lessons, her father was not for it. Deana recalled him saying,”‘ Why? Do you want to sound like everybody else in the choir?’ And I thought, ‘That was odd.’ And he said, ‘First of all, get your own, find your own voice. See the way you want to sing. And then if you want to get better at it of course, then you can get a voice coach, but right now, just sing from your heart.’”
His lack of training did not stop the singer from joining the famous Rat Pack. Martin’s vocal talent was built on instinct instead of intellect. Deana told Fox, “Frank Sinatra was really the one who turned the light on for me,” she recalled. “I said to Frank, ‘How do you do it? He said, ‘Oh, by taking a big breath, I push from the diaphragm, and I can tell before a note comes out if I’m going to be on pitch or not.’ I said, ‘Really, does my dad do that?’ He said, ‘No, he has no idea what he’s doing. He just does it.’”
Martin was always a hard worker and passed those values down to his children. Deana recalled him saying, “If you’re going to get a job, be there early, be on time. Hit your mark, know all of your lyrics and sing from your heart.”
Old Fashioned Values
Martin married Elizabeth Anne “Betty” McDonald in 1941 when he still lived in Ohio. The couple had four children together, Craig, Claudia, Gail, and Deana. They decided to divorce in 1949, and Martin was the one to gain custody of the children. He was an incredibly loving and attentive father who could be a little strict at times. Deana said in her interview with Fox News:
“He was an Italian father,” she said with a laugh. “He would go, ‘These are the rules. You make your bed in the morning, you clean up, you come straight home after school, you do your homework, you’re on time for dinner. And this is it. If you don’t want to live by those rules, there’s the door.’ I would go, ‘Dad, I’m 9!’ He’d say, ‘Come on! Rules are rules!’ We never wanted to do anything to disappoint him.”
Martin passed down good values to his children, teaching them to treat everyone the same. “And my dad could be with the queen of England or with the guy who drove the vegetable truck. He was as happy to be with either one and everybody loved him. And that’s how he taught us to be, is just to respect everybody and just be down to earth… Just be kind,” explained Deana.
There are many misconceptions about Martin’s behavior, but in reality, he prioritized his family above anything. “He would be home for dinner every night,” Deana said to the Los Angeles Times. “He would come home, and he and mom would have their one cocktail at the bar. He was kind. He was so different from what everybody thought he was. There was no one who could do Dean Martin better than Dean Martin.”
Deana also said there was a lot that people did not know about her father. “He didn’t drink that much. It’s funny… after my shows… people come up and they say, ‘How could your dad do so much work when he was always drinking?’” she explained to Fox News. “My jaw drops. Because that was his gimmick! I guess he really was a good actor because people always thought that was true… I get a chill when people say that… I still have to clear it up.” In fact, Martin actually drank apple juice on stage!
The partying and drinking were part of a persona that was thought up by professionals. “When he started to redo his nightclub act, he started at the Sands Hotel and had some writers helping him,” she said to the LA Times. “It was like Jack Benny who had the violin thing and made fun about being cheap. Dad was so handsome, so debonair. They just thought, ‘We’ll put a drink in his hand and a cigarette.’ Every man wanted to be him, and every woman wanted to be with him.” Martin had the world convinced with his bad-boy act, but in reality, he was a family man.
Martin always prioritized going home to his family whenever he was in town. His traditional family values are not the only thing Deana has revealed about her father.
When Fox asked her for some lesser-known facts about her father, Deana said, “They probably don’t know he was claustrophobic. He never wanted to go in elevators. So when he would go to hotels, whether it was the MGM Grand or whatever, his suite always had to be on a low floor so he (could) just walk up the stairs.” It is said that Martin referred to elevators as “little coffins” and avoided them at all costs.
Golf was also a high priority for Martin, at least later in his life. “Many people know this one, but he loved to play golf. He would go to bed early just so he can get up early and play golf. In fact, he told me, ‘Deana, the reason why I work so hard is so I can play with all you kids and play golf.’ He was a scratch golfer at one point,” Deana said.
Martin was the kind of man that everyone looked up to, even his peers. Deana shared, “Elvis (Presley) idolized my dad. I remembered meeting Elvis and he was the one who told me my dad was the king of cool. I’ll never forget that.”
Martin’s daughter told another story about her father meeting famous celebrities: “My dad went to a party and Paul McCartney was there,” she said. “He walked up and said, ‘Hi John, it’s nice to meet you.’ Paul said, ‘I’m not John, I’m Paul McCartney.’ Dad responded, ‘I call everybody John.’ And he came back home and told me this. I was like, ‘Dad, you’re embarrassing me!’”
Dean Martin (circa 1967), (Martin Mills/Getty Images)
Martin’s daughter has opened up about following in her father’s footsteps with her own career as an actress and singer. In an interview with Fox News, she said Martin was always supportive of her desire to perform, and any advice he gave was meant to be constructive rather than critical. “It really never goes through my mind that I would be compared to him. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, he was a man, so maybe that kind of helped me a little bit,” Deana said.
She continued, “I’ve always worked very, very hard. I’ve learned my craft. I’ve been doing it for a long, long time. And so I’m pretty secure in what I can do and I work my hardest and I think I’ve had a lot of success and I’m happy with that, and content with all of that. So I don’t even think about being compared to him.”
The End of an Era
Martin passed away from acute respiratory failure as a result of emphysema on Christmas day in 1995. Deana ended her interview with Fox saying, “I’m always thinking about dad, what he went through in his life and how the world has changed,” she said. “He was a sweet, generous man who would just get up and do his thing.”
In his own words, Martin is quoted saying this about his legacy: “I want to be remembered as a damn good entertainer, nothing spectacular. A good entertainer who made people enjoy themselves and made them laugh a little. I want them to think ‘He was a nice guy. He did pretty good and we loved him.’” The talented star is memorialized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is remembered for his contributions to the entertainment industry and for being a great father.