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Dean Martin

One of the most recognizable celebrities of the twentieth century, Dean Martin made a name for himself as a comic actor before expanding into the entire field of entertainment. Born in Ohio in 1917, Martin spoke Italian and did not speak English until he entered school, after which he was bullied for his accent. He played drums and dropped out of school after his sophomore year to become a bootlegger, laborer, and boxer. He used boxing to break into the entertainment industry and sang with territory jazz bands around the Midwest, most notably the Ernie McKay Orchestra.

By the end of World War II, Martin, who had been denied for service owing to a double hernia, was a mid-range club singer on the East Coast. Unable to break in New York clubs, Martin teamed up with Jerry Lewis in 1946 as a vaudeville-inspired comedy double act. They made their television debut in 1948 and, in 1949, hosted their own radio show. The same year, their film debut, My Friend Irma, brought them to national attention and, through 1956, Martin and Lewis had starred in seventeen films. As Martin embarked on a solo career in 1957, rock and roll was on the rise and his popular style of sentimental crooning was entering a nadir. He starred with Frank Sinatra (whom Martin had met in New York after a failed opening gig for the crooner) in a series of musical, comedy, and drama films through the early 1960s. Martin became a prominent member of Sinatra’s clique, the Rat Pack, which performed through the 1950s and 1960s in Las Vegas and spawned a genre of cultural mythology.

In 1965, he began to host The Dean Martin Show for NBS, which ran through 1974 and, bolstered by Martin’s prolific recording schedule, maintained his status as a dominant performer. As part of the show and later as specials, he hosted a series of celebrity comedy “roasts,” which ran after his show was cancelled, through 1984. In 1987, Martin’s son died in a US Air Force jet accident and he became depressed; however, he embarked on another tour with Frank Sinatra the following year. The pair played arenas, spaces alien to Martin, and he became more depressed. Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1993, declined treatment, and died in late 1995.