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The Steve Martin Issue 

In praise of the versatile musician, comedian, actor, filmmaker, writer


For almost five decades, Steve Martin has been entertaining us.

He began his career as a bearded banjo player. In a publicity photo circa 1968; Steve Martin stands in front of an American flag with a white peace sign set in the blue field where the 50 stars should be. He looks like a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash; about the only identifying feature is that familiar, slightly furrowed brow—the brow that has been used for comic effect to convey shock in Parenthood and offered withering looks to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

In some of Steve Martin's early stand-up acts, his banjo is as much—if not more—a contributor to his act than his off-beat slapstick. He starts one San Francisco show with impressive fast-moving banjo picking, and then takes a momentary break to deliver an awkward quip before performing a spot-on Jimi Hendrix impersonation (yes, on the banjo). It really is a remarkable performance, but also a telling one, showing that Steve Martin's career easily could have gone down a single musical pathway.

In an era when most professionals specialize, Steve Martin chose not one path, but many— musician, comedian, filmmaker, writer, art collector. How fortunate we are!

From high to low-brow, he has influenced, shaped and added to American culture.

Starting with his first real break-out role (and as the co-writer) in 1979's The Jerk, Steve Martin has explored—and, dare we say, even explained—some of the most elemental and important themes in, well, in life: family (The Jerk, Parenthood, Cheaper by the Dozen); romance (LA Story, Roxanne); and, friendship (Three Amigos, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). Sure, there have been some dogs in the pack (er, dare we mention, Bringing Down the House and Bowfinger) and career choices we don't quite understand, like starring not only in Pink Panther, but agreeing to its sequel.

Regardless. Steve Martin is intoxicating—that rare quality that is friendly and familiar, yet just a slightly distorted and deformed version of normal; relatable, but quirky.

Since his first movie, he has starred in a significant film almost every year since—a remarkable streak that only seems to be slowing as Mr. Martin pushes 68 years old (although that senior citizen age didn't stop him from fathering his first child this February). Two years have passed since his last film, The Big Year, an overlooked comedy about bird watching and male egos. But in that film he displayed a remarkably easy on-screen chemistry with Jack Black and Owen Wilson—proof that his wry comedy continues to appeal to yet another generation.

While never a member of Saturday Night Live, he does hold the record for number of appearances (25!), and, he has written dozens of articles for the New Yorker, a couple plays (including the peppy Picasso At the Lupin Agile, which Second Street will reprise in Bend in its upcoming season), and, yes, he continues to play banjo, winning a Grammy in 2010 and performing with the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers.

"The banjo is such a happy instrument," he once said, "you can't play a sad song on the banjo; it always comes out so cheerful."

And, as if Steve Martin's direct contributions to American culture have not been enough—in terms of the humor and understanding he has provided through his movies and books, and joy from his own music—starting three years ago, he began sponsoring select banjo players each year with a significant financial grant.

We are thrilled and humbled to dedicate this week's issue to Mr. Martin.

Is there a more complete entertainer? We think not.

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