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Can Steve Martin reclaim his former glory?

The once wild and crazy guy has become the king of family films. By Michael Ventre

In the summer of either 1977 or ’78 — the cerebral fog is much too thick now to pin it down — I had the privilege of seeing Steve Martin do his standup act live. A buddy and I went to a New Jersey amphitheater one evening in the hopes of buying lawn seats, but lo and behold, there were cancellations available — fifth row center — so we snatched them up.

I should mention two points. One, we had gotten very “small” before we went. Two, Martin was not the headliner; he was the opening act for singer Andy Williams. Thus, the crowd was a middle-aged Andy Williams crowd — stuffy and serious, lots of black ties and gowns — so our jeans and sneakers stood out, much to our shock.

If you recall Martin’s standup work, it was hardly conventional. He was not Tom Driessen or Phyllis Diller, who would have been more appropriate for that audience. Instead, those folks got a man in a white suit with an arrow through his head, snapping photos of people who arrived late, strumming the banjo while singing goofy songs, and contorting his body while exclaiming, “Excuuuuse me!”

We laughed hysterically. We might have been the only two who did. And when Martin got off the stage and Andy Williams came on, we got up and left. People stared bullets at us while we walked out, as if we had shown a lack of respect for the star of the evening.

But we hadn’t. We stayed through Steve Martin’s entire set.

The question of whether audiences appreciate Martin rages today, although for an entirely different reason. Back then, he was just starting out, having burst onto the national consciousness with side-splitting appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” Lots of people still didn’t know quite what to make of him.

Many standup performances and skits have been submitted by Martin since then, as well as movies, screenplays, plays, books and essays. He has established himself as one of the funniest and most talented individuals in show business.

What happened?But audiences today also wonder why a guy like Steve Martin would subject himself to such projects as “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” “Bringing Down the House,” “The Out-of-Towners” and “Father of the Bride Part II.” They stare at him now in much the same way that the Andy Williams audience did back in the late ‘70s. They don’t get it.

That’s why I’m hoping Martin is unbearably funny as Inspector Clouseau in the remake of “The Pink Panther,” which opens Friday. He needs a well-received hit. He needs a film that will remind the public what a comic genius he is. He needs to make people forget about the missteps, even though they seem to be coming more frequently in recent years.

It’s perfectly understandable when stars sign on to projects primarily for the paycheck. I have nothing against an artist raking in bucks while he can in an extremely fickle business.

But I think Steve Martin — and anyone else in his class for that matter — has to be careful not to make a steady diet out of excruciatingly bland studio pictures with tepid storylines and mind-numbing jokes, no matter how much the salary may be. With each such release, the unparalleled comedy foundation that Martin spent so much of his career building is chipped away, until he starts to enter Eddie Murphy land. Given how Murphy’s career began, and where it is now, that’s enough to scare anybody straight.

I know Martin didn’t take on “The Pink Panther” in an effort to resurrect his comic reputation, but that’s how it’s working out. And he couldn’t have chosen a more challenging task.

In many hearts and minds, Peter Sellers is the gold standard by which all other comedic actors are measured. He made Clouseau into a cinematic treasure. Fans of “The Pink Panther” series probably can’t fathom someone else strutting in that bumbling gendarme’s boots.

More than pratfalls
While there is no doubt Martin possesses the gifts of physical comedy to pull it off, his screen persona has been overexposed in mundane family comedies, and much of the luster has worn off. It’s impossible to say whether audiences who have seen him endure mishaps and misadventures amid the innocent lunacy of wild kids have grown so tired of seeing the same nonsense that they’ll look at a silly French policeman and see the “Cheaper by the Dozen” dad. And that would be unfortunate indeed.

Some of the advanced word isn’t promising. Michael Rechtshaffen of the Hollywood Reporter writes: “Even with the inspired choice of Steve Martin in the Clouseau role, this ‘Panther’ picture is more bumbling and fumbling than the blissfully oblivious, accident-prone Inspector.” Said Brian Lowry of Variety: “At its best this new ‘Pink Panther’ is a hit and largely miss exercise — a glass about three-quarters empty or one-quarter full, depending on one’s eagerness to succumb.”

Of course, a sampling of early reviews doesn’t necessarily add up to trouble. But it probably didn’t help Martin to team up on this “Pink Panther” with his “Cheaper by the Dozen” director Shawn Levy. One way to avoid the Hollywood sausage machine is to steer clear of those who are doing the grinding.

When I think of Steve Martin, a comic visionary comes to mind, someone whose career skyrocketed because he was doing things no one else was doing. Now he’s doing those things over and over again in situations that are beneath him, with less and less effectiveness. “The Pink Panther” might be a small step forward, or it might not be, but it was at least a bold choice.

This is the same artist who wrote “Shopgirl” and “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” who wrote and starred in “Roxanne” and “Bowfinger,”  who was convincing in dramas like “Grand Canyon” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” He deserves to be appreciated for doing more than pulling his hair out while kids run circles around him.

I’d hate to think that someday people might walk out on him like I walked out on Andy Williams.