Steve Martin: Comic, banjo player, and now documentary film subject

You don’t usually associate the sound of a banjo with a view of New York City, but with Steve Martin, it all seems to work. He played for “Sunday Morning” at his apartment last month, and to everyone there, he sounded amazing.

But to him, it wasn’t quite good enough. “Oh, I blew it there!” he said.

Banjo player Steve Martin, also known to tell a few jokes. 

CBS News

In some ways, it sums up how Martin has lived his whole life. And now, you can see for yourself. A new Apple TV project, “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in two pieces,” traces his path from anxious kid to the superstar we’ve come to know.

At the beginning he states, “I guarantee I had no talent, none.” And he stands by that statement: “Well, meaning I couldn’t sing, dance, or act.”

Smith asked, “So, what do you think; if you had no talent, what did you have?”

A love of show business,” he replied.

Martin tells his story with the help of filmmaker Morgan Neville, director of the 2018 Fred Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Neville explained he’d heard through the grapevine that Martin would be interested: “I heard that somebody in an elevator asked Steve if he was interested in doing a documentary – that is true! – and he said, ‘Maybe.’ And that was the crack in the door.”

Steve Martin and documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, director of “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces.”

CBS News

It’s more than just a crack: Neville got all of Martin’s early performances, his detailed diaries, and a good chunk of his time.

The director had been a fan of Martin’s since he was a kid: “When I was 12, I convinced my dad to drive me to Las Vegas to see Steve do standup at the Riviera. I actually got to see Steve do standup. I actually went to the early show and the late show, that same night!”

Martin added, “I was at both of those shows, too.”

One thing Neville discover about Martin is his modesty.

“I think you have to be [modest],” Martin said. “I remember Mike Nichols told me once, he said, ‘When I am in New York, I am Mike Nichols. When I go to L.A., I’m thinking, ‘…How am I doing?!?’

Seems he took that to heart:

Comedian Steve Martin Performs Onstage
Comedian Steve Martin performs at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, July 22, 1978.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

By the late ’70s Martin was wildly successful beyond even his dreams: He was a fixture on “Saturday Night Live”; his comedy tours would sell out coast-to-coast; and his standup record “Let’s Get Small” was the first comedy album to go platinum. 

And then, he walked away from the stage. “I was exhausted by it,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Wow. When I do standup, I have to go there. If I do a movie, I stay home, and the movie goes there.’ And also, it had a sense of permanence, like you could get the thing exactly right.

So, Martin went from standup king to movie star. But he still had his moments of self-doubt.

In the documentary he recalls a journalist asking him, “Why aren’t you funny anymore?”

“It was a bad moment, ’cause I was thinking that myself,” he said. “You go through highs and lows in your career, you know? So, at any moment, you can be thinking, ‘Everything’s working, everything’s feeling great.’ And then, you know, a year later, you’re going, ‘Hmmmm…'”

But there have been plenty of highs, from “The Jerk” and “All of Me,” to “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Three Amigos.” Martin has made more than 40 films, some of which are now considered comedy classics.

“Sometimes, I sort of look around and go, ‘How’d this happen? Where did this come in?'” he said. “And in my most self-congratulatory moment, I go, ‘It all came out of my head!'”

At age 78, he’s on a hit TV show, “Only Murders in the Building“; he’s back doing standup with Martin Short; and he has, by his own admission, mellowed with age.

Smith asked, “One of the things you talk about a lot in the second film is that you’ve changed, and your friends talk about it, too. I think at one point you say, ‘I wasn’t mean, I was just removed.'”

“Yeah,” said Martin. “I remember Tommy Smothers said once, because I was writing on his show, ‘Talking to Steve Martin is like talking to nobody.’ No, I have changed. I don’t know how to quantify it. I’m just nicer, friendlier.

“I have this theory that as you age, you either become your worst self or your best self. And I feel like I’ve become my better self – and I can see other people becoming their worst self. They become more hostile. They become more difficult. And it’s a pretty clear line, for me.”

He says he had no talent, but with his life, Steve Martin’s created a masterpiece.

So, what did he learn about himself while going through the process of being the subject of a documentary? “Well, nothing,” he said.

Nothing? Smith asked, “Then, why do it? What was the point of doing it, for you?”

“Well, it’s part of being in show business, you know?”

“But there’s something more to it for that, because you don’t fall for these trappings of show business, you know what I’m saying? You didn’t have to do this.”

“No, it’s a fantastic outcome, to have a documentary done about you,” he said.

“So, is this kind of what you do? A documentary is just a natural progression?”

“Yeah. I used to watch – I still watch – ‘American Masters,’ thinking, ‘Wow. One day, I’d like to be a subject of a documentary.’ And then suddenly, you are.

“And I’m 78,” he laughed. “When else?”

To watch a trailer for “STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces” click on the video player below:

For more info:

Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler.

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