Late-night talk show host Steve Martin (often with his touring partner Martin Short) and his affinity for the banjo are the two things most people associate him with these days. It was at this time that he first gained fame as a stand-up comic in the mid-’70s. We’ve included nine films in which he had starring or supporting roles, and one in which he made a very stunning cameo, in our list of the Top 10 Steve Martin movies, which includes his best work from the ’80s, as well as a few that he made in the 1990s.
It’s easy to overlook Steve Martin’s romantic flair on screen. Pennies from Heaven stars Bernadette Peters instead of Diane Keaton as his co-star in the Father of the Bride movie. Martin plays a small-town fire chief in this 1987 romantic comedy, which he scripted as a loose adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Despite his huge nose, he feels inferior to the main character (Daryl Hannah). A handsome, but linguistically inept coworker is used to express his affections for her instead (Rick Rossovich). However, in Roxanne, Martin plays the role of a lighter comedic protagonist who can also be a romantic white-haired hero when appropriate.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
The Jerk, Steve Martin’s breakout film, isn’t on this list, but it’s not because it’s horrible. Most of Martin’s later films feature him portraying intelligent characters, or characters that at least attempt to portray themselves as intelligent.” As Freddy, a con artist on the French Riviera, Martin is playing dumb on purpose, sharper than his character in The Jerk but acting just as poorly, to defraud other people in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Michael Caine, a more sophisticated conman, takes on a novice American heiress (Glenne Headley) for her money in a head-to-head match. Martin and Oz collaborated on two of the other films on this list, making it one of the most polished and amusing ’80s comedies.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
The film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors is just as enjoyable as the Off-Broadway musical version. This nebbishy clerk (Rick Moranis) works at a flower shop on Skid Row, where he becomes the owner of an enormous, blood-thirsty talking plant that feasts on human flesh, just like the stage version. Among them is Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist, a character who is introduced with a song created by the composing partnership of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken about his passion for inflicting misery on other people. Bill Murray’s character, a masochistic patient, is played by Bill Murray in a mostly improvised sequence with Martin. There has been no further film collaboration between Martin and Murray.
Three Amigos (1986)
When he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first several seasons of the show, Steve Martin was virtually an honorary member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, while not being an actual cast member. His association with SNL extended into the 1980s, when he featured alongside Chevy Chase and Martin Short in Lorne Michaels’ Three Amigos. Goofy parodies of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ are featured in the film. There is a real-life battle between Mexican bandits and three movie actors who play their heroic characters. In spite of the film’s cheesiness, Martin, Short, and Chase (especially Chase’s first two characters) have an undeniablechemistry.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Looney Tunes: Back in Action is a far superior film to 1996’s Space Jam, despite the lack of a sequel involving a contemporary basketball star. In Back in Action, Martin is given the opportunity to play a villain for the first time in his career. Here, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck team up with a stuntman portrayed by Brendan Fraser and a studio executive played by Jenna Elfman to take on the evil ACME Industries, and the consequences are predictably hilarious. A little strange to watch him so over-the-top, but still extremely endearing, is Martin’s hamminess in Back in Action.
Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Martin, like many other humorous actors before and since, opted to take things a step further and take himself a little more seriously.
As early as Pennies From Heaven, he sought out dramatic roles. An adaptation of the British miniseries of the same name, we watch a traveling salesman (Martin) try to make a new life for himself among the gloom of the 1930s and his own perverse sexual impulses and desires in this movie set during the Great Depression. Also, there’s a lot of dancing and singing from the Roaring ’30s. The contrast between the joyful music (lip-synced by the performers) and the somber subject matter results in a picture that audiences first rejected out of hand.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Steve Martin’s role in John Hughes’ comedy-drama Planes, Trains, and Automobiles foreshadowed his subsequent career trajectory. To get back to his family for Thanksgiving, Martin plays a suburbanite who is forced to travel with an annoying stranger (played to perfection by the late John Candy) and a journey that goes much longer than expected. To put it another way, the picture is held together by Martin and Candy’s unbelievably endearing chemistry, which can be seen in both their comical exchanges (“Those aren’t pillows!”) and their more emotional ones, such the one in which Martin’s character comes to terms with Candy’s loneliness. Although the two actors had only ever worked together once, the experience was priceless.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
At the time of his debut in The Muppet Movie, Steve Martin was still in the early stages of his cinematic career. There are numerous possibilities for prominent performers to interact with the Muppet characters in this ostensibly biographical film about how Kermit the Frog (as well as Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear) got their start in the entertainment industry. As a sarcastic waiter at the wooded restaurant where Kermit and Piggy meet at night, Martin makes the best cameo of them. When asked for straws, he just said, “Yes.” Expected that”—Martin is funny and nearly takes the show from Muppets in just minutes of screen time. Moreover, the picture itself is a joy to watch.
To say that this 1999 picture is a significant moment in the careers of two of today’s most celebrated comedy actors would be an understatement.
One of the greatest moments in Martin’s and Eddie Murphy’s careers is Bowfinger, their first and only collaboration. Idiosyncratic film director Bobby Bowfinger, played by Martin, tries to include one of Hollywood’s most famous faces—and only by omitting him from the project. Is one of the most underappreciated films of the previous 30 years, and one of Martin’s greatest masterpieces, which he also wrote.
All of Me (1984)
To put it mildly, the premise of All of Me is loaded with peril, given the current state of affairs. When he meets Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), an infirm heiress who wishes to have her consciousness transfer into the body of a beautiful young British lady (Victoria Tennant, whom Martin would eventually marry), Martin plays lawyer Roger Cobb, who is attempting to climb up in the legal world. A mishap during the transfer forces her spirit to take up residence in half of Roger’s. Even though Martin and Tomlin are rarely on the same screen, their chemistry is undeniable, and Martin demonstrates as good at the frustrations of being one of two inhabitants in his body as he is at “becoming” Edwina, often at the most inopportune times. The mystic who performs the transfer, played by the underrated Richard Libertini, is also a nice treat.