As a stand-up comic and the Jerk, Steve Martin became a national treasure. But not one to rest on his laurels, the 67-year-old set out to become a dramatic actor, a touring banjo player, and–cue envious sigh–a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. And he did it all with style. As the American Film Institute prepares to honor Martin for lifetime achievement next year, here are some mantras that kept him going throughout his 50-year career.
‘Throw the Dice’
By the late 1970s, Martin was a wildly successful comic performing for 20,000 people a night. But when he caught wind that MGM was producing a tragi-musical called “Pennies in Heaven,” he decided to “throw the dice” and leave the comedy act behind–well, for a year, anyway. As Rolling Stone reported in 1982, Martin had to challenge his friend and manager Bill McEuen who thought “he shouldn’t be doing a dramatic role at this point,” learn dramatic acting from scratch, and take tap-dancing lessons for months well into the film’s production. Though “Pennies” earned rave reviews, it showed up DOA at the box office. Did the 37-year-old feel bad about it? Sure. But he didn’t regret it one bit.
Allow Yourself to Be Stupid
Martin can trade one-liners with the best of them, but offstage, the comic is off. In the Rolling Stone interview, he said just as much: “I’m not willing to say dumb things about [my art]. I want the freedom to be stupid about it, to learn about it, to think about something I still don’t understand.” This willingness to explore–and to admit there are things he doesn’t know–is what sets him apart from creatives who like to think they’ve got things figured out. The acceptance of failure is also a plus, as it makes him persistent and open to risk.
Ditch the Fear
Of course, this is easier said than done, but this is Steve Martin we’re talking about here. After 18 years doing stand-up, Martin realized he wanted a change. But he wasn’t sure what that would look like. So when the script for Pennies came along, he decided to give it a shot. When asked if he felt confident or fearful about his acting, he told Rolling Stone, “I would not allow myself to be afraid. I thought that would really hurt me. I felt I had been through so much. I’d faced 20,000 people in concert, and I refused to be intimidated.”
Give It Time
Martin was on the road for 18 years, and only four of them were “good years,” from what he recalls. In a GQ interview with British comedian David Williams, Martin even admitted it took him 10 years to find his comedy style. “It wasn’t like it was all this wonderful, magical thing,” he told Davis of his early stand-up routine. “In the early days, it was basically terrible.” “Shopgirl,” Martin’s best-selling novel that was turned into a movie, also took “a little over year,” he told The Believer, “because I started it and stopped it in disappointment.”
Work With Passion
It goes without saying the best work comes from the heart. And for Steve Martin, this is especially true when it comes to writing. He doesn’t earn a living from it, so he has the luxury of waiting until inspiration strikes. While that’s probably not the best way to approach your work, the idea is useful in one sense: He never takes on a project unless he feels strongly about it: “There’s a stupor where you’re thinking and thinking and thinking and then suddenly you switch over to Microsoft Word and you start writing it down,” he told The Believer. “You get into it or you don’t.”