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CROONER MARTIN DIES AT AGE 78

CROONER MARTIN DIES AT AGE 78

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Actor, comedian and singer Dean Martin dies of acute respiratory failure.

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Dean Martin, the easygoing, highball-sipping crooner who left the hit comedy team of Martin and Lewis to become a member of Hollywood's Rat Pack and the star of his own TV variety show, died Monday at 78.

The singer died at his Beverly Hills home of acute respiratory failure, said his longtime agent and friend Mort Viner.Martin and Jerry Lewis were top stars in movies, television and nightclubs when Martin broke up the act in 1956. The smart money figured Lewis would prosper while Martin would fade.

But the dark-haired, handsome Martin became a much bigger star than he had been as straight man and singer, beginning with the 1958 war drama ``The Young Lions,' which also starred Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

With stardom came membership in the Rat Pack, the Hollywood boys club that included Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, with John F. Kennedy, Lawford's brother-in-law, an honorary member.

``Dean was my brother - not through blood, but through choice,' Sinatra said Monday. ``Good times and bad, we were there for each other. Our friendship has traveled down many roads over the years and there will always be a special place in my heart and soul for Dean.

``He has been like the air I breathe - always there, always close by.'

Among Martin's other movies: ``Some Came Running,' ``Rio Bravo,' ``Who Was that Lady?' ``Sergeants 3,' ``Toys in the Attic,' ``Kiss Me Stupid,' ``The Bells Are Ringing,' ``The Sons of Katie Elder,' ``The Silencers,' ``Texas Across the River,' ``Murderer's Row' and ``Airport.'

He once cited the two greatest turning points in his career: ``First, meeting Jerry Lewis. Second, leaving Jerry Lewis. I became a real actor because of those two things.'

His smooth baritone on such songs as ``That's Amore' and ``Volare' made him a favorite with record-buyers. He was one of the few non-rockers to top the charts in 1964, when his ``Everybody Loves Somebody' hit No. 1.

He described his singing style with typical humor: ``I copied Bing Crosby 100 percent.'

Then he conquered television. In 1965, NBC first presented ``The Dean Martin Show,' a musical variety hour through which Martin ambled with customary ease, often pretending to be soused.

The spontaneous appearance of the show was for real. Martin's contract stipulated that he would appear only on the day of the show and then have the most rudimentary of rehearsals.

``The Dean Martin Show' was high-rated for most of its eight years. It was followed by ``The Dean Martin Comedy Hour' in the 1973-74 season and then a series of celebrity ``roasts.'

Recently, a 1992 book by Nick Tosches, ``Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams,' portrayed Martin as an ailing alcoholic who dined out alone every night.

Viner, his manager, countered: ``He loves to go out to restaurants. What he doesn't like is to be with a lot of people or attend parties.

``As far as his health is concerned, Dean is perfectly capable; his mind is all right. He simply decided last year that he didn't want to work for a while.'

Dino Paul Crocetti was born June 17, 1917, in Steubenville, Ohio, the son of an Italian immigrant barber. For the first five years of his life, the boy spoke only Italian.

Martin worked in the steel mills, fought as a welterweight and at 16 delivered bootleg liquor around Steubenville. He also dealt cards in a gambling room behind a cigar store and began singing in clubs.

A bandleader named Sammy Watkins hired the young singer and renamed him Dean Martin. He eventually was booked into New York where his loose, mellow style began to catch on.

In 1946, Martin was booked into the 500 Club in Atlantic City, N.J., at $500 a week. Sharing the bill was a so-so comedian named Jerry Lewis who did a ``record act' - mouthing the lyrics to records.

``We started horsing around with each other's act,' Martin recalled. ``We'd do anything that came to our minds, anything at all.'

The zaniness caught on, and soon Martin and Lewis were playing New York's Copacabana at $5,000 a week. Nightclub and TV offers followed, along with a movie contract.

They starred in a string of comedies, including ``At War With the Army,' ``That's My Boy,' ``Sailor Beware,' ``Jumping Jacks,' ``The Stooge,' ``Scared Stiff,' ``Artists and Models' and ``Pardners.'

By the time of their last film, ``Hollywood or Bust' in 1956, the two were quarreling in print. Martin quit the act.

``I was doing nothing and I was eating my heart out,' he said. ``I sang a song and never got to finish it. The camera would switch to Jer doing funny things. Everything was Jerry Lewis, Jerry Lewis, and I was the straight man.'

The two feuded for years, but Lewis surprised Martin at his 72nd birthday party in 1989.

``Why we ever broke up I'll never know,' Lewis said. Martin replied: ``I love you, and I mean it.'

Lewis was reached in Seattle on Monday and told of Martin's death.

He was ``completely shattered and grief-stricken,' said Lewis' manager, Joe Stabile.

Lewis later flew to Denver where he was scheduled to appear in the musical ``Damn Yankees.' He appeared upset and left the airport without speaking to reporters.

In the 1970s and '80s, as Martin's film and TV careers waned, he continued to be a top attraction in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other high-roller venues. Onstage, he often sipped from a glass, adding to his reputation as a boozer.

After a lifetime of good health, Martin ran into troubles in his 70s. In 1988, he dropped out of a tour with Sinatra and Davis because of a kidney condition. In 1991, he canceled an Atlantic City engagement because of intestinal flu.

Martin married three times. In 1940 he married Betty McDonald; they divorced after nine years and four children. His second marriage, to Jeanne Riegger, lasted 23 years before it ended in divorce. Among their three children was Dean Paul ``Dino' Martin, member of a '60s teen pop group, Dino, Desi and Billy, and later an actor (``Players'). Young Martin was killed in a National Guard jet crash in 1987.

In 1973, Martin, then 55, married former model Catherine Mae Hawn, 25. (They would divorce in 1976.) His instructions for the champagne reception: ``I gave orders that no glass should ever get lower than half-empty.'

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