By Frank W. Martin
January 21, 1980 12:00 PM

When Arab prince Sheik Mohammad al-Fassi bought a Beverly Hills mansion and, with gaudily painted statues and plastic greenery, turned it into a monument of tastelessness, his neighbors (who apparently never heard the one about glass houses) were outraged. All, that is, except Steve Martin, who saw in its absurdity a perfect set for a movie he was making. Subsequently al-Fassi, an embarrassment to the Saudis, returned home, and the Beverly Hills manse suffered a million-plus fire, with arson strongly suspected. But Martin’s tribute to nouveau kitsch survives the ashes: The home is a cornerstone of Martin’s first feature movie. Titled The Jerk, it proves Steve as the modern master of a special comic art: the willingness to make a horse’s ass of yourself.

As a black sharecropper’s son too moronic to realize he is adopted, Steve rises to a windfall fortune inventing a new nose-grip for eyeglasses, only to wind up on Skid Row. Many critics considered the film embarrassing, and the ever-sensitive Martin found himself reading just the first line of reviews to see if he could go on. The crux, though, is not to compare Steve to contemporaries like Woody Allen but to recognize that he is a throwback to another, more slapstick and perhaps underappreciated, talent, Jerry Lewis. Steve considers Lewis’ films of the ’50s “masterpieces.” As for his own, Martin likes to quote the judgment of Jerk director Carl Reiner: “It’s a beautiful child with a wart.” “No, warts,” corrects Reiner.

Yet youthful U.S. movie audiences (to use a redundancy) have taken warts and all to their hearts. Reiner and Martin brought the film in for 15 percent below its $6 million budget and promptly recouped that cost in the first weekend. Universal Studios President Ned Tanen recalls only one other film so instantly profitable—the National Lampoon’s Animal House. Now, with grosses of $40 million in the first month, The Jerk is outpulling John Belushi’s follow-up 1941 (which exceeded The Jerk budget sevenfold), and Tanen rightly believes that Steve “can get any deal he wants today.” Says Steve: “We’re not laughed at anymore. We have access to industry people who before wouldn’t take a piece of paper with our names on it.”

There’s some justification for Martin’s royal “we.” At 34 (the prematurely gray thatch is a family trait) Steve is already a one-man comedy conglomerate. He has two Grammy-winning LPs and two platinums (his latest album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, features Martin in drag on the cover); a deal with NBC for three specials plus development of three series (not to star himself); a No. 1 best-selling book of dubious humor, Cruel Shoes; and the “biggest offer in the history of Las Vegas—no bullshit,” brags Steve’s agent, Marty Klein.

With his growing success, Martin reckons that off-screen, as well as on, “It would be easy to be difficult for a while.” But he has avoided the Stallone stardom syndrome. “I’m still living in a crappy one-bedroom apartment,” he laughs. The apartment is in a part of Los Angeles up the coast and up the scale from the bourgeois Orange County neighborhood where he grew up. Martin’s real home is Aspen, where he has dwelt as an outsider (except for the occasional company of John Denver) for two years. With acceptance, Martin has relaxed. “The film gave me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing in making comedy,” he says. Bill McEuen, a pal since 1963 and longtime manager, agrees. “There was always that question, ‘Yeah, but can he act?’ Being famous has always been important to Steve. Now for the first time he feels that he’s arrived as a movie star.”

Whether that will settle Martin down finally is another question. He made a point of choosing his closest woman friend, Bernadette Peters, 31, as the romantic interest of The Jerk. “If someone who had three Academy Awards played the part, it might have been hard for Steve to have the same confidence,” theorizes McEuen. “He might have been intimidated.” “The truth is that I wrote the part with Bernadette in mind,” Steve says, “even though I really didn’t know her that well at the time.” The two of them met in 1977, when both were members of Kenny Rogers’ celeb softball team. The 6’1″ Martin caught up with the 5’2″ Peters a couple of months later sharing adjoining cubicles on TV’s Hollywood Squares. Martin cut up, he admits, “like a teenager,” throwing things at Bernadette, and finally asked her out. So by the time they were on The Jerk location together from 5 in the morning until 8 in the evening, they were already close, and the combination was felicitous. “The fact that they know and love each other makes the scenes in the movie work even better,” says co-producer David Picker. Klein, the veteran agent of both stars, adds, “It didn’t change their relationship at all.”

But what that relationship is exactly, nobody’s saying. The ever private Steve and Bernadette have an agreement not to discuss it. With a dig, perhaps, at the confessional excesses of a Cher, he says, “It’s really our business, because 16 years from now I don’t want to be in Vegas singing I’ve Got You Babe.” Nevertheless, in a few months, when the three-bedroom house he’s building in Beverly Hills is finished, he and Bernadette may move in together permanently for the first time. In wedlock? “I do believe in marriage, but I’ve never trusted anybody enough to marry,” says Martin. “Given the right situation, the right girl…but I’ll hurdle that island later,” he falters. Steve shares his digs now with three cats (Mary, Betty and Dr. Forbes), but children are not in his immediate future. “I’m afraid I’d be too selfish,” he admits. “You’d have to be around all the time, and I’m on the road. It’s not fair to subjugate a child’s education to our egos.”

Which is Steve’s way of saying he is still working flat-out. He has begun taping a TV special that will be seen next month and is working on ideas for his second picture for Universal, throwing around names like Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton as co-stars. He has also signed a separate movie deal with Warner Bros.

Martin is not looking forward to going back on the road with his act and will limit live performances if he can sustain a film career. “Six months ago, when I last toured, I was a wreck,” he says. “Get up early, catch a plane, jet somewhere else, take a shower, private security, phone call on projects, and then total perspiration during the performance,” moans Martin, who admits that his overriding emotion onstage is fear—”You don’t know what people are going to do to you or throw at you.” For all his adulation, he still nervously checks out the first few rows at live performances for potential troublemakers.

So right now Martin is enjoying being in one place and sleeping in the same bed every night—even if his low-key apartment is stacked with unpacked boxes after a year. He has neglected his banjo, guitar and skis, but is still enlarging his collection of 19th-century American paintings. “You are dealing with beauty,” he remarks drily. “Then there are the intellectual, aesthetic and financial aspects.” Concerned about the environment and L.A. smog (his Aspen home is solar-heated), Martin recently followed Reiner’s example and bought a Honda Accord. “He yells at me all the time about gas mileage because I own big cars,” gripes McEuen. (Agent Klein doesn’t carp: Martin bought him a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow for his birthday last year.)

Those partners are his best pals, but now in L.A. he is shyly becoming a part of the Carl Reiner-Mel Brooks crowd. Despite his wild and crazy label, Martin is austere to the point of anhedonia (the clinical term, popularized by Woody Allen, refers to an allergy to pleasure). Steve doesn’t eat red meat, smoke, drink or do drugs and claims to despise Hollywood bashes (who does go to all those parties?). He has one new luxury, however: a twice-a-week massage. “It is one of the self-indulgent things one can do that leave no bad effects,” he says. And if critics say the same thing about his comparatively stingless comedy, that’s fine with Martin. “I just want to make people laugh,” he says with all the somberness of someone who knows how hard it is. “We all have to let go somehow. Silly is the great escape.”