Steve Martin's best performances

Scott J. Davis
Contributor
Comedian Steve Martin poses for photos on January 1992 in Santa Barbara, California. (Joe McNally/Getty Images)

With over five decades of being one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known, legendary comedian Steve Martin turns 75 this year – 14 August to be precise – and we thought it would be the perfect time to celebrate his extraordinary career.

From his early work as a stand-up, his film debut as The Jerk through countless memorable turns as both the "wild and crazy guy" and a loving father, as well as his wonderful novels, plays and, of course, his banjo playing, Martin has endured as one of cinema's funniest and most profound creatives.

We struggled to whittle down the list but here are some of the actor's most memorable performances.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin and John Candy sit in a destroyed car in a scene from the film 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles', 1987. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Fondly regarded by Martin as his favourite film (as did co-star John Candy), John Hughes’ seminal comedy classic is more than just about the aforementioned modes of transportation, it’s also a wonderfully touching, sincere, and warm story of the enduring power of friendship and family.

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Martin, playing against type somewhat in the “straight man” role, excels as the stuck up executive who needs taking down a peg or two.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Actors Michael Caine, on the right, and Steve Martin on the left in a scene from the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; they play two con-men, the elegant and sophisticated Lawrence Jamieson and the younger, reckless Freddy Benson, that contend for a hunting territory. Antibes (France), 1988. (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images)

Following Planes, Trains & Automobiles, he was part of another classic dynamic duo with Sir Michael Caine as they conned their way along the French Riviera in Frank Oz’s brilliant riot of a film. As Freddie Benson, Martin’s arrogant, sly performance bursts from the screen whilst his moments as Ruprecht (Caine’s “brother”) allows him to scratch his usual manic tendencies with aplomb and sheer giddiness. 

The Absent-Minded Waiter

Nominated for Best Live Action Short at the Oscars in 1977, this was one of Martin’s first collaborations with producer William E. McEuen who would produce his next six films. Silly, perfect hilarity ensues as Martin waits over a young couple, fumbling (quite literally) as only he can with every bone in his body.

The Spanish Prisoner

CIRCA 1997: Actors Campbell Scott and Steve Martin in a scene from the movie "The Spanish Prisoner", circa 1997. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

After 1996’s ill-fated remake of Sgt Bilko, Martin took some time away from the big screen but did appear in David Mamet’s underrated thriller with a darker role that the actor said: “didn’t even feel like work”. A Hitchcockian thriller, the film sees him play elusive billionaire Jimmy Dell (Martin) who isn’t at all what he seems, cutting through the film with a dark menace that we have rarely seen him tackle but he shines with effortless cool throughout.

Bowfinger

Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin in a scene from the film 'Bowfinger', 1999. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin bounced back with a bang in the last year of the 1990s with one of the decade’s best comedies. Both had had a rough time during the nine years prior but both revelled in this brilliant comedy vehicle written by Martin about a desperate film director who will stop at nothing to get his film made - even if it means “cheating” Hollywood’s biggest star (Murphy) into being in it.

The Man With Two Brains

Steve Martin holding jar of brains in a scene from the film 'The Man With Two Brains', 1983. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Yep, it's the film where Steve Martin falls for a brain in a jar. As wild and crazy as anything he’s ever done, The Man With Two Brains saw him play Dr. Michael Hfuhurhurr (try writing that ten times!), the world’s leading brain surgeon whose “screw-top” surgery methods save the life of femme fatale Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) who may have one eye on his fortune. As silly as it sounds, but delightfully so.

LA Story

Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant in a scene from the film 'L.A. Story', 1991. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)

A riff on Woody Allen’s Manhattan, this is Martin's satirical, loving and wonderful look at life in Los Angeles in the early 90s, and follows television weatherman Harris K. Telemacher (also Martin) who has become bored with his life and job: such is the predictable nature of the weather, he can pre-record his “wacky” forecasts. Beautifully showcasing Martin's “everyman” qualities - perhaps the best example of it - his pithy, avuncular weatherman is hard to forget, not least seeing him rollerskating through an art museum with his usual panache. 

Father of the Bride/Father of the Bride: Part II

Steve Martin walking down the aisle with Kimberly Williams-Paisley in a scene from the film 'Father Of The Bride', 1991. (Photo by Touchstone/Getty Images)

For many people and fans, Martin’s name will always be most synonymous with his turn as George Stanley Banks in Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer’s much-loved remake of the 1950 classic. A loving father and husband, his perfect life is upended with the chaos that comes with planning a wedding, slowly descending into madness, brilliantly realised by Martin when he takes on the seemingly simple task of buying hot dogs and all his anger unleashes itself. 

Roxanne

Remaking something as revered as Cyrano de Bergerac takes a brave man in most cases, but to update it in the 1980s and set it in Washington? Perhaps only Martin is that daring but it proved a stroke of genius as Roxanne is perhaps his most perfect of screenplays, balancing his wild and crazy act with his softer side. He excels as fire chief Charlie “C.D.” Bales with an abnormally sized nose who falls for astronomy student Roxanne (a perfect Daryl Hannah). 

Oscar hosting - 2001/2003/2010

Host Steve Martin with Jack Nicholson on the screen at the 75th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, Calif, on Sunday, March 23, 2003. (Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The job of hosting has changed considerably in recent years but dammit if we aren’t fans of having someone navigate us through Hollywood’s most special night. Martin joined the illustrious collection of hosts and excelled every time. His “actors who don’t brag about sleeping with him” skit is now steeped in Oscar folklore, and, in particular in 2003 when his poise and grace helped audiences through the ceremony just days after the Iraq War had begun. 

The Jerk

Steve Martin juggling cats in a scene from the film 'The Jerk', 1979. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

After many years of selling out stadiums with his legendary stand-up performances, Martin wanted to try his hand at starting in films which was his ultimate goal. After some bit parts here and there, it was his debut in 1979’s comedy hit that turned him from comedy sensation to fully-fledged movie star, superbly transferring his on-stage caricatures into Navin Johnson, a white man adopted by an all-black family. A stone-cold comedy classic. 

Pennies From Heaven

Steve Martin performs in a scene from the film 'Pennies From Heaven', 1981. (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

After The Jerk, Martin wanted to try something new and sought out the role of Arthur Parker in the American adaptation of Dennis Potter’s BBC musical drama. He spent six months training for the role, only for the film to tank when released in cinemas but despite its failure, it has become a staple of Martin’s early work and showed a more vulnerable, honest and mature side to his abilities, surpassing all expectations about what he was truly capable of. 

Shopgirl

Based on his own novel, Shopgirl is a love triangle between aspiring artist Mirabelle (Claire Danes) and two men, one of whom is an older man, wealthy businessman Ray Porter (Martin). Cut from the same cloth as his writing for The New Yorker, this is Martin at his most honest, most sophisticated, and, indeed, his most witty, beautifully blending charm and charisma as Porter while also feeling tragic and heartbreaking. 

Steve Martin: Expert Diver (from his 1980 TV special ‘Comedy Is Not Pretty’)

STEVE MARTIN: COMEDY IS NOT PRETTY -- Aired 02/14/1980. (Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Martin’s comedy showcase drew on his stand-up routines to maximum effect but it was his Expert Diver sketch that was perhaps its pinnacle. Taking his eccentricities to Olympic diving, Martin showcases his talents for such dives as the “cannonball off the edge of the pool”, the “pretending to get shot off the board” and finishing last in the 400m race due to having a lane full of dense water. Sheer genius.

The Great Flydini (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1992)

Having made many memorable talk show appearances through the years, we simply had to pick out the brilliant skit performed by Martin in 1992 involving, as the name suggests, his flies. Telephones, bubbles, flowers, and an opera singer all make hilarious cameos as one by one they appear (and disappear) before our very eyes as Martin returns to his early days performing tricks at Disneyland.