One of Martin Short’s great on-screen moments arrives in John Landis’s 1986 comedy, “¡Three Amigos!”in which he played a silent-film star alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Early in the movie, an unwitting village sends the trio a telegram begging to be rescued from an “infamous” outlaw known as El Guapo. “What does that mean, ‘infamous’?” wonders Chase.
“Infamous,” Short eagerly explains, “is when you’re more than famous. This man, El Guapo, is not just famous — he’s infamous.”
That kind of celebrity status has perhaps so far eluded this Emmy- and Tony-award winning comic actor, but he’s had a long career and led what seems to be a wonderful, if at times heartbreaking, life. His endearing memoir is, of course, funny, but it’s also a rare thing: the tale of a genuine human being who’s thrived on planet Hollywood.
The youngest and smallest of five children born to a classically trained violinist and a hard-drinking steel company executive, Short grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, where he dreamed of a career in the spotlight.
“With my fertile imagination and trusty reel-to-reel recorder, I imagined myself not only a singer but a triple-threat entertainment juggernaut,” he writes, “movie star, TV host, and savvy mogul.”
Despite his childhood ambitions, Short says a career in showbiz “seemed as realistic as buying a summer home on Neptune” until he finished college, when at the urging of a friend, actor Eugene Levy, he decided he’d give himself a year to get work as an actor. A month into it, he landed his first job — as a talking credit card in a woman’s purse.
But his resilience and relentless optimism, combined with a deep love of performing, would help Short emerge from that lowly start and realize his childhood dream (except the “savvy mogul” part). He went from Canada’s Second City Television, where he learned to “give the world the full Marty,” to “Saturday Night Live,” which he wishes he’d enjoyed more, to Hollywood, where his “awesome ’80s hotness did not, alas, translate into boffo box office.” Short is endearingly self-deprecating. He tells us that one critic of his performance as Rocky in a gay prison drama said he “was unconvincing not only as Rocky but also as a male.”
Short also affectionately skewers his famous pals, especially David Letterman show band leader Paul Shaffer, who he says “looks like the love child of Howie Mandel and James Carville.” He recalls that on his own faux talk show, “Primetime Glick,” he teased Levy: “You’re not exactly who I assumed you’d be. Gabe Kaplan! From Welcome Back, Kotter! That’s who I was hoping you would be!”
Short also writes with candor about his great loves and losses. By the time he was 20, he had lost both of his parents and a brother. He dated and was dear friends with Gilda Radner, who died in 1989, and his wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman, died of ovarian cancer in 2010.
But none of it has left him bitter. “When I look back on my life . . . I see moments where it might have been understandable had I turned to drugs or ice cream,” he writes. “But I never succumbed. My natural tendency, no matter what difficult period I’m going through or have been through, is to be happy.”
Wilwol is a writer in Washington.
My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend
By Martin Short
Harper. 351 pp. $26.99