Steely Martin

He made his name as America's top stand-up comedian and went on to become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, but all Steve Martin ever wanted was his dad's approval, he tells Emma Brockes

stSTEVE MARTIN admits in his new memoir, Born Standing Up, to being unhappy talking about himself, and the memoir skilfully circumvents much of his personal life to focus on his early career and his relationship with his parents. It's hard to reconcile its self-possessed tone with the guy we think of as Steve Martin, rubber-faced and on the receiving end of chaos.

The most vivid scenes in the book are the early ones, in which the 10-year-old Martin scores an after-school job selling guide books at a theme park that opened a few kilometres from his home in California in 1955. It entitled him to free rides and provided him, if one is minded to look at things this way, with an almost mythological basis for a career in showbiz. He is still obsessed with the theme park of that era, going online to find old snapshots of the place, and its appeal was probably amplified at the time by its contrast with his home life. A nuclear silence pervaded the Martin household; his father was a bully, his mother supine in the face of it, and Martin was desperate to get out. He diagnoses his father's problem as being one of disappointment: he'd wanted to be an actor but ended up in real estate and took it out on his son. There's a scene in the book in which his father takes umbrage at something Martin says at the table, leans across to clout him and gets carried away and beats him up. It happened only once, but the incident looms large in Martin's imagination, surfacing in his second novel, The Pleasure Of My Company, as a flashback that the narrator implies has some connection with his autism.

"It was typical of the times, the spankings - I don't think in the (memoir) I really blame him; I only comment that one day it was a little bit too much. The air of fear. But I really think that he was... I think he was under duress when I was an adolescent. I think he found himself in a place he didn't want to be."

It is one of Martin's great regrets that his parents never understood his work. He suspects they were embarrassed by it "all this absurd, silly comedy, with dirty words sprinkled here and there".

It may be that audiences simply can't accept Martin in anything other than his traditional comic role. He doesn't have children, and so I wonder if it strikes him as strange that this image of him as America's favourite dad predominates.

"It's funny but I don't think that about myself. I think I did some age-appropriate father roles - well, I was a little too old, frankly" - he laughs - "but I never thought I'm going to make that my thing. I'm not an action star, so I can't be a guy out there with a gun."

Martin's father died in 1997 and his mother in 2002. Both death scenes as he describes them in the book are extraordinary. They are quoted verbatim. On his death bed his father expressed regret for "all the love I received and couldn't return", and told his son, "you did everything I wanted to do". Martin replied, "I did it for you", and in the book adds, "I was glad I didn't say the more complicated truth: 'I did it because of you.' While she was dying, his mother said, "I wish I had been more truthful", by which Martin took her to mean she wished she had stood up to his father's silent tyranny. "I wanted to remember those words always," he says.

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