Consider the Possibility That Dean Martin Really Did Give a (…)

TCM’s new Dean Martin documentary, King of Cool, argues that Dino earned that unofficial title by, among other things, exuding the sense that nothing bothered him.

Early in King of Cool we hear the term “menefreghismo,” an Italian phrase sometimes translated as “a total lack of attention to other people or one’s own duties.”

Martin’s biographer, the late Nick Tosches, put it more bluntly. Martin, he said, “didn’t give a f — -“ about anything.

There’s something intriguing in that philosophy, or anti-philosophy, even if it’s not the attitude we seek to instill in our children. In any case, accurate or not, it has shaped the Martin mystique, both before and after his death on Christmas day 1995.

King of Cool, entertainingly directed by Tom Donahue, correctly notes that Martin massaged the mystique by the simple trick of shutting up.

His second wife Jeanne, seemingly the closest thing he had to a soulmate, famously mused that they were married for 24 years and had three children and she never really knew him.

Not letting anybody in, however, doesn’t necessarily mean not caring, just as looking like you don’t care can be a smokescreen to hide how much you do.

I don’t know that this was true for Dean Martin. I didn’t know him, either.

I just think his career path, clawing his way out of Steubenville, Ohio, in the Depression and World War II, suggests drive and persistence. The way he later bounced back from his split with Jerry Lewis, which was widely assumed to have killed his career, doesn’t seem to reflect a que sera sera attitude.

It’s true, of course, that almost everything he did looked casual to the point of incidental. He sang like he happened to have absent-mindedly opened his mouth and a song came out. That’s known as a skill, one he adapted from the likes of Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers. You work hard to make it sound that easy.

The classic Martin anecdote about acting, perhaps apocryphal, is that while he and another actor were sitting on their horses waiting for the action to resume, the other actor started ruminating about his “motivation.”

Martin is said to have replied, more or less, “Your motivation is you’re getting paid to say your lines.“

Martin famously never rehearsed the skits on his long-running hit TV show, and whether he was on TV or a Las Vegas stage, almost everything he said sounded like an ad lib.

But then there’s this. King of Cool also notes that he watched film of his TV guests rehearsing and planned his interaction accordingly. As for the ad libbing, any actor will tell you this skill, so reliant on precise words and timing, must be honed and nurtured. At the very least it requires paying close attention.

I should confess I find most of Martin’s films with Lewis pretty tedious, mostly because a pinch of Lewis goes a long way. Some of Martin’s other tours de force haven’t aged well, like the drinking jokes, some of the frat boy banter in the Rat Pack stage act, and the racial gags with Sammy Davis Jr., like carrying Davis to the microphone and saying, “I’d like to thank the NAACP for this wonderful trophy.”

But you hear him sing, relaxed as a puppy asleep by the fire, and you understand why Elvis Presley wanted to be Dean Martin. You see that same ease on stage and you see why Frank Sinatra wished he had a little more Dean.

I’m tempted to suggest that after spending a decade on stage and film with Jerry Lewis, you wouldn’t be bothered by anything else, either.

As for whether that meant he didn’t care, King of Cool offers a few hints.

He grew up in a tight-knit Italian neighborhood, amid people from The Old Country who saw their lives as nobody else’s business. You tell somebody something, someday it comes back to bite you. Keep quiet.

He and Sinatra were pals. But several friends say he rarely hung with Sinatra. Sinatra went out. Martin went to his room — alone or, okay, maybe with a date. While Martin knew a lot of people, there’s no suggestion he had buddies.

Other interviewees on King of Cool suggest Martin never felt like he fully belonged in the upper-tier show biz world to which he had ascended.

One recounts how Martin would host parties for A-list guests and then disappear after a cameo trip around the room. On one occasion, the guest found Martin in a remote bathroom, watching the Andy Griffith Show on TV and explaining that the guests were fine without him.

Homemade psychology might speculate here that he feared if they knew him too well — knew Dino Crocetti from Steubenville, not Dean Martin from the world stage — they might edge toward the door.

Maintaining a mystique is a smart play for almost every successful person, in show biz, sports or corporate America. Nothing nefarious there. But you could argue that if someone really didn’t care, maintaining the mystique wouldn’t matter.

In any case, it remains a pleasure simply to hear Dean Martin sing, or to watch him in the likes of “Rio Bravo,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “Young Lions” or “Ocean’s 11.” He had hundreds of great moments on his TV show, and you can’t get tired of seeing him become the fifth Mills Brother.

He hardly led a perfect life. But a person who really didn’t care could never be the king of cool.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”