Steve Martin is a careful man. He keeps his collection of modern art meticulously catalogued in his laptop computer, and when playing craps with his longtime pal and gambling buddy Tony Andress, a Houston oilman, he arranged his money, says Andress, "in little stacks of ones and fives and tens and twenties." He is mindful to remember the birthdays of friends, to answer their e-mails promptly—and to keep his word. "If I call him on a bad day he'll just say, 'Let's talk Friday at noon,' " says Leigh Haber, editor on two of his three bestselling books (Cruel Shoes, Pure Drivel and Shopgirl). "And that's what happens. You talk Friday at noon."

Though comedian pal Rita Rudner calls him "by nature a disciplined, organized man," now and then he's compelled to take a break—as he did for a scene in the comedy Bringing Down the House, when he put on gold chains and busted moves at a hip-hop club. But once director Adam Shankman called "Cut!" Martin, 57, was back to his New York Times crossword puzzle and a world where Eminem is just a chocolate candy. The culture he got a taste of in House, he says with a laugh, is "foreign to me, and it shows."

But it also pays. The movie, featuring Martin as an uptight attorney whose life is upended by a foulmouthed, bighearted convict played by Queen Latifah, topped the box office with a $31.1 million opening weekend. Collecting Picassos and Seurats, writing for The New Yorker and hosting the Oscars (he'll do his second gig March 23) may make Martin happy, but so does falling funny into a pool. House gives him a chance to do the kind of physical comedy he enjoys as much as he did some 30 years ago, when he first wowed a Tonight Show audience by playing his banjo with a gag arrow stuck through his head. Says Shankman: "The first day of shooting he came up to me and said, 'I forgot how much fun this is.' He was like a kid; he was giddy."

A rare state for the native of Waco, Texas, who grew up in a house where, he's said, "there was not a lot of hugging and kissing. We were not vocal or loud." A lifetime later, ensconced in his Manhattan apartment or in what Shankman calls his "warm, homey" house in L.A., Martin is far more content—but hardly more vocal. Friends like Frank Oz, who directed him in Bowfinger, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Housesitterand Little Shop of Horrors, know better than to inquire about, say, the details of his dating life. In December he was stepping out with New Yorker staffer Anne Stringfield, 30; now he is seeing Manhattan humor writer Patty Marx, 49. A Pennsylvania native who was one of the first female writers for Saturday Night Live as well as for the Harvard Lampoon, Marx uses Martin's books to teach comedy writing at New York University. She will confirm that they have a more personal connection only with a "Yeah, sorta." As for Oz: "I don't ask him about personal stuff." But as his House daughter Kimberly J. Brown, 18, discovered, Martin himself knows no such bounds. "He asked a lot about how young people go on dates now, like 'Who pays? Do you meet the parents?' It was odd," she says, "but sweet."

Maybe it was just research. After all, the comic has been getting joke material from just about everyone else he knows. According to friend and former Monty Python member Eric Idle, Martin has been in a "panic" for the past few months, preparing to make 50 million or so viewers at the Academy Awards laugh. Whether over dinner with friends or in his frequent e-mail chats, "he'll try out material on us," says Idle. "We're like his test audience. It's a nightmare for Steve, a terrifying experience. The fact that he's done it before doesn't stop the angst."

What might? A night at home with his yellow Lab Roger and the new banjo Queen Latifah gave him. Says Shankman: "He gets this really relaxed look on his face when he plays." And in truth, not even a gold statue can compare with that.

Karen S. Schneider
Julie Jordan, Kwala Mandel and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in Los Angeles, Shermakaye Bass in Austin and Rachel Felder and Liza Hamm in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Kwala Mandel,
  • Ruth Andrew Ellenson,
  • Shermakaye Bass,
  • Rachel Felder,
  • Liza Hamm.