04/02/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
What really matters at a Steve Martin gathering is poker. Sure, assembled in the open-air courtyard at the center of his elegant Los Angeles home for dinner parties, his close-knit circle—including comedy giant Carl Reiner, musician Paul Simon, director Mike Nichols and playwright Neil Simon—will talk about art. And politics. And literature. And possibly the world of finance. "Now that he doesn't have to worry about money," explains Nichols, "he likes the idea that you can do this or that with it." Once, the gracious host pulled out his banjo and serenaded his guests with a perfectly plucked rendition of "Auld Lang Syne." He has even been known to lull them into easy laughter with the Great Flydini (a routine about a fly doing magic tricks that is, says Nichols, "the funniest 11 minutes in the world"). But when he gets together with pals to play poker, you can bet he'll get down to business. "He is one of the best sleight-of-hand manipulators," says Reiner. "He was an amateur magician." Not that anyone seems too concerned. As Reiner quips, "We play for Saltines."
But there'll be more than crackers at stake come March 25, when Martin, 55, will show his hand before some 79 million TV viewers at the 73rd Academy Awards, his first major gig as host. Taking over as master of ceremonies from Billy Crystal—producer Gil Cates picked Martin, whom he calls "elegant and fast on his feet," after the revered seven-time host ducked out due to a scheduling conflict this year—would make even a master sweat. Then again, the cerebral comic—admired in Hollywood for writing and starring in such hits as 1987's Roxanne, 1991's L.A. Story and 1999's Bowfinger and in literary circles for his plays, New Yorker essays and last year's novella Shopgirl—is no stranger to new challenges. Or tough crowds. It was he, after all, who some 30 years ago, with a vaudevillian arrow through his head, led the goofy charge on audiences accustomed to the angry, anguished humor of the Vietnam era. It was he who put the hip into the innocent idiocy of his frantic Happy Feet dance. And he who, with legendary routines on Saturday Night Live in the '70s, made the world safe for characters from Dana Carvey's Church Lady to Adam Sandler's Opera Man.
Still, as 1995 Academy Awards emcee David Letterman can attest, being an Oscars host is an art unto itself. Little wonder Martin is busy testing jokes on his friends. "Steve will rehearse and rehearse and write and rewrite until he gets it just the way he wants it," says his old SNL pal Chevy Chase. Even after an Emmy (for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in '69), two Grammys (for Let's Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy) and three bestselling books ('79's Cruel Shoes, '98's Pure Drivel and Shopgirl), getting the laugh still matters to Martin. "He's a baby," says Chase. "We're just boys with our own problems and inefficiencies and insecurities."
Whatever his problems, Martin offstage displays little of the zany stage persona that made him famous. "He is pathologically shy," says former SNL cast member Laraine Newman. "Very guarded." "A loner," says Reiner. Observes his longtime friend Paul Simon: "He's very private. He doesn't come from a background that was, 'Let's let it all hang out and talk about it.' " In fact Martin's creative energy has been fueled by a background both positive and not (and we're not talking about that period in the early '70s when he favored long hair and turquoise jewelry). For a time he drank too much—though he now observes a healthy lifestyle, largely avoiding meat and alcohol since the mid-'70s. And he has suffered heartache. Though romances with Linda Ronstadt and Bernadette Peters in the '70s and early '80s ended amicably, he was shaken by the end of his seven-year marriage to actress Victoria Tennant (his costar in L.A. Story) in 1994, followed by a relationship with Anne Heche, which fizzled by 1996. An assortment of self-help books and time with his 6-year-old yellow Lab, Roger, helped get him back on his happy feet, but Simon recalls Martin declaring on New Year's Eve, 1996, "This was the worst year of my life."
The best year? Maybe when Martin discovered Disneyland. As a rule, fun and fantasy—or showiness of any kind—were not part of Martin family culture. (Steve's father, Glenn, a real estate agent, died in 1997 at age 82; his mother, Mary Lee, 89, lives in Corona del Mar, Calif.; his sister Melinda, 59, lives in L.A.) As Martin told TIME in 1987, "There was not a lot of hugging and kissing. We were not vocal or loud." But young Steve wasn't content to sit quietly at home in L.A., where the family had moved from Waco, Texas, when he was 5. Having decided on a future in showbiz, he taught himself magic tricks and memorized Red Skelton's TV skits, which he performed for fellow students. In 1955 he got an after-school job selling guidebooks in Disneyland and also worked at Merlin's Magic Shop (where he reveled not only in rubber vomit but finger choppers and snake cans). A few years later he was wowing audiences at Knott's Berry Farm, where he did a mix of skits, tricks and ditties on the banjo—an instrument he practiced at night in his '57 Chevy. "He'd sit in the parked car because it was a safe place," says Reiner, "and no one could tell him to shut up."
In the mid-'60s Martin studied philosophy at California State University at Long Beach, then briefly attended UCLA and worked the local comedy clubs at night. Not everyone got the ironic edge—or even the humor—of his supreme silliness. But around 1968, after a friend of Tom Smothers's saw his act, Martin was hired to write for CBS's Smothers Brothers. He won his Emmy and went on to write for variety shows hosted by Sonny and Cher and Glen Campbell. "He didn't seem highly ambitious," recalls Tom Smothers. "Other writers shared their dreams and passions. But he was very quiet."
Though he may have left the thought unspoken, performing remained Martin's passion, and in the early '70s he returned to the stage, where after the usual ups, downs and excruciating audience silences, the man wearing nose glasses and making balloon animals caught on. Still, there is success, and then there is 20,000-fans-screaming-"Excuuuse me!"-at-sellout-concerts success. Martin's transformation from working stand-up to superstar comic can be explained in three words: Saturday Night Live. "There was something about him and us that just clicked," says SNL producer Lorne Michaels of Martin's first stint as the show's host in 1976. It was there—he went on to be host a dozen more times-that he gave birth to such characters as King Tut and, with Dan Aykroyd, the wild-and-crazy Czech playboys. Says Michaels: "He's brilliant. He has great discipline and precision."
And a restless soul. After making it big in stand-up, Martin shifted from stage to screen with 1979's farce hit The Jerk. Though there were misses amongst the hits, Martin moved audiences with poignant performances in such films as 1981's Pennies from Heaven and 1987's Roxanne and as a smooth-as-silk con man in the recent David Mamet drama The Spanish Prisoner. Still, feeling unfulfilled by film, he has increasingly shifted his attention to what he has called "the joy" of writing—whether 1995's semi-autobiographical play WASP or a treatise on banjo playing for his upcoming NBC show The Downer Channel, consisting of sketches about topics including depression and denial. Says Bruce McCall, a Downer writer, of his friend's unusual career track: "It takes a lot of guts for a star to write. The knives are out for celebrities who seem to try to get above their station. They risk falling on their face."
Then again, he's also at risk biking around the streets near his home in Manhattan. So be it. Says McCall: "He doesn't live in a bubble of celebrities." Currently dating writer Ellen Ladowsky, 36, Martin spends most of his time on the West Coast (where he owns a home in Santa Barbara, in addition to his place in L.A.), riding his bike, e-mailing his pals, perusing his favorite museums (his own painting collection, which includes works by Seurat, Lichtenstein and Picasso, will go on display April 7 at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas) and tapping out his latest thoughts on the computer. "I get the feeling he's still figuring out what he wants to do when he grows up," says McCall. No doubt he will. As Simon puts it, "He's spent a lot of time working on his personal happiness. He seems more relaxed now, more at ease in the world and more in command of the world." In other words, don't bother passing the envelope. We know who the winner is.
Jennifer Longley in New York City and Lorenzo Benet and Michelle Caruso in Los Angeles