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Dean Martin: The Rat Pack Star And Amateur Boxer Who Was Afraid Of Elevators

Photo Credit: Martin Mills / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Martin Mills / Getty Images

Rat Pack legend and comedian extraordinaire Dean Martin was a Hollywood staple. His witty antics and voice made him one of the most popular entertainers around, and he rubbed shoulders with Tinsel Town’s finest. Here are some facts you may not have known about him.

What’s In A Name?

The comedian playing pool at his Beverly Hills home
Photo Credit: Eddie Sanderson / Getty Images

He wasn’t always known as Dean Martin. Like many in Hollywood, his iconic moniker was actually a stage name. Martin was born Dino Paul Crocetti. He changed his name when he first came into the spotlight, going by Dino Martini, after the opera singer Nino Martini.

In 1940, bandleader Sammy Watkins suggested he change his name, so people wouldn’t confuse him with the famous singer. From then on, he was known as Dean Martin.

A Skilled Amateur Boxer

Dean Martin standing over Jerry Lewis in a boxing ring while a woman holds up a sign in support of Muscular Dystrophy awareness
Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Before he was known for his comedic genius and musical talent, Martin was a boxer, albeit an amateur one. He became a welterweight at 16, and held a record of 25-11. He boxed under the name “Kid Crochet,” and once joked he’d won 11 out of the 12 professional fights he was in.

The job didn’t pay well and Martin often struggled to scrape together enough money to buy tape for his knuckles. This resulted in a slew of injuries, including a scarred lip, a bruised body, busted knuckles, and a broken nose.

While living in New York City with Sonny King, the two reportedly charged people to watch them bare-knuckle fight each other at their apartment. They fought until one knocked the other out, foreshadowing Martin’s eventual win over King during the first round of an amateur boxing match.

Comic Books Aren’t Just For Children

Dean Martin and Red Buttons reading a book while sitting on a bench
Dean Martin and Red Buttons. (Photo Credit: Martin Mills / Getty Images)

It’s said Dean Martin only read one book during his life, Black Beauty. That doesn’t mean he didn’t dabble in other forms of literature. In fact, he loved comic books. Afraid that being seen buying them would hurt his “King of Cool” persona, he often had his friend and frequent collaborator Jerry Lewis buy them for him.

Martin’s love for comics eventually led DC Comics to release one about him in 1952, titled The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It ran for 40 issues, until the duo broke up. From then on, it was renamed The Adventures of Jerry Lewis and ran for another 83 issues.

He Wasn’t Actually A Boozehound

The comedian sitting on a table holding a bottle of alcohol while three more are in front of him
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

A large part of Martin’s public persona was his love of alcohol. His comedy series, The Dean Martin Show, exploited this image, and his convincing portrayals of drunkards in Rio Bravo and Some Came Running only further fueled rumors of alcoholism. He even had a vanity license plate that read “DRUNKY.”

What many might not realize is it was all an act. In truth, Martin was a disciplined drinker who simply borrowed the “loveable drunk” shtick from Joe E. Lewis. He was often the first one to call it a night, preferring a good rest to ensure he was ready for golf in the morning.

As for the drinks he held when performing on stage? According to his son, Dean Paul Martin, the glasses were usually filled with apple juice.

Everyone’s A Bully

Dean Martin looking up while Jerry Lewis makes a funny face
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

Dean Martin was the child of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-American mother. Despite growing up in Ohio, he spoke only Italian until the age of five, when he began school. His broken English made him the target of bullies at Grant Elementary School, where he was a student.

It turns out school wasn’t for Martin, who dropped out in grade 10 due to the belief he was smarter than his teachers. That definitely wouldn’t fly nowadays…

Plastic Surgery Is So Hollywood

Portrait of Dean Martin
Photo Credit: Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

Martin is one of the many Hollywood stars who have gone under the knife in the name of beauty. When he was 27 years old, he underwent a rhinoplasty, which was reportedly paid for by comedian Lou Costello. The doctors straightened his nose and narrowed its bridge, but many couldn’t notice a difference when all was said and done.

Explanations differ as to why Martin decided to have work done. Some believe it was because of the injuries he suffered during his boxing days, while others claim he simply didn’t like the way it looked.

His Son Died In A Plane Crash

Frank Sinatra Jr. and Dean Paul Martin showing each other model cars
Frank Sinatra Jr. and Dean Paul Martin. (Photo Credit: Martin Mills / Getty Images)

Dean Paul was Martin’s son via his second marriage. While he dabbled in singing and acting, his true passion was flying. At 16, he obtained his pilot’s license, and in 1980 became an officer with the California Air National Guard.

He entered active duty for officer training under the U.S. Air Force’s Palace Chase Program and was later commissioned as a second lieutenant. He went on to complete his Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbia Air Force Base. From there, he was transferred to the California Air National Guard 196th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 163rd Tactical Fighter Group.

On March 21, 1987, Dean Paul and weapons system officer Captain Ramon Ortiz departed from March AFB in an F-4C Phantom II. It was supposed to be a routine training mission in the San Bernardino Mountains, but a snowstorm blew through and the plane crashed into San Gorgonio Mountain. Both men were killed upon impact.

Why Rehearse When You Can Play Golf?

Dean Martin on the golf course
Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Most in the entertainment industry need to rehearse to put on a good show, but not Dean Martin. He hated rehearsing, especially for his variety show. It’s no surprise, then, that the contract he signed in 1968 had a rather unique clause.

When Martin signed his $34 million contract to do three more seasons of the show, one of the clauses stated he didn’t have to show up to rehearsals. He instead spent this time on the golf course, while someone stood in for him. When Friday rolled around, he arrived on set and taped the show.

He Was Claustrophobic

The five members of the Rat Pack standing side-by-side in suits
The Rat Pack: Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop and Dean Martin. (Photo Credit: Jack Albin / Getty Images)

Martin is said to have been terrified of small, closed-in spaces. One of his biggest fears was elevators, which he called “coffins.” He was so afraid of them that he once opted to walk up 18 flights of stairs instead of riding in one.

It was a stipulation that he have a room on the first floor when staying at hotels to ensure he never had to enter an elevator.

He Declined Lifesaving Surgery

Dean Martin in a tux in 1981
Dean Martin circa 1981 in New York City. (Photo Credit: Images Press/IMAGES/Getty Images)

Dean Martin was a heavy smoker for most of his life. By 16, he was chain-smoking, and he often couldn’t go on stage without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in another. He continued to smoke until he was 76, even after showing signs of COPD in his early 60s.

His cancer diagnosis in September 1993 forced him to give up the habit. As the illness progressed, doctors at Cedars Sinai Medical Center told him the only way to prolong his life expectancy would be to undergo surgery on his kidneys and liver. He declined.

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Martin retired from public life in early 1995 and succumbed to acute respiratory failure on Christmas Day of that year. In his honor, the lights were dimmed along the Las Vegas Strip.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News