Mark Bennett: Steve Martin's new film includes Terre Haute's odd place in his life

Apr. 25—Two winter days, 13 months apart and nearly a half-century ago, epitomize a Terre Haute worth remembering.

A city changes with its faces, places and events. Yet, the happenings of a certain moment influence that town's future. It's called history — the common thread linking the past and present.

The Terre Haute that existed on Nov. 18, 1978, and Dec. 7, 1979, didn't take itself too seriously, but still had pride and gumption.

Twenty-first-century Terre Haute would do well to retain those qualities.

This town was special enough to be included in comedian Steve Martin's new film, "Steve! (Martin): a documentary in 2 pieces," now streaming on Apple TV+. It includes two segments. "Then" spends 98 dizzying minutes on Martin's meandering, but determined path to superstardom, the level of which was unprecedented for a comic. Martin's popularity exceeded rock stars in 1978 and '79. His albums went platinum, a first for a comedian. Everyday people mimicked his trademark "well excu-u-u-use me!" and "I'm a wild and crazy guy" lines.

The film's second, 95-minute segment centers on his latter years after quitting standup comedy cold turkey in 1980. It's poignant and reflective, as he and others ruminate on his now-78 years, longing for another conversation with his late, unaffectionate dad, and missing friends like the late John Candy.

Indeed, he's become a renaissance man, movie star, author and musician, peaceful and contemplative, in contrast to his "wild and crazy guy" years.

"The standup thing was huge for me. It was gigantic. Now it seems like a blip," Martin says in the documentary. "I have a whole new life now."

That blip represented a cultural earthquake, though. And Terre Haute registered strongly enough on the comedy-history scale to earn multiple spots in "Steve!"

Morgan Neville, an Oscar and Grammy winning filmmaker, wrote and directed the intriguing documentary. Martin participates fully, and narrates his story.

It's filled with grainy home movies; concert footage; clips from appearances on small-screen shows like "Saturday Night Live," "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," the "Tonight Show" and others; snippets from his 50-plus movies; and 2020s two-man stage performances with fellow septuagenarian and comedian Martin Short, who also co-stars with Steve and actress Selena Gomez in the ongoing drama-comedy series "Only Murders in the Building."

The late-'70s moments stand out for their surreal nature. Terre Haute's cameos exemplify those fascinating, bizarre days.

For perspective, remember this city was already living out a college basketball fairy-tale life in 1978 and '79, thanks to Larry Bird and his Indiana State teammates. Martin came to the Haute to put on a concert in Hulman Center on Nov. 18, 1978. In advance, Hauteans camped outside Hulman for the first crack at tickets. A crowd of 7,348 turned out, laughing at Steve's arrow-through-the-head, absurdist show. The next day, 6,622 fans watched Bird's team get a historic win over the Soviet National Team in the same building.

Steve Martin outdrew Larry Bird.

The moment became historic for a different reason — Martin didn't enjoy his stay. Perhaps his attire at the concert — he wore a dark suit, rather than his usual white — was an omen. Martin later vented about it in a Playboy magazine interview.

He complained that no restaurants or shops were open downtown that night. The horizontal hold (remember that?) didn't work on his hotel TV. And when he could make out the picture, the shows were interrupted by ads for fertilizer (manure, as Steve put it). All of those frustrations were his rationale for choosing Terre Haute as his answer to the Playboy interviewer's question, "What's the most 'nowhere' town in the USA?"

When excerpts of the Playboy article emerged, news reporters from around the country called then-Terre Haute Mayor Bill Brighton for reaction. Despite being in the tumultuous homestretch of his final term, Brighton handled it deftly. Brighton insisted, tongue-in-cheek, "we like manure" and suggested that if Martin didn't like Terre Haute, "well, excu-u-u-use us!" Brighton also invited the comic to return to see Terre Haute's real side.

He did, of course, on Dec. 7, 1979. Martin arrived in a jet, paid for by Universal Studios and Playboy, at Hulman Field with an entourage that included two Playboy bunnies and renowned Chicago chef Jean Marie Martel of Maxim's de Paris restaurant. Martel whipped up Martin's lunch at the long-bygone greasy spoon diner, the Shuffle Inn. Riding in a used car, Martin toured a fertilizer plant, a car wash and a farm implement shop, before addressing a throng of 2,000 berserk fans outside City Hall, holding spoof signs like "Welcome, Billy Martin." Steve jokingly retracted his "Nowhere USA" assessment, telling the crowd he'd tell friends to skip Rome and Paris and visit Terre Haute instead.

Two years later, Terre Haute met a fictional demise in his movie, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid." Martin remembered us.

Glimpses of his brushes with Terre Haute spice the "Then" portion of "Steve!"

Footage of his return visit shows fans sprinting toward City Hall to watch his impromptu speech, and kids waving from a passing Vigo County School Corp. bus. More than 200 media members captured the wackiness. Standing beside the mayor, Martin deadpans, "Well I'm a little disappointed more photographers didn't show up."

Next, the chef at the Shuffle Inn hoists a live lobster he's about to prepare, while Martin looks on in feigned shock.

Later, footage from inside Martin's car captures a sign at the old WTHI-TV and Radio building that says, "All for me ... Steve Martin."

In his narration of the scenes, Martin says, "I was still doing comedy, but really I was a party host."

In another moment, a young fan waves at Martin through his car's backseat window. He sheepishly waves back. As narrator, Martin says, "I was very isolated and very lonely. You literally can't go outside."

Martin wonders aloud why he didn't just give up, back when no one laughed at his schtick. "I was doing my act for 15 years before it clicked," he says. People asked him, "Why didn't you quit?" He laughs and says, "Too stupid."

Anxieties accompanied his adventures. He ended his standup chapter just months after his Terre Haute tour, and began the multi-faceted life he lives now. It includes being a husband of 17 years and late-in-life father.

"I look back and think, what an odd life," Martin says in "Steve!" "I go from being anxiety ridden in my 30s to 75 and really happy."

Here's a thank-you for bringing Terre Haute along for the wild-and-crazy part of the ride.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or