Steve Martin is a wealthy businessman in Shopgirl and a bumbling detective in The Pink Panther. He's somewhere in between as he leads us on a trip through the heart and soul of Beverly Hills."I really didn't see Beverly Hills, at least in my consciousness, until I was 21," Steve Martin says, recalling his first glimpse of the place that has become his hometown. We're doing our best to squeeze into a 45-minute telephone interview a mythical place whose name alone is a metaphor for fortune and fame.
Martin grew up in nearby Orange County, where he commuted to jobs selling trinkets and guidebooks at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. At 21, he was a comedy writer, freshly hired for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Dick and Tommy Smothers invited him to dinner, and after he cleaned his plate at the storied Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the brothers did a very Beverly Hills thing, which still thrills him.
"It was the first time I ever saw anyone treat," he says. "They treated the writers to dinner. I was 21 years old, and nobody treated anybody. I thought, 'What a cool thing to do!' I think they influenced me. Today, I try to pick up the tab as much as possible."
Now, the actor/comedian/director/best-selling novelist/playwright can afford to pick up as many tabs as he wants. But I'm willing to pay my own way as long as Martin shows me where to go. Investigating his hometown proves to be a task worthy of Inspector Clouseau, the French detective that Peter Sellers made famous and which Martin revives this February in The Pink Panther. Beverly Hills is a place whose boundaries are vague and whose citizens are elusive. But its charms, Martin insists, are on display for anyone who visits.
"The strangest thing is, it was kind of a small town [when I first became aware of it], and the point I'm going to make is, it actually still is, in its own sweet way," he says.
"Try to make me interesting," Martin says, when I finish peppering him with questions, demanding names, places, details. He provides a pretty good description of what he calls "Beverly Hills and its environs," which might do for a normal city. But this is Beverly Hills. That requires something more, something extra. So I do the only sensible thing: escape my desk in the flatlands of Texas, slip on my best strategically torn jeans, white shirt, and blue blazer, and fly off to the West Coast. There, I rent a vintage convertible, slide on a pair of sunglasses, and insert Steve Martin's Guide to Beverly Hills into the cassette player.
"It was a place I would pass through," Martin is saying above the roar of the 405 Freeway. "There were a lot of shops that I couldn't afford to go into. I left when I was about 25 and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico; and then I lived in Aspen, Colorado; and then I came back home, came back to L.A. But you have to understand that L.A. was very smoggy then, and so it was a place to leave. They cleaned it up! So when I came back, I was very surprised. They actually did something about it, and now it seems like it is very sunny and has bright, breathable days. It made it more like home."