DOC NYC 2021 Interview: Tom Donahue on Crafting a Warm Tribute in “Dean Martin: King of Cool”

If “Dean Martin: King of Cool” comes across as breezy and carefree as its star attraction, it’s because director Tom Donahue realized at the start of a rigorous research process for the biography, there were some things about the multitalented Rat Packer that could never be fully known.

“It made me realize I could do something more unique than the standard portrait biopic [where] you tell story in 90 minutes, there’s a rise and fall, and it wraps up the life in a neat bow,” said Donahue about attempting to take on the enormity of a man who had success on so many stages yet kept a very private profile off of them. “It is very hard to get to the bottom of what really drove this man, but I think we came up with a fun answer. Is it the right answer? We’ll never know.”

Still, “Dean Martin: King of Cool” would seem to be as definitive as it gets, even when it leaves out the Matt Helm films and his late-career celebrity roasts in favor of giving as much screen time as possible to a cavalcade of Martin’s contemporaries, fans and friends, showing just how many lives he touched. With interviews from Norman Lear and Tommy Tune, who got an early leg up in the industry from working on Martin’s variety shows, to Jon Hamm and RZA(!), the film charts Martin’s influence as he carved out an unprecedented path from his childhood home of Steubenville, Ohio to Hollywood, spending his early days singing for pocket change in Cleveland with the support of his first wife Betty to finding a comic foil in a wiry 19-year-old named Jerry Lewis to rechristening himself as a serious actor after their 10-year partnership ended in acrimony and eventually finding some of his greatest success hosting his own show on Sunday night television.

While Martin surely would appreciate how entertaining the film is — and how could it not be when Carol Burnett and Tom Dreesen are around swapping stories, Donahue is able to slip under the surface a bit with Martin’s daughter Deana on hand to explore the gap between his life-of-the-party public persona and his desire to live quietly away from the cameras, excusing himself from late nights in Vegas when Frank Sinatra wanted to keep things rolling after long days filming “Ocean’s 11” and he’d rather leave the spotlight five minutes early than stay five minutes too late. So detailed that Deana Martin even reveals the recipe for her father’s beloved Pasta Fagioli, “Dean Martin: King of Cool” is bound to please longtime admirers and those who will want to bing all the Martin star vehicles that are accompanying the film’s television premiere on Turner Classic Movies on November 19th such as “The Caddy” and “Rio Bravo.” But first, the film is making its premiere theatrically and online as part of DOC NYC and as it hits the big screen, Donahue spoke about the project that has long been in the work, getting at Martin’s essence without trampling on his mystique and bringing to light some of the darker aspects of his life.

How did this come about?

I’ve always loved the era and have been a big fan of Dean Martin, so I was doing a documentary that ended with a hundredth birthday celebration of Frank Sinatra. One of the performers there was Dean’s daughter Deana Martin, and she saw another film I did called “Casting By” and loved it and said, “Would you consider doing a doc on my dad? There hasn’t really been a feature doc on my father.” I found that really hard to believe, and Deana had written a great book called “Memories Are Made of This,” [which] I read, and it was so honest that I thought, “Wow, to be able to tell the story of her dad and have his daughter involved where she can paint a more intimate portrait of Dean than we’re used to reading or seeing, [because] there’s a reason why a lot has not been done on Dean Martin. He was always very mercurial and always kind of wanted to remain in the shadows as a personality. He was amazing on stage. He gave his all in movies and television and in the theater and in nightclubs, but the real Dean Martin was someone that very few people knew, so I wanted to get to the bottom of that, and what drove this man that nobody seemed to really know.

Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and RZA are among the last people I expected to see in a Dean Martin doc, but are among the most insightful interviews you have. Did you end up casting a pretty big net?

It wasn’t about a wide net. We wanted to bring in people who weren’t the obvious demographic for Dean Martin to show how much he’s influenced culture across all demographics. And RZA [specifically] had a connection to Steubenville, where Dean was born, and I wasn’t even clear on what the connection was, but we reached out to his management, and RZA was really happy to be involved and gave me this incredibly brilliant 45-minute interview.I like to say that he’s become the Yoda of the film, the wisest person in the movie. He’s amazing.

Was there any direction this took that you really didn’t expect?

No, but I can say that the more I got to know Dean, the more he went from somebody whose story I wanted to tell to being somebody I really deeply, truly admired and I could probably say I didn’t completely expect that. I made a movie about toxic masculinity — two of them, actually, “Thank You For Your Service” and “This Changes Everything.” And I’ve done hundreds of interviews with traumatized veterans and with a lot of women who’ve experienced a lot of sexism in their lives, so I saw masculinity as almost a negative thing as a result of working on these two movies, but in doing the story of Dea nMartin, it was a bit of a cleansing ritual for me [as far as] how masculinity could actually be a wonderful, joyous thing if it’s lived correctly, and that, to me, is who Dean Martin was.

There’s a really elegant pivot in the film to Dean Martin’s darker side when Todd Fisher talks about how part of the appeal for golfing for him was being alone and unbothered. What was it like to be able to address that in a subtle way?

I will give credit to my story producer Ron Marasco — I do all the interviews and make selects, but Ron ingested all the interviews in his brilliant brain and the two of us were an amazing collaborative team in the edit of the documentary, so he really helped lay out this structure in a way that gave it a more objective quality than I would’ve had, because when you’re directing, you’re so involved in the 45 people that you interview and Ron gave it this incredible perspective and really broke it down psychologically. He had written a book, actually called “On Grief,” so he became my real go-to explaining to me how Dean grieved, what caused his grief, how he dealt with it and how he didn’t deal with it. He was very helpful in putting together the structure of the film.

But it goes from George Schlatter, the creator of “Laugh-In,” talking about how [Dean’s second wife] Jeanne loved to have parties every week and I think if I had parties in my house every week, I’d probably have a problem with that, too. But it says a lot about Dean that he loved Jeanne so much that he let her have the parties and it also says a lot that he wasn’t necessarily always going to go along with it and instead ended up watching “The Andy Griffith Show” in the basement. We realized that’s the moment of pivot, because, at that point in the film, it’s surprising. We haven’t set up his isolation yet, which is such a big part of what people know about Dean and that’s so much of the Dean myth, but we don’t really broach that except for setting up the mystery portion at the beginning.

And part of setting up the mystery comes from having Jon Hamm recite Mark Rudman’s poem “The Secretary of Liquor,” which gives it that elusive air. How did that come about?

That’s also Ron — Ron found the poem, and we decided we were going to ask people to read excerpts of the poem, but we didn’t have to go past Jon Hamm, because once Jon read the poem, we have it. Jon did it in one take, and it’s like, “Hey, Jon, do you want to read this?” He looked at it. He goes, “This isn’t a poem. It’s an essay.” So we chose excerpts, and he read it brilliantly the first time.

This has had to have been in the works for awhile. What’s it like getting to the finish line now with it?

Great. And I got to give COVID some credit for that, because it was at a point where you’re not going into any new productions, so we had all these incredible interviews with some people who have passed away like Florence Henderson and Regis Philbin, and we were like, “Let’s get Dean Martin finished. It’s been with us for five or six years at that point, and we connected to TCM, and we pitched it and they loved it. And we got Leo DiCaprio on board and his company Appian Way [onboard] and for the last year-and-a-half, we had to race to the finish line. It was like the opposite of hurry up and wait. It was wait and then hurry up. We’ve got to tell this story fast.

Given all your work about the Golden Age of Hollywood, have all these connections added up as far as one film building on the next?

Very much. “Casting By” opened a lot of doors, because I had a very talented producer on that Kate Lacey, who knew everybody having been a casting associate at Disney, and that’s how we started, and, of course, Marion Dougherty, the great casting director, got us connected to a lot of amazing people in Hollywood — not just the big stars, but the agents, the publicists, and the managers, and they become a huge resource for us. Now, we ask for somebody, and we rarely get a turn down unless it’s a scheduling conflict, so it’s been an amazing experience. So what we want to know now is what are we going to do next? We don’t know yet.

“Dean Martin: King of Cool” will screen at DOC NYC at the IFC Center on November 15th at 4 pm and will be available virtually as part of the DOC NYC online platform until November 18th. It airs on TCM on November 19th.