Why Martin Scorsese Never Made His Dean Martin Movie

Republic Rediscovered Presented by MOMA, the Film Foundation and Paramount
Getty Images for MoMA Department / Getty Images

While promoting "The Aviator" in 2004, filmmaker Martin Scorsese spoke at a press conference about the rumors that he planned to shoot a biopic about singer/actor Dean Martin. More than a dozen years later, the film has still not been made. But back in 2004, Scorsese explained why the project never materialized:

"No. No. There was talk, a lot of it. We did it. We did it. Tom Hanks was going to do it. Nick Pileggi and I killed ourselves working on that script. I always use that phrase ‘killed’ since I'm always accused of being overly dramatic by everyone (laughing). But we really suffered making that one. You do feel as if you're in a battle, you know?

The studio, at the time, really wanted a film on Dean Martin. I had worked on a script with Irwin Winkler. Paul Schrader was first, and then John Guare on [the subject of] Gershwin for many years. That was a film I owed Warner Bros. It's a complicated issue. Ultimately, when it was time to do Gershwin, they turned to me and said, 'We'd rather have one on Dean Martin.' I said, 'The thing is, the Gershwin script is done. Excuse me. I'm just saying. It's been since 1981 that I've been working on it.' They said, 'No. No. No. No.' I understood. They wanted something from the swinging early '60's, late '50's Vegas like "Ocean's Eleven," man, the original "Ocean's Eleven."

They had a retrospective of my movies at Walter Reed Theater in New York, the only way that I would do it is if they showed a film of mine and a film that sort of influenced it, or a film that I thought was important to see. When it came to Goodfellas, I had them watch Ocean's Eleven. Good, bad or indifferent, it's the attitude. It also was like in widescreen and in color, a documentary in a sense of old Vegas that doesn't exist anymore.

But, in any event, when the time came we accepted the assignment to try and do it. There were legal issues involved, too. I owed them a film for about 10 years. It was a complicated issue. I don't remember half of it. But all I know is that Nick and I tried for a year on the script, and it's exactly the same situation [as Howard Hughes' story]. I didn't know what to leave out. I just didn't know what to leave out. Then Terry and I looked at each other kind of perplexed, we didn't know quite what to do and then something happened and bang, the next thing you knew, Gangs of New York was being made. So we are back to a certain extent with Warner Brothers on [ "The Aviator"]. Miramax is the main distributor and Warner Brothers is the other.

We really tried, but the story of Dean Martin is very difficult. It’s very difficult because ultimately he pulls back in life. He seemed to pull back in life. He pulled back and seemed to be passive and that was part of what was appreciated about him from Sinatra and everybody else. The active ones were Sinatra and Sammy Davis. They were making things. They were out there taking people on, and Frank Sinatra would see somebody in a bar that had written something about him that he didn't like and Dean would say, 'Leave him alone. Don't give him the satisfaction. Let it be.' No, he was going to get up and hit him.

It's interesting. It's an interesting dynamic. But can you make a film and say what the man is about? I don't think that you can ever make a fiction or even a documentary. You could, maybe, I keep thinking this, you could maybe​ if you're lucky, have the contradictions in a man or a woman. That makes the person, but you can't say this is the kind of person he was and this is who he is, like Howard Hughes. This is an aspect of Howard Hughes. We really couldn't get a handle on what to do.​

I actually thought the strongest story there beyond the Rat Pack thing, before that was his relationship with Jerry Lewis and the creative relationship and how that worked out. Ultimately, having gone through such fame, having such a close working relationship, how he then pulled back seemingly creatively, seemingly, and had gone through such a close relationship - like a marriage. That's a very strong thing. That's really the story, I think. And it's the story of creative collaboration whether you're writers or painters or composers, musicians, anything, filmmakers, comedians. This is it. This is the story of two people and how they worked together over the years."