It’s important not to mix up the 1959 John Wayne film “Rio Bravo” with the 1966 John Wayne film “El Dorado.” As cinephile Chilli Palmer (John Travolta) points out in the 1995 film “Get Shorty,” Dean Martin played the drunk in “Rio Bravo,” while Robert Mitchum played the drunk in “El Dorado.” Basically the same part. Chilli Palmer also points out that John Wayne played the same role in both films: he played John Wayne.
Dean Martin was no stranger to cinema by 1959, having already appeared in a dozen short films. The bulk of his output, however, was playing more or less himself opposite his comedy partner Jerry Lewis. His first feature film didn’t come until 1957, in the Richard Thorpe rom-com “Ten Thousand Bedrooms,” coming after splitting with Lewis. Immediately diversifying, Martin went on to star in the war film “The Young Lions” and Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running” before appearing in “Rio Bravo.” Seeing as this was his first Western, Martin still seemingly felt out of his element. Importantly, Martin didn’t really know how to dress the part. Eventually, Martin was dressed in a rumpled hat, dusky coat, and a patina of sweat. That wasn’t the costume Martin wore to set. Feeling he could still contribute to his role for director Howard Hawks, Martin elected to construct his own cowboy outfit to show off.
It was a horrible idea, as Martin’s selected cowboy costume was pretty much the opposite of what Hawks wanted. According to a 2003 essay written for Turner Classic Movies, one that quotes an interview with Hawks, Martin asked a friend of his — the on-the-rise actor Marlon Brando — for advice on how to dress. Brando, it seems, led Martin very far down the wrong path.
The Martin Drunk
It’s worth remembering that Dean Martin’s comedic shtick was that of the “whimsical drunk.” In movies and on TV, Martin often affected a loopy intoxication, making his stage persona feel a little out of control. Martin was rarely actually drunk on stage. In “Rio Bravo,” that persona was turned on ear, depicting Martin’s character, Dude, as a suffering alcoholic. There was no whimsy to his alcohol consumption.
Martin and Brando appeared in “Lions” together, so they were in communication.
Howard Hawks recalled the day Martin came to set to play Dude, and was confronted less with a gritty alcoholic and more Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers. “The Gene Autrey Show” and “The Roy Rogers Show” debuted in 1950 and 1951, respectively, and brought a certain kind of gentle “singing cowboy” into vogue. This was the exact popular image that Hawks was trying to undo. Hence, he was aghast when Martin arrived on set the way he did, stating:
“[Martin was] dressed like a musical comedy cowboy. I said, ‘Dean, look, you know a little about drinking. You’ve seen a lot of drunks. I want a drunk. I want a guy in an old dirty sweatshirt and an old hat.’ He went over, and he came back with the outfit he wore in the picture. He must have been successful because Jack Warner said to me, ‘We hired Dean Martin. When’s he going to be in this picture?’ I said, ‘He’s the funny-looking guy in the old hat.’ ‘Holy smoke, is that Dean Martin?'”
Luckily, Martin nailed it on the second try.
Martin continued to act regularly until his retirement in the mid 1980s. His final film was “Cannonball Run II,” and his final TV appearance was the short-lived 1985 detective series “Half Nelson” with Joe Pesci.