Martin brings impressive resume to ringmaster role

HOLLYWOOD — Steve Martin has a simple reason for hosting the 73rd annual Academy Awards: “If you can’t win ‘em, join ‘em.”

Not that he’s written off all chances of claiming a golden statuette of his own during his career. Still, this one-night stand at the kudocast will at least get him onstage at the Shrine Auditorium.

“I’m excited about him hosting because there’s just about nothing he can’t do,” says Louis J. Horvitz, who will be helming his fifth straight Oscar telecast.

The Emmy-winning director has worked off and on with Martin ever since the comic was doing the arrow-through-the-head gag and making balloon animals.

“Of course, his career has progressed phenomenally since then,” Horvitz says.

Indeed it has. The Wild and Crazy Guy, who in the 1970s was opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” has since starred in a number of hit pics, including “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” “Roxanne” and “Father of the Bride.”

Martin also proudly can list author on his ever-growing resume. He’s a playwright and has written satirical pieces for the New Yorker. In addition, his first novella, “Shopgirl,” has been on the bestseller lists of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and it recently went into its seventh printing.

“Steve has that quality of funny intelligence,” says veteran Oscar kudocast producer Gil Cates. “He’s an extraordinarily gifted artist, in terms of being a movie star, standup comic and that unique expression of humor.”

While Martin may have the best seat for the March 25 show (although he’ll spend much of the time standing), he won’t really be at the center of the awards action, according to those who’ve done this before.

“It’s a tough room because nobody is there to see you,” said Whoopi Goldberg before hosting the 68th edition of the Oscars in 1996. “It’s like opening for the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. People don’t care. They don’t want to see you; they want to see the band. That is kind of what you have to know going in.”

Comic giants Johnny Carson and Bob Hope were comfortable with that role, which made them successful — and popular — repeat Oscars hosts, says USA Today television critic Robert Bianco.

“They never forgot they were there to smooth the way between the awards, not to take your mind off the awards,” Bianco says.

Martin is up to that challenge, says Cates, who asked Martin to host the show once before but he couldn’t due to other commitments.

“I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I’ll say it anyway: He’s probably the closest to Johnny Carson,” Cates says. “I’ve always loved Carson and I’ve always loved Steve.”

So will Martin gently tug on the show’s reins in the easy-going manner of the former “Tonight Show” host, or will he grab ‘em and pull hard much like Billy Crystal did when he made a grand entrance in 1993 atop a giant Oscar towed by “City Slickers” co-star Jack Palance?

Don’t expect any clues from Cates, who is producing his 10th Oscar kudocast.

“Each host brings to the show his or her own unique abilities,” he says. “I think viewers will be pleased with what he does this year.”

In any event, the show remains a work in progress, with Martin collaborating with a writing team that includes Buz Kohan and Rita Rudner, and vet Oscar show scribes Hal Kanter and Bruce Vilanch.

“Once we figure out what we’re going to do as a surprise, we’ll start putting it into play,” Horvitz says.

There could even be some unplanned surprises after the curtain rises at 5:30.

“Steve’s perfectly capable of making and creating many spontaneous moments, and I’m going to be listening to follow him,” Horvitz says.

One thing is easy to predict: Martin will be laying off the Uma Thurman jokes.

“The important thing for a host at any of these awards shows is to find a way to get humor out of it without ruining the sense of occasion,” USA Today’s Bianco says. “The Emmys are so self-deprecating that often by the end of them you think, ‘Why am I watching?’ If it’s all that ridiculous, why are you wasting our time with it?

“I don’t think that’s what people watch the Oscars for.”

Says Horvitz: “It certainly has the highest profile of any hosting responsibility in the sense that you want to be particularly good or you’re going to hear about it from 60 million people.”

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