If things had worked out differently, Three Amigos! would have starred Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Bill Murray. Maybe Steven Spielberg would have directed it. This was back in the early 1980s, back when Martin had envisioned it, as he described later to writer Nick de Semlyen, as a “Mexican-Western fiesta musical with a million gags.” Martin had hired some writers to tackle the screenplay, but “that didn’t work,” he recalled. “It was just very different. Very based on puns.” Eventually, that version got thrown out, and he started over, rewriting the script with Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels and satirical songwriter extraordinaire Randy Newman. Martin cast his pal Chevy Chase. As for the third amigo … how about that hyperactive Canadian guy from SCTV?
“It was my very first film and it couldn’t have been a more luxurious way to start,” Martin Short told de Semlyen.
Now 35 years old, Three Amigos! may not exactly be a comedy classic, but it’s got a ton of memorable moments and lines. (A whole generation of comedy nerds can’t hear the word “plethora” without thinking of this film.) And it’s got a clever idea, telling the story of Lucky Day (Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Short), who are mediocrely talented actors during Hollywood’s silent era. Unfortunately, they get fired after seeking a raise — but don’t worry about our simpleton heroes, who are as billed as the Three Amigos, because just then they receive a job offer from Carmen (Patrice Martinez), inviting them to travel to her Mexican town to perform their act. But there’s actually a double-misunderstanding going on: Carmen has seen their movies and mistakenly believes they’re actually fearless cowboys, while they stupidly think her plea for them to rid her town of the evil bandit El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) is just a paid public appearance. Before there was Galaxy Quest and Tropic Thunder, there was Three Amigos!. “It’s been done three or four times [since our movie],” Three Amigos! director John Landis would later say. “Only successfully!”
Martin is about five years older than Short, and he’s often exuded a big-brother energy when he plays opposite him — and it all started on Three Amigos!, which was their first onscreen pairing. The movie is very much a sendup of Hollywood egos — these three idiots walk around the sleepy town of Santo Poco assuming everyone is so impressed that celebrities are in their midst — and Lucky carries himself like a would-be matinee idol. Ned, by comparison, is both shorter and sweeter than his pals — he’s very much the sidekick. He’s the kid tagging along with the more confident Lucky. All these years later, although both actors have amassed impressive bodies of work, you still feel that vibe between them. Martin is the dignified class president of comedy, while Short is the class clown.
It’s not surprising that Short was the youngest in his family growing up in Ontario — although he experienced tragedy early. “We were a typical happy-go-lucky Irish Catholic family: five kids and two parents,” he once recalled. “Within seven years, my brother died, my mother died and my father died. Separate illnesses for my parents and a tragic car accident for my brother. And it was like the day before that happened, we would have heard about something like that happening to another family, and we would have thought, ‘That only happens to another family.’” He’d gone to school for social work but was part of a production of Godspell in Toronto in 1972 that included, among others, Eugene Levy and Gilda Radner. From there, Short was committed to a life of performing. “I thought that made sense, because you don’t want to look in the mirror at 50 and say, ‘Maybe I should have tried acting,’” Short later said.
He went on to do sketch comedy at SCTV and Saturday Night Live, although his and Martin’s paths never crossed. Well, that’s not entirely true: Earlier this month, Short recalled in a joint interview with Martin, “I met Steve, the first time, backstage at The New Show, an hour-long version of Saturday Night Live in prime time that Lorne Michaels was producing for NBC. Steve was the guest host that week — this is in 1984 — and Catherine O’Hara, my old friend, was doing the show with Steve. We met quickly. But you were in the middle of a change, going into your dressing room. ‘Oh, hi.’”
The brief run-in was an indication of their different star statuses at the time. By that point, Martin had already established himself as one of the best stand-ups of the 1970s, walking away at the height of his popularity because the rooms were getting too big for the brilliantly weird, intimate comedy he was doing. “The act essentially, besides all the jokes and bits and everything, was conceptual,” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross last year. “And once the concept was understood, there was nothing more to develop. It’s like painting the same blank canvas over and over and over and over and over. Once the concept is known, you don’t need to see two.” In his terrific memoir about those early years, Born Standing Up, Martin described his limitations like this: “I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic. I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented. I didn’t sing, dance or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive.”
The two men were diametrically opposed in their talents, too. Both were funny, but Martin was controlled, precise, a master-crafter of comedy as he segued from stand-up to film. (Even when he was being insanely goofy in his first movie, The Jerk, there was a conceptual mind at work.) Meanwhile, Short was a marvelous ham, a throwback to the singing-and-dancing showmen of yesteryear. If Martin’s comedic temperament was cool, Short was hot. If Martin had the elegant aloofness of a cat, Short was a big happy puppy dog.
In the mid-1980s, Chase and Martin were old pals — they were part of a regular card game that included comedy giants like Carl Reiner and Neil Simon — so when Three Amigos! went in front of the cameras, Short was the new guy in the trio. “He was very nice, and we were kind of shy with each other,” Short recalled of Martin. “And then we started rehearsing the movie, and I right away — he was, I found, beyond being funny and all that, immediately kind of sweet and vulnerable, which I hadn’t expected, in a very kind of self-deprecating way and very, very sweet and kind way.”
As for Martin, he remembers walking to the set early in the shoot and hearing, to his shock, Katharine Hepburn yelling from behind him, “Where’s my bicycle?!” Martin turned around — it was Short, doing one of his many patented impressions. Years later Martin would say, “[W]hen I first met Marty, he had just had a little girl. And I remember being jealous of the little girl, because she was going to take time away from me.”
Three Amigos! was hatched during an era of supersized comedies. Why have one funny guy in your movie when you could have a whole ensemble of comics? And I do mean “guy”: Long before “bromance” became a marketable term, films like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters were all huge hits that were part anarchic affairs, part male-bonding sessions. Frequently starring SNL cast members who were making the jump to the big screen, these were laidback hangs in which men got the best lines and the big laughs. Superficially, Three Amigos! was very much of that ilk, directed by Landis, who’d previously helmed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and Spies Like Us.
“It’s a strange script, but a very smart one,” Landis said in 2016 of Three Amigos!. “Like Animal House — the movies are so silly and outrageous, I don’t know if people are aware of how sophisticated they are.” In that same interview, Martin told Landis, “It’s a funny, silly comedy. It just works. And by the way, I have to give John a lot of credit. You recognized that these were sweet characters and directed in that direction. You allowed that to happen.”
Indeed, unlike some of the more ribald films of the era — which had taken their cue from the National Lampoon template of anti-authoritarian humor — Three Amigos! is sunny rather than mean-spirited. Many of the jokes are about how dumb the Amigos are, how ill-equipped they are to deal with the real world. Chase’s character Dusty is positioned as more of the ladies’ man of the three — it’s always a bit of a shock to revisit 1980s movies and remember that, oh right, people actually thought Chevy Chase was rather dashing — but it’s revealing that Martin and Short’s characters are actually more appealing. Chase made a career out of snideness, but the benign dopiness of Lucky and Ned has aged a lot better. Even though the two actors had just met, you can feel a kinship between them on screen — they seem to understand the script’s good-hearted, utterly goofy tone in their bones.
Unlike the blockbuster comedies of the 1980s, though, Three Amigos! didn’t do very well at the box office or get all that great of reviews. (Funny enough, in Roger Ebert’s pan, he notes, “The comic style they should have adopted was Short’s manic goofiness from Saturday Night Live, but the tone seems to come more from Martin, who keeps a bemused distance from the material. Chase hardly seems in the movie at all; he’s given a few lines and some quizzical reaction shots and left idling in the background.”) In retrospect, maybe it’s precisely because the film wasn’t quite as outrageous or edgy as its peers that it failed to become a phenomenon. (As close as Three Amigos! gets to filthy is Lucky’s immortal pseudo-tough-guy line, “Not so fast, El Guapo! Or I’ll fill you so full of lead that you’ll be using your dick for a pencil!”) Where other bro comedies of the time featured sarcastic, scheming pals, Lucky, Dusty and Ned were basically decent dudes who happily do a singalong together under the stars before going to bed.
Three Amigos! could have been it for Martin and Short, but there’d been a spark between them. “When you’re making movies, you’re in this intense world for two-and-a-half months and often never see each other again,” Short said in 2019. “In this case, I made a conscious decision that, no, I didn’t want to lose this guy.” They stayed friends and kept making movies together, their distinctly different personas beginning to be cemented. Martin was the uptight George in the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride, anxious about his daughter’s big day going well, while Short was the irreverent wedding planner Franck — a dynamic they revisited in the sequel. Meanwhile, the two men just kept hanging out IRL as well. For one thing, their families would go on vacation together. And in 2019, Short estimated — Jokingly? Maybe? It can be hard to tell with these two sometimes — that they’d had about 850,000 dinners together over the years.
But that friendship only seemed to intensify in the last decade, and one can’t help but wonder if that happened, in part, because of the death of Short’s wife Nancy Dolman from cancer in 2010. (He had met her back on Godspell — she was Radner’s understudy.) They were married for 30 years. “Our marriage was a triumph,” he said in 2019. “So it’s tough. … I believe that when people die, they zoom into the people that love them. This idea that it just ends, and don’t speak of them — that’s wrong. That’s based on denial that we’re all going to die. So to me, she’s still here. At the same time, her death emboldened me to take risks. With real tragedy, you become a little more daring. It’s the yin to the yang: the positive part of life’s dark side.”
A year after her passing, he and Martin were onstage at the Just for Laughs Festival, interviewing one another. They had such a good time, they wondered if it should become a show. “[I]t was very successful, which wasn’t a big shock because we have this natural chemistry,” Short said. “We did a few more interviews and then thought to evolve it.”
From that came A Very Stupid Conversation and then, eventually, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, their delightfully ultra-vaudeville show (and later Netflix special), which reveled in its tremendously terrible shtick and old-timey panache. (The latest iteration is similarly self-deprecatingly titled The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment.) In recent years, the two stars have basically turned their back on movies, happily embracing the bygone showbiz style that’s the hallmark of their live show. Even better, it helped coax Martin back onto the stage in the first significant way since the 1970s — which wouldn’t have happened without his friend out there with him. “I never really wanted to [perform live],” Martin admitted in 2018, later adding, “[B]ut this is actually the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed performing, where I look forward to it and walk out with no nerves or no anxiety. Either I’m older and more experienced, or it’s great to have a partner.”
In interviews, it’s hard to get Martin and Short to say one sincere thing about each other. Instead, it tends to be a barrage of cheerful putdowns, not unlike in their stage shows. (Once asked about the fact that they’re not competitive with one another, Short quipped, “In general, I don’t remember feeling upset that Steve was funnier at dinner or something, because it never happened.”) So when you get a glimpse of earnestness, it’s worth paying attention to. “Steve’s best quality is who he is as a man,” Short once told People. “He’s very moral, he’s very loyal, very, very ethical. And this is beyond all that talent. You can be working with the most talented, funniest human being in the world, but if you don’t have those other things, you don’t really want to tour with someone.”
Now both in their 70s, there’s something adorable about their friendship, which has spanned half their lives. On their own, they’re each beloved comedic institutions, but there’s something about them together that’s especially warm and appealing, even gratifying. Maybe it’s partly because they’re just about the only comics of their generation who haven’t had their reputation tarnished in some way because of offensive comments or #MeToo accusations. (Martin has made a few ill-advised tweets, but that’s really it.) They’re the funny elder statesmen you don’t have to feel guilty about still liking.
But it could also be that, in a profession ruled by egos and grudges, it’s downright charming to see the clear affection Martin and Short have for one another as they’re tearing into each other on stage. Insult humor is nothing new, of course, but their playful back-and-forth feels almost flirtatious — it’s the glue of their friendship. (“Marty’s the one who introduced me to putting people down,” Martin has said. “I didn’t do it before I met him, but I noticed that he was putting me down, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of funny. Okay.’ Now it’s just what we do — put everybody down.”) Plus, that older brother/younger brother vibe is still there — never more so than when Martin received an Honorary Oscar in 2013. Who else was going to deliver the opening remarks at that evening’s ceremony than his old pal Marty, who turned the night into a roast — the class clown still sticking it to the valedictorian.
Three Amigos! was probably a little too silly and sweet to catch on at its time, but its spirit holds the secret to Steve Martin and Martin Short’s 35-year bond. Men are notorious for shedding friendships as they get older, and yet these two still adore one another. People will tune into their upcoming Hulu series, Only Murders in the Building, chiefly because they enjoy their comfily polished rapport. And if you watch Three Amigos! now, its most cheering element is the knowledge that these two guys are about to embark on one of the most sustaining relationships of their life.
Short was asked recently if he could imagine he and Martin remaining friends until they shuffle off this mortal coil. Unsurprisingly, Short went with a zinger. “Well, I struggle with seeing decay blatantly up close,” he replied, a familiar go-to for him in terms of mocking Martin for being older than him. “So I think Steve and I have a couple more years, then it will just get too depressing for me. I don’t think we’re going to get a room together at the Sunrise of Beverly Hills retirement home.”
Maybe not, but it’s a comforting thought.