For more than 45 years, Dean Martin remained one of the most visible and admired of star performers. Yet no one, not even his wives and children, seems to have known him.

Martin, 78, died at 3:30 a.m. Christmas Day at his Beverly Hills home of an acute respiratory failure, said his longtime manager, Mort Viner.Martin first achieved fame in the late 1940s, when he paired up with a zany comic, Jerry Lewis. When the team broke up after their last film in 1956, Martin emerged as an actor in such movies as "The Young Lions," "Some Came Running," "Rio Bravo," "Bells are Ringing," "Toys in the Attic" and "Airport."

Martin also starred in his own television shows from 1965 to 1974 and made best-selling records such as "That's Amore," "Volare" and "Everybody Loves Somebody," which topped the charts in 1964.

Despite his immense fame, Dean Martin, born Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, remained an enigma even to those closest to him.

Jeanne Martin, his second wife, said of him in a 1978 interview: "When I met Dean Martin, it was love at first sight. I married him knowing nothing about him. I divorced him 23 years later, and I still know nothing about him."

Dean Paul "Dino" Martin, the son who was later killed in a 1987 Air National Guard fighter plane crash, added: "There is no way he is going to sit down and open up. He doesn't do that to his closest friends. He never really tells you what he feels, what he's really thinking. I don't know him very well."

Paul Anka said the death of Martin's son was "a huge turning point."

"After that event in his life, things really changed," Anka recalled. "He said to me: `I'm just waiting to die. Just waiting to die.' "

During his heyday, Martin listed among his friends Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone and other Italian-Americans with whom he had easy, macho relationships.

"Dean was my brother - not through blood but through choice," Sinatra commented on learning of Martin's death. "Good times and bad, we were there together."

They toured together in the late 1980s, along with fellow Hollywood "Rat Pack" member Sammy Davis Jr., until Martin was forced to quit in 1988 because of a kidney condition. Davis died in 1990; Sinatra and Martin had little contact in their later lives.

Martin spent his final years dining out alone every night. His manager Viner explained: "Dean loves to go out to restaurants. What he doesn't like is to be with a lot of people or attend parties."

This reclusiveness may have started early. He was born June 17, 1917, and his first five years were spent speaking only Italian, the language of his immigrant father. He was ridiculed in school because of his accent, which he finally lost.

In a rare, revealing interview with Oriana Fallaci in 1967, Martin disclosed: "When Jerry Lewis and I were big, we used to go to parties, and everybody thought I was bigheaded and stuck up, and I wasn't. It was because I didn't know how to speak good English, so I used to keep my mouth shut."

He added: "Well, see, I'm shy. Always been. See, if I walk into a party, I sort of go in a corner, 'cause I don't know what to say to people."

For a man who never had singing, acting or dancing lessons and couldn't read music, Dean Martin reached amazing heights in show business. He was modest about his achievements.

"I'm no singer," he insisted. "I can carry a tune, and I have an easy style. But we crooners get by because we're fairly painless."

Martin got by with a minimum of effort. Like Sinatra, he detested rehearsals, preferring to rely on the freshness of his performance. His television show epitomized his style.

"When Dean walks through the studio door on the morning of the show," his longtime producer Greg Garrison said in 1978, "he doesn't know what he is going to sing, what he is going to say, who the guest stars are going to be. I make it a point never to call him during the week for any reason."

Martin practiced his songs, walked through one rehearsal of the show and retired to his dressing room until show time. His work time on the show was calculated at three hours. After eight years, the raggedness of the show began to tell, and his television career drifted to a close.

He remained a top performer in the Nevada and New Jersey casinos, but even there his unchanging act started to wear thin. Audiences became too acquainted his drunk gags, such as asking his pianist at the opening of the show, "How long have I been on?" Or remarking: "I don't drink anymore . . . of course I don't drink any less."

Martin married three times. In 1940 he married Betty McDonald; they divorced after nine years and four children. His second marriage, to Jeanne Riegger, lasted 23 years. Among their three children was Dean Paul "Dino" Martin, member of a '60s teen pop group, Dino, Desi and Billy, and later an actor ("Players," 1979).

In 1973, Martin, then 55, married former model Catherine Mae Hawn, 25. They divorced in 1976. His instructions for the champagne reception at the wedding: "I gave orders that no glass should ever get lower than half-empty."

After his illness on the Sinatra-Martin-Davis tour in 1988, the singer stopped performing. He had had it all, and he seemed content to spend his last years alone.

A private funeral is planned for the performer, who is survived by six children.

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Additional Information

`Shattered, grief-stricken'

Jerry Lewis, who settled a longtime feud with his former partner in 1989, was "completely shattered and grief-stricken" when he learned in Seattle of Dean Martin's death, said his manager, Joe Stabile. Lewis later flew to Denver, where he is appearing in the musical "Damn Yankees." He still looked upset when he got off the plane and left the airport without speaking to reporters.

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