In Special Guest Star, Gwen Ihnat takes a look at a standout turn by a performer in a TV series, noting what effect the appearance had on the actor, the series, and the TV landscape overall.
30 Rock, “Gavin Volure,” season three, episode four (2008)
Steve Martin began his decades-long career in Hollywood as a TV writer, winning an Emmy in 1967 for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He then worked as a writer for several variety series—a format that was extremely popular throughout the ’70s—from The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour to The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
In the late 1970s, Martin’s star rose, thanks to hit comedy albums like Let’s Get Small, best-selling books like Cruel Shoes, and frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live (he’s hosted 15 times since 1976, bested only by Alec Baldwin’s 17 turns as host). Once he started making his mark on the big screen in the ’80s with films like All Of Me and Roxanne, he appeared to have left television far behind him.
Except for occasionally hosting SNL, Martin’s forays in to the small screen were reserved for event moments like presenting at the Oscars (which he hosted in 2001 and 2003) or a Simpsons guest spot, with occasional talk show appearances. The “wild and crazy guy” persona that made him famous—a phrase that’s not just from his classic SNL Festrunk brothers sketches with Dan Aykroyd, but the title of his 1978 comedy album, which went double platinum—eventually gave way to his familiar paternal performances in movies like Father Of The Bride, Cheaper By The Dozen, and Parenthood.
So there are multiple reasons why Steve Martin’s guest spot on 30 Rock in 2008 was such an outlier, marking a rare Martin appearance on a sitcom. In the fourth episode of 30 Rock’s third season, Martin played Gavin Volure, a rich friend of Jack (Alec Baldwin)’s who is an eccentric agoraphobe/germaphobe. Gavin is a wealthy recluse who never left his palatial estate and avoided most human contact. Jack brings Liz (Tina Fey) to a dinner party at Gavin’s, who makes a subtle entrance by revealing himself to be the man playing piano.
It’s a side of Martin we rarely got to see (except when he was playing against type in a film like The Spanish Prisoner): a suave, sophisticated charmer. But for Liz, that’s not what makes him the perfect man: It’s the fact that he’s trapped in the massive house all day with nothing to do but eat, watch TV, and look up celebrity gossip on the internet, and avoids physical contact due to his germ phobia. When Gavin sadly wonders what woman would want that kind of setup, Liz gamely volunteers.
Midway through the episode, though, Gavin’s true nature is revealed, and we again get to see the zany side of Martin that predated all those overlapping dad roles. Turns out that Gavin isn’t an agoraphobe, but a felon who’s on house arrest in the mansion along with two other white-collar criminals. Martin goes all-in on Gavin’s outlandish eccentricities, as he swindles Jack (and Kenneth) out of thousands of dollars to spend on “disguises.” He keeps attempting to break away from his house arrest to go on the lam, sneakily revealing himself again as a set painter on Liz’s show.
Gavin’s frequent escapes and refusal to give himself up give Martin the opportunity for some delightful physical comedy—bolting, only to immediately get taken down by a U.S. Marshall, or scaling a scaffold and yelling at Jack until he’s finally captured by Tracy (Tracy Morgan). Martin’s unhinged Gavin fit seamlessly into the off-kilter world of 30 Rock, but the best part was getting to see Martin let loose onscreen in a way that he hadn’t for years. You could even spot a bit of his old Festrunk swagger as Gavin tried to make a run from the mansion, hear a snippet of his formerly famous singing voice as his belted out a few bars of “Tomorrow” from Annie, and witness a hint of that white-suited guy who once seemed to skirt thisclose to the edge as the now-deranged Gavin bickers with Jack from the top of scaffold: “You’re not making sense anymore!”
The excellent performance reminded viewers that Martin’s charm extended far beyond being an overwhelmed father of the bride, and earned him an Emmy nomination. It was a helpful reminder of his undeniable charisma, as his movie career at the time had slowed to a small role in Fey’s Baby Mama, the Cheaper By A Dozen sequel, and the Pink Panther remake and its sequel (which earned Martin a Razzie nomination).
In 2009, he and Alec Baldwin teamed up again to play romantic rivals vying for the heart of Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated; the year after that, Baldwin and Martin co-hosted the Oscars. Over the past decade or so, he’s appeared to focus on his musical talents over his dramatic ones, winning Grammys for Best Bluegrass Album and for Best American Roots Song, in 2009 and 2013, respectively. He also teamed up with Martin Short for a 2018 TV special called An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life.
Martin recently returned to TV once more, in his first-ever starring role in a series, which he also happened to co-create with John Hoffman. Hulu’s Only Murders In The Building is an out-and-out charmer, featuring Martin and his frequent collaborator Short as Charles and Oliver, neighbors in a New York apartment building who share a love of true crime. They start their own podcast after another resident in their building is found dead, aided by young neighbor Mabel played by Selena Gomez.
The three stars make for an odd trio, but a very appealing one. As Charles-Haden Savage, Martin paints himself as an everyman again; his character is a solitary former actor (in a Kojak-like detective series called Brazzos) who recently suffered a traumatic breakup. It’s heartening to see Charles get excited about having an actual lead on the case, or dare to feel hopeful about love again thanks to an attractive musician/neighbor named Jan (Amy Ryan). But the series also plays into Martin’s frequently astonishing side, where we just don’t know what to expect—as when Charles and Oliver instigate an impromptu duet while on the road trailing Mabel. For Martin’s first series lead, it’s a perfect fit—unsurprising, since he helped to craft it himself.
It’s also not too surprising that Tina Fey would make an appearance in Only Murders. She shows up in a few episodes as Cinda Canning, a character clearly inspired by Serial’s Sarah Koenig. Cinda is in a high-level world of podcasting (and mega-deals) far above the trio’s amateur sleuth efforts, but she kindly offers them some advice. Fey’s appearance is a nice bookend to Martin’s latter-day TV performances, offering a welcome throwback to the last time we saw him portray such an unforgettable sitcom character. In a way, Gavin encapsulated the two sides of Martin audiences had come to love—the charmer and the captivating oddball—foreshadowing his welcome return to the small screen.