Steve Martin, once a writer for the Smothers Brothers, became a household name thanks to his comic antics on Saturday Night Live, his sell-out concerts and comedy albums, and the hit single “King Tut.” He had made an appearance in the musical flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but Carl Reiner’s The Jerk, released in 1979, was Martin’s first starring role, co-written with Martin to emphasize his unique smart-but-stupid shtick.
Raised by a family of black Mississippi sharecroppers, Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin) has always felt different (“You mean, I’m going to stay this color?” he tearfully asks his mother, Mabel King.) Navin sets out to find his own identity, hitchhiking to St. Louis where he is hired at a local gas station. One day a businessman named Stan Fox pulls into the station and Navin notices that he is having a terrible time keeping his glasses from slipping from his face. Navin attaches a handle and a nose grip to the glasses. Fox is impressed, and promises to split the profits from the invention with Navin some day.
Trouble arrives in the form of a crazed madman with a sniper rifle, intent on killing Navin, who barely escapes and hides out from his pursuer at the local carnival. He becomes the slave of motorcycle queen Patty Bernstein and is soon writing to his family to let them know that he’s found his special purpose (one that we won’t be sharing here). Next, he falls for a beautiful cosmetologist named Marie (Bernadette Peters) and, although they share a brief romance (and some pizza in a cup), she has her future sites set on someone a little more successful. She walks out on Navin, who packs up and heads west to Los Angeles. Upon arriving, he is amazed to learn that his eyeglass invention has turned him into a very wealthy man. He marries Marie and moves into a gaudy mansion. Sadly, his quick rise will soon give way to a precipitous fall.
The Jerk was an unexpected hit, raking in millions at the box office and kicking off a very successful screen career for Martin, who proved a formidable screen presence. The film’s success led to a made-for-television sequel, The Jerk, Too in 1984. Without Martin in the starring role, however, the film flopped miserably. The original, on the other hand, remains a beloved favorite among Steve Martin fans, a classic comedy if there ever was one.
If you have fond memories of watching The Jerk, or just want to share your favorite Navin Johnson quotes (of which there are many), we welcome your thoughts and recollections in our comments section, as we tip out hats to one of the most lovable jerks ever to hit the big screen.