Martin Short, 64, details his life and career in his new memoir, "I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend."
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Martin Short, 64, details his life and career in his new memoir, "I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend."

Story highlights

Martin Short's memoir details love, loss, life and celebrity encounters

The comic actor maintains a sunny disposition despite significant heartbreak

Short: Elizabeth Taylor told me she was "a total Clifford freak"

Short on David Letterman's retirement: "It's horrifying to think no Dave on TV"

CNN —  

Conan O’Brien has called Martin Short the “funniest guy ever,” but, at times, Short’s sunny outlook has come at the expense of great loss.

His big brother, David, died in a car accident in 1962 when Short was 12. By the time he was 21, he’d lost his mother and father. His wife died of ovarian cancer in 2010.

Yet, through it all, Short has kept in mind a valuable lesson he took to heart after David’s death: “Something terrible can happen to you, and yet, the day after this something terrible, the sun still rises, and life goes on. And therefore, so must you.”

The actor and comedian, known for his stints on “SCTV,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Primetime Glick” and a number of movies, spoke to CNN about his memoir, “I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend” (HarperCollins), which comes out Tuesday.

In person, he is just as gracious, energetic and seemingly pixie dust-covered as the Martin Short who frequents late-night talk shows. That’s no act.

The naturally cheerful Canadian rejects the notion that he uses comedy to dull the pain. Instead, he says, he has gained wisdom from the events. He looks at the bright side, even when thinking about loss.

Channeling Ed Grimley

Short never expected to hit it big.

Though he grew up idolizing Frank Sinatra and hosted a faux variety show from his attic bedroom in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, Short maintains he was too far, psychologically, from the United States to harbor Hollywood dreams.

The youngest of five, Short grew up in a boisterous, fun-loving Irish-Catholic family. His father, born in Ireland, worked as a steel company executive. Short’s mother served as concertmistress of the symphony orchestra in Hamilton.

Short was studying social work until his friend Eugene Levy persuaded him to give acting a chance.

His second professional audition was in 1972 for the Toronto production of “Godspell.” He and Levy were cast with Victor Garber, Gilda Radner and Andrea Martin, among others. Paul Shaffer was the musical director. It was their collective big break.

But Short had a bigger break midway through the show’s 1972-73 run. He met a “forbiddingly attractive” understudy named Nancy Dolman. They started dating and eventually married.

“The miracle of Nan and me is that once we started,” Short wrote in the book, “we never stopped; we remained forever devoted to each other.”

Even after “Godspell,” he thought he’d missed the boat. In the mid-1970s, Radner and Shaffer headed to “Saturday Night Live.” Pals like Levy, Catherine O’Hara, John Candy and Harold Ramis were working on a pre-“SCTV” show called “Second City Television.” Short felt like his own career was in a rut.

Short recalled a 1977 incident in which he froze in his tracks while walking along Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard. Intimidated by his friends’ successes, he sat on a bench and silently brooded for 15 minutes as Dolman held his hand.

The breakdown was short-lived. The next day, Short joined Toronto’s Second City troupe, where he debuted some of his most popular characters, including Ed Grimley.

Originally, Ed was a device Short used to defuse arguments between him and Dolman. When Short was becoming too much for her to handle, she’d summon Ed.

With his hunched shoulders and upper lip exposing his teeth (the high hair would come later), sweet Ed would smooth things over in a way Short confessed he was too stubborn to do.

Over time, Short hiked up Ed’s trousers, gelled his hair to a point and costumed his character in an old orange-checked shirt. The character became hugely popular.

Nevertheless, long after they moved to L.A., Short noted in the book that Dolman never let him forget about his moment on the bench.

“Look, honey, there’s Breakdown Corner,” she would say.

An all-star comedian

He joined “SCTV” in 1982. He still considers it his “most satisfying professional experience.”

“There are certain times when the stars align and everything is ideal,” he said. “In this case the end result was fabulous. The execution was fabulous. I was living in my hometown. I was working with lifelong friends. People loved the product. The product deserved to be loved. And those stars lining up don’t always happen.”

“SCTV” ended in 1984, and Short made the jump to “Saturday Night Live” as part of what became known as the “all-star cast,” a group that included Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer.

“I had a one-year contract [at ‘SNL’],” Short said, “so I knew I was not going to be there longer than a year, so I treated it like I had 22 specials to do that year.”

Shortly after his time on “SNL,” he made his feature film debut in 1986’s “Three Amigos!” That film is also where Short befriended Steve Martin, with whom he would collaborate professionally many times, notably in the “Father of the Bride” films. He plays a depraved dentist in the forthcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film, “Inherent Vice.”

His work has not gone unnoticed. He won a Tony for his performance in the 1999 production of the musical “Little Me” and has an Emmy for writing “SCTV.” His other honors include being named to the Order of Canada.

These days, Short is probably most associated with his wild talk-show appearances, whether it’s on David Letterman’s show – he’s been a frequent guest – or hosting his own, including “Primetime Glick.”

Letterman, he said, has been a stalwart, and he’ll miss the longtime star, who’s retiring next year.

“I’m deeply sad to see him retire, because I think he has a completely unique voice on television,” Short said. “It’s a voice that people trust.

“I keep going back to the first show after 9/11. He was the first one back and people were watching his lead. He was so profound in that moment. And then, again, when he was memorializing Robin Williams. And he’s so deeply funny, and so original. There’s no one like him,” he added. “It’s horrifying to think no Dave on TV.”

But for a guy who both loves and mocks showbiz, there’s one brush with fame that stands out. Several years ago, Short met Elizabeth Taylor, who was fond of one of Short’s lesser projects: the 1994 oddball cult favorite “Clifford,” in which the 40-ish Short played a bizarre 10-year-old boy.

Taylor, she told Short, was “a total ‘Clifford’ freak.”

Short still seems surprised.

“It was the most random thing I ever thought I’d hear upon meeting Elizabeth Taylor.”