Steve Martin Insisted On Doing An Elvis Impression In Little Shop Of Horrors

Whoever takes on the role of Dr. Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. in a production of "Little Shop of Horrors" has an incredibly difficult task laid out in front of them. You simultaneously have to play this big, goofy caricature of a tough guy, greaser type but without playing it too off-the-handle that the abuse he inflicts on his girlfriend Audrey isn't flippant or downplayed. "Little Shop" always presents a lot of tonal challenges for creative teams, and it can be thrown off-balance easily if not everyone is locked in, particularly for the actor playing the sadistic dentist.

In the film adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's off-Broadway smash, that role is played by the great Steve Martin. When you see that name, especially in the 1980s, you are expecting a performance that goes BIG. And Martin does. His Orin Scrivello is about as cartoonish as you can get, but being able to reach out to the stars for his version of madness actually works for the film, as his insanity is so overwhelming that it tips over from hilarious into disturbing when it needs to be. But even when you have a character that is extreme, there needs to be a little bit of a grounding force, anchoring the person in some kind of recognizable reality that makes him seem like he could be someone who the audience could encounter in real life. For Martin, his chief inspiration was Elvis Presley.

Less Fonz, more king

Orin Scrivello was constructed to be the dark flip side of Arthur Fonzarelli. Henry Winkler's iconic "Happy Days" character was the consummate cool guy that ever man who watched television in the 1970s and '80s wished they could be. Turning someone like that into a full-out villain is an exciting proposition, but by 1986, "Happy Days" had been off the air for two years. The Fonz was a little played out, and Steve Martin agreed. So, when director Frank Oz asked Martin to board the picture, he needed a new angle to take for the character, and as Oz told USA Today, that take was Elvis:

"The character was always this sadistic dentist who rode a motorcycle and wore black leather. That's not original Steve Martin ... What's original Steve is the addition of the Elvis stuff."

He has the voice, the posture, the lip curl. He may not be able to swing his hips as electrifyingly as Elvis, but that doesn't stop him from putting his own manic spin on it. Oz gave Martin the license to improvise whatever he wanted, and you can feel the joy emanating off of him, loving every second he gets to live in Elvis land.

If you go see a production of "Little Shop of Horrors" today, chances are pretty strong that the person playing Scrivello will be more Elvis and less Fonzie. In just a short amount of time on screen, he is a movie star that makes such an indelible impression on the audience. When they inevitably remake the movie, perhaps with Chris Evans as previously announced a few years ago, I expect it to be heavily indebted to the King. If it ain't broke ...