Finding Steve Martin's Mansion For The Jerk Was A Stroke Of Location Scouting Fate

Director Carl Reiner's "The Jerk" is a magnum opus of rampant, unfettered buffoonery. The tale of Navin R. Johnson (Steve Martin), a white man raised by Black sharecroppers, is a snapshot of Martin at his clownish, "Wild and Crazy Guys" peak. Working with screenwriters Michael Elias and Carl Gottlieb, Martin fashions Navin's journey as the most ridiculous Horatio Alger story ever told. Navin gets his first taste of success when he finds his name in the phone book, and becomes a millionaire thanks to an invention that keeps people's glasses from sliding down their nose. It's a wildly quotable classic that launched Martin's big screen career, and, according to the folks who made it, is the beneficiary of many a happy accident.

One of the 1979 film's most uproarious elements is the Beverly Hills mansion Navin buys after hitting the big time. It's a gloriously gaudy sight gag that keeps on giving –- and, according to the folks who made the movie, they didn't have to do a bit of set dressing to make it look outrageously tacky.

A mansion fit for, and designed by, the son of a prince

In a 40th anniversary oral history for Consequence, Michael Elias, Carl Gottlieb, and Carl Reiner offered all sorts of fascinating insights into the making of "The Jerk," from Steve Martin's script contributions to the origins of that notorious mansion. This very real building was owned by the son of a Saudi prince who was attending college at the time of the film's production.

"[The prince's] son was going to UCLA and lived in this house, so, of course, the house was designed by a college freshman with 40 billion dollars to spend," Elias explained. Place yourself in the royal son's shoes at his age in the late '70s, and you might've decorated a house in the same trashy manner.

Elias and Gottlieb didn't realize this until they took a stroll through the residence. "I remember walking through it, looking at the billiard room and the clamshell bathtub and all the features. I said to the prop man, 'Where did you find this stuff?' And the guy would keep saying, 'It was here,'" Gottlieb recalled. Elias added:

"The guy put up nude statues that hung out by the fence outside and he painted them. And the neighbors, this is in the middle of Beverly Hills, were going bat s***, man. They couldn't stand it. They burnt it down a few years later. And I think the kid was recalled by his father back to Saudi Arabia for embarrassing the family."

You've gotta be smart to play the clown

"The Jerk" is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle comedies where everything works. At 95 minutes, it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. The casting is absolute perfection. Steve Martin's costar Bernadette Peters has never been more adorkable, while character actors like Mabel King, Richard Ward, M. Emmett Walsh, and Bill Macy deliver precisely as intended.

It was an easy greenlight for Universal due to Martin's massive popularity, but it bears considerable resemblance to the kind of zany Jerry Lewis comedies that were horribly out of fashion at a time when "Saturday Night Live" was the genre's edgy standard bearer. Indeed, if you want to see what "The Jerk" would've looked like with Lewis in the role, fire up 1980's "Hardly Working." Lewis might've been the perfect star for 1960s classics like "The Nutty Professor" and "The Ladies' Man," but the "SNL" era called for a more sophisticated kind of clown. And Martin was just the genius for the job.