The following was extracted from "Remembering Michael Martin," by Kirsten Lambert, which appeared in the Chicago Reader on May 5, 2021.
Like countless other artists, Michael Martin’s death came just as he seemed to be hitting his stride professionally, after years of pursuing his passion while paying the bills with jobs such as waiter, groundskeeper, and housecleaner. He played a prominent role in the 2020 independent film Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which had garnered several awards at film festivals as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. One film critic had even talked about mounting a campaign to get Martin a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in BNEP. He had recently wrapped work on a short, The Butterfly Keeper, in which he played one of the two leading roles.
Though Martin had lived in New Orleans for the past 20 years, he grew up in Minneapolis and took theater classes at the University of Minnesota before settling in Chicago in 1993. When he first moved to Chicago, his job as a telemarketer at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led to a lifelong bond with a fellow telemarketer, Beau O’Reilly—a founding member of the Curious Theatre Branch. When an actor dropped out of a play O’Reilly was producing, he cast Martin in the role.
Martin went on to found his own storefront theater company, Great Beast, as well as writing, producing, and acting in multiple productions during his time in Chicago. His work often drew critical acclaim, but he continued to hold down an office job as a paralegal at a small law firm during the day.
In his most successful show, Verbatim Verboten, actors performed scenes pulled from real-life material: e-mails, recorded conversations, surveillance tapes. The revue specialized in revealing scandalous tidbits, often about public figures such as Richard Nixon or Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. The show even attracted the notice (and ire) of Tom Cruise, who—the story goes—had his attorneys send Martin a cease-and-desist order for acting out a private phone conversation between Cruise and Nicole Kidman. As a result, the usual actors did not perform the Cruise-Kidman piece that night; instead Martin read the letter from the attorneys to the audience as a big middle finger to Cruise.
Martin often used his fascination with celebrity as inspiration for his solo work. In Hinckley on Foster: The Hearing, he embodied John Hinckley, who had attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster, speaking as Hinckley in front of a panel of psychiatrists to convince them he was ready to re-enter society. He also wrote and performed a sequel, Martin on Hinckley on Foster: The Home Visit, in which Martin—as himself—pretended to visit Hinckley after his release. He parodied Quentin Tarantino in Quentin T Do Amateur Night at de Apollo, portraying Tarantino while wearing a prosthetic chin, skewering the director for his treatment of Black actors and characters in a profanity-laced monologue. He even wrote and performed a play about actress Justine Bateman (fittingly called Justine Bateman) in which he examined the role Bateman had played on the 80s TV sitcom Family Ties, with obvious adoration for Bateman’s talent, which had attracted considerably less notice than the work of her costar, Michael J. Fox.
In 2002 Martin and his husband, Eric Martin Webb, moved to New Orleans, and Martin launched a new theater company, Four Humours. He founded an annual theater festival, InFringe Fest New Orleans; collected a Big Easy Theater Award for his role as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; worked for a time as theater critic for the NOLA Defender; and tirelessly supported local artists by promoting their work, attending their events, and connecting them with others if he thought it would help. He took small parts in TV shows and movies, expressing amusement at the roles that casting directors had been asking him to audition for, of late: bar patron, gas station clerk, homeless guy.
Just days before his death, Martin was texting with a collaborator about several projects he wanted to tackle this year, now that he and Webb had gotten their COVID-19 vaccinations and theater venues were starting to reopen. Martin wanted to begin planning the next InFringe Festival and a revival of Verbatim Verboten. He had bought plane tickets to Chicago so he and Webb could support their longtime friend O’Reilly at his May 15 record release party. He was planning to teach again this summer at a children’s performing arts program through a nonprofit called LAYAYA— a little-known role he had held since 2013. (The company has announced plans to raise funds to purchase their building and rename the theater for Martin.) His final Facebook status captured his insatiable desire to entertain and be entertained.
“Why do I feel guilty when I have nothing amusing to report?” he posted.