LOS ANGELES — In the early 1980s, when Steve Martin was a fledgling movie star, he recalls attending the American Film Institute’s celebration of Frank Capra and how Hollywood glitterati swirled around the Oscar-winning filmmaker.
Next week, Martin himself will be at the centre of the celebration, surrounded by his friends and colleagues from a 48-year career in entertainment. Mel Brooks will present Martin with AFI’s 43rd Life Achievement Award at a private ceremony in Hollywood June 4.
“It’s such a prestigious group that they’ve given this award to, and I can’t help but think, ‘What am I doing there?'” Martin said in a recent interview. “But, still, they gave it to me, so I’m accepting it with full pride.”
The ultimate multi-hyphenate, Martin says he never had a career plan – which seems to have worked out well for the 69-year-old screenwriter, actor, comedian, producer, playwright, novelist and musician.
“I always felt I was lucky to be where I was,” he said.
One of his earliest gigs was as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which led to other TV-writing jobs. In 1979, he co-wrote and starred in the film The Jerk, followed by Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains a few years later. And when he couldn’t find a writer to work on his idea for an updated Cyrano de Bergerac, he decided to try it himself. 1987’s Roxanne was the result.
“So that worked out, and it turned me into a screenwriter, a solo screenwriter,” he said. “There are so many little accidents along the way that happen.”
Sir Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI Board of Trustees, called Martin “a multi-layered creative force bound by neither convention nor caution” and “a national treasure whose work has stuck with us like an arrow in the head.”
Martin first gained fame as a standup, not to mention his breakout appearances on Saturday Night Live in the ’70s. But he came to prefer film as a comedic venue.
“I really like the idea, when I first started doing it, of getting a comedy down and it doesn’t have to be repeated every night.,” he said. “It’s on film. You can get it right, hopefully, and you never have to worry about it again.”
Writing films inspired him to write dramas and prose. A play he wrote “in my spare time” will open at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre next year. Martin also adapted his novella, Shopgirl, into the 2005 film of the same name.
Writing and performing music has reignited his pleasure in appearing live in front of an audience. The banjo player said there’s “a lot of comedy” in the concerts he plays with the bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, “and it’s really been fun.” He also recently performed a pair of standup shows with Canadian pal Martin Short.
Martin recently began work on Ang Lee’s latest film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and hopes to one day work with Wes Anderson. Meanwhile, he wrote a musical with Edie Brickell and the two are planning to release an album. Martin will also be curating a traveling art exhibit of works by Canadian painter Lawren Harris.
But for now, he’s reflecting on the anecdotes he plans to share at the AFI celebration.
“It feels like I’ve been through a lot in a lot of different careers and we’re kind of looking back,” he said.
Just like he did for his honourary Oscar in 2013, Martin said he’s practicing his acceptance speech by reading it aloud to his dog, Wally.