Steve Martin, winner of this year’s Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, is described as “an American original” by Chair of the AFI Board of Trustees Sir Howard Stringer. “From a wild and crazy standup comic to one who stands tall among the great figures in this American art form, he is a multi-layered creative force bound by neither convention nor caution. His work is defined by him alone, for he is the author – and a national treasure whose work has struck us like an arrow in the head.”
The AFI’s 43rd annual award was presented to Martin, celebrated as one of the world's most inventive and best-loved comic actors, at a gala tribute in Los Angeles on June 4, 2015. The television special derived from the tribute, which aired on TCM's sister channel TBS on Saturday, June 13, has encore presentations on TCM on Thursday, July 30, at 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. (ET). TCM is also screening Carson on TCM: Steve Martin (1979), the actor’s interview on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; as well as two of Martin’s most entertaining movies, Pennies From Heaven (1981) and Father of the Bride (1991).
One of the most diversified performers of his generation, Martin is not only an actor and comedian but an author, playwright, screenwriter, producer and a musician known particularly for his skill on the banjo.
Despite his onstage reputation as an uninhibited madcap, Martin is known in private life to be rather quiet and shy. "I always felt there was a deeper meaning to what I was doing than just being wild and crazy, something more philosophical," he once said. "I had a view that there was something funny about trying to be funny. I needed a theory to justify it at the time, but now I don't. I see it for what it is. It was just fun, and it was stupid, and that's why it was so successful."
Testimonials at the AFI tribute reflect the high regard in which Martin is held by fellow actors and comics. Among those praising his gifts, often in a suitably comic vein, are Diane Keaton, Mel Brooks, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, Carl Reiner, Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman. Steve Carell notes that Martin is "my Chaplin. I desperately wanted to be him. Steve Martin impacted me in a deep and lasting way. I owe everything to him."
Stephen Glenn Martin was born in Waco, Texas, on August 14, 1945, and raised mostly in Southern California. As a teen he sold guidebooks and performed magic tricks at Disneyland. He also worked for another amusement park, Knott's Berry Farm, performing in its "Birdcage Theatre" and perfecting his skills in improv comedy, banjo playing, juggling and lassoing. He studied philosophy at Long Beach State College but transferred to the theater program at the University of California, Los Angeles. He left college altogether to become a writer for television shows including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, sharing an Emmy Award with other writers for that show in 1969.
During the 1970s Martin performed standup comedy in Los Angeles clubs and eventually on national tours. He continued writing television comedy including scripts for The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He also made frequent guest appearances on such shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live. He would eventually make 27 appearances on SNL and appear as guest house 15 times.
In 1977 Martin made his movie debut with The Absent-Minded Waiter, a seven-minute short for which he wrote the screenplay and played the title role. The film was Oscar-nominated as Best Live-Action Short Film. Two years later, after his enormous success in other fields, he achieved crossover stardom into the world of movies with The Jerk (1979). He co-wrote this madcap comedy and stars as Navin R. Johnson, the adopted son of black sharecroppers who is clueless about his adoption despite the color of his skin and his lack of natural rhythm. Carl Reiner directed the movie, a box-office success much-loved by Martin enthusiasts. (Doris Day has named it as her all-time favorite film!)
Next came Pennies from Heaven (1981), an adaptation of Dennis Potter's landmark miniseries for British television, directed by Herbert Ross and reset in Chicago and rural Illinois during the Depression. This serious and unconventional musical, about the impact of popular songs on people enduring great hardships, won critical praise from the likes of Pauline Kael, who called it "the most emotional movie musical I've ever seen." The film has since won a cult following, but at the time of its release audiences found it hard to accept Martin in a dramatic role and the movie returned only $9 million on an investment from MGM of $22 million.
Martin returned to full-out comedy in his next several films including two directed by Carl Reiner: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), a parody of film noir shot in black and white and utilizing clips from vintage films; and The Man With Two Brains (1983), a science-fiction send-up in which Martin plays a brain surgeon and Kathleen Turner his faithless bride. John Landis directed Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short in Three Amigos! (1986), a lampoon of The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven co-written by Martin. Frank Oz directed Martin in two films with connections to other films and stage productions: Little Shop of Horrors (1986), developed from the off-Broadway musical comedy that was in turn based on a low-budget Roger Corman movie from1960; and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), inspired by the 1964 film Bedtime Story and later to become a successful Broadway musical.
All of Me (1984), Martin's fourth and (to date) final collaboration with Reiner, mixed elements of fantasy and slapstick in its story of a musician (Martin) whose body is inhabited by the soul of a dead millionairess (Lily Tomlin). In addition to Martin's clowning, however, the movie includes some genuine emotion and reflections on such subjects as gender differences. Martin would call it the beginning of his "mature movie career." (It was during the making of this film that Martin met his first wife, costar Victoria Tennant, to whom he was wed from 1986 to 1994. He has been married since 2007 to Anne Stringfield; they have one daughter.)
Increasingly establishing himself as an endearing and hilarious Everyman, Martin also brought depth to his comic acting in John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Fred Schepisi's Roxanne (1987) and, especially, Carl Shyer's Father of the Bride (1991). In the latter film, an updating of Vincente Minnelli's 1950 family comedy, Martin takes on Spencer Tracy's old role of the doting but frustrated dad. His onscreen chemistry with Diane Keaton, playing the mother of the bride, contributed to the film's success and helped lead to a sequel, , Father of the Bride, Part II (1995).
Martin further demonstrated his acting skills in a series of ensemble comedy-dramas including Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989), Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon (1991) and Mick Jackson's L.A. Story (1991), for which he wrote the script. Martin starred in two more films inspired by a 1950s family comedy, Cheaper By the Dozen (2003) and Cheaper By the Dozen 2 (2005). In this case the remakes retained very little of the original beyond the title.
Martin's 2000 novella Shopgirl was the basis for a 2005 comedy-drama directed by Anand Tucker in which Martin starred with Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman as participants in a bittersweet romantic triangle. The Long Year (2011), a gentle comedy about bird-watchers starring Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, was a box-office failure but has its enthusiastic supporters. Martin has a role in Ang Lee's upcoming film about American soldiers returning to duty in Iraq, Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk.
All told, Martin has more than 40 film credits. In addition to his movie and TV work, he has enjoyed an award-winning recording career. Between 1977 and 1981 he released four comedy albums, winning Grammy Awards for Let's Get Small (1978) and A Wild and Crazy Guy (1979). He also won Grammy Awards for Best Bluegrass Album for his first solo music album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo, in 2009; and for Best American Roots Song, "Love Has Come for You," shared with collaborator Edie Brickell.
Martin's writing for the stage includes Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which opened in Chicago in 1993 and has since played successfully in other major cities; and an adaptation of Carl Sternheim's play The Underpants, produced off-Broadway in 2002. Bright Star, an original musical by Martin and Edie Brickell, inspired by "Love Has Come for You," had its premiere in San Diego in 2014. In addition to Shopgirl, Martin's books include another novella, The Pleasure of My Company (2003); a memoir, Born Standing Up (2007); and a novel, An Object of Beauty (2010).
Among other honors accorded this versatile and prolific artist are the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (2005), Disney Legend Award (2005), Kennedy Center Honor (2007) and an honorary Academy Award (2013) "in recognition of his extraordinary talents and the unique inspiration he has brought to the art of motion pictures."
By Roger Fristoe