Steve Martin – American Film Institute

Steve Martin

43rd AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Actor, author, essayist, screenwriter, playwright, producer, comedian, composer, musician and magician, Steve Martin is an American original — one whose greatest gift is in making it all look so easy. For his enduring contributions to the vast and varied worlds of art and entertainment, the Trustees of the American Film Institute have selected Martin as the recipient of its 43rd Life Achievement Award — an honor that celebrates the consummate artist’s commitment to cinema and the many other art forms he’s mastered.

“Working with Steve was like taking a master class in physical comedy.” — Lily Tomlin on Steve Martin

The 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award was presented to Steve Martin at a Gala Tribute on June 4, 2015 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Presenters and guests included Mel Brooks, Dan Aykroyd, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Mindy Kaling, Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, Conan O’Brien, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Martin Short, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. The Tribute special aired on TBS on June 13, 2015.

Actor, author, essayist, screenwriter, playwright, producer, comedian, composer, musician and magician, Steve Martin is an American original — one whose greatest gift is in making it all look so easy. For his enduring contributions to the vast and varied worlds of art and entertainment, the Trustees of the American Film Institute have selected Martin as the recipient of its 43rd Life Achievement Award — an honor that celebrates the consummate artist’s commitment to cinema and the many other art forms he’s mastered.

Stephen Glenn Martin was born on August 14, 1945 in Waco, Texas, but his middle class family relocated to Southern California when he was just five years old. Martin’s father had dreams of being an actor, but the realities of providing for a wife and two children forced him to find a career in real estate. In an emotionally distant household, the young Martin would escape into the wonders of magic — first inspired by a few simple storebought tricks given to him by an uncle. Martin loved being the keeper of a magician’s secrets, and his nascent performances in front of family and friends planted the seeds for a lifelong love of conjuring — and a future career as an entertainer.

A 10-year-old Martin took a job at Disneyland selling guidebooks, riding his bicycle to work each day and spending his free time roaming the park. It became Martin’s joyous home away from home, but he wasn’t just a child given free rein in “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Even at a young age, he was seeing influences swirling around him — and setting into motion his own plans to master them. Working a variety of park jobs through high school — including a two-year stint at Merlin’s Magic Shop — gave him an opportunity to assemble his act while learning from seasoned colleagues.

At 17, Martin discovered a love of banjo to rival his affection for magic. Inspired by Earl Scruggs’ classic recording of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown, ” he taught himself how to play by slowing down bluegrass records on the turntable until he could pick out every note, and at night he would practice outside in his parked ’57 Chevy with the windows rolled up. The banjo came in handy for Martin’s burgeoning stage act. “I did jokes, I did juggling, I did magic, ” he said. “I put the banjo in just really to fill time, so I’d have enough to call it a show.” It was just down the road from Disneyland — at Knott’s Berry Farm’s humble Bird Cage Theatre — that Martin really began to develop his act in earnest, performing for paying audiences for the first time. There was an ebullient enthusiasm to the Bird Cage’s ragtag creative community — a spirit both rebellious and rhapsodic that fueled and inspired him.

But vaudeville and melodramas weren’t enough to scratch his creative itch for long, and Martin continued to reach higher — ever pushing his art to evolve. Another of Martin’s passions — writing — was born out of the revelation that he would need original material in order to take his act to the next level. His approach was meticulous, intellectual and inventive, blending the cerebral and the silly to challenge audience assumptions about the very cadences of comedy.

He got his first big break at age 21 as a staff writer for the edgiest and most popular show of the day: THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR (for which he won a team Emmy®). The politically charged series was reflective of the cynicism that pervaded Vietnam-era America — and Martin toed the line with his share of Nixon jokes, and by sporting the requisite anti-establishment scruffy hair and beard. As the country moved into the ’70s, however, he felt that audiences were ready for something different. “I cut my hair, shaved my beard and put on a suit,” recalled Martin. “I stripped the act of all political references, which I felt was an act of defiance. To politics I was saying, ‘I’ll get along without you very well. It’s time to be funny.'”

He built a following through touring and frequent television talk show appearances — but his breakthrough came in 1976 after hosting a fledgling late night comedy sketch show called SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. The groundbreaking program proved the perfect showcase for his maverick brand of absurdist humor — a hodgepodge of jokes, magic, music and props, and a delivery that often eschewed conventional punch lines. Martin was a hit, and became so associated with the show’s early success that audiences often misremember him as a permanent cast member.

Martin’s stand-up star was already rising, but bolstered by the visibility of those early SNL appearances, he was transformed into a genuine comedy rock star — an anarchist philosopher who was demolishing long-held assumptions about comedy, with legions of fans hanging on his every word. Demand was high and the schedule was punishing; he was performing nearly nightly for sold-out arena crowds across the country, topping the Billboard charts with his explosively popular comedy albums (two of which earned Grammys®) and even received a gold record for his musical homage to King Tut.

With that kind of profile, the movies came calling — and Martin made a signature splash even before diving into theatrical features. His inaugural film (with credits as writer and star) was THE ABSENT-MINDED WAITER — a live-action short that garnered an Oscar® nomination in 1977. It was a cinematic vocation he would revisit with an iconic cameo two years later — serving celebrity co-stars Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy in THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979).

And then came THE JERK (1979).

His first starring role (which he also co-wrote) turned Martin’s unique brand of anti-comedy into box office gold. Directed by comedy legend Carl Reiner, the hilarious rags-to-riches-to-rags saga of simpleton Navin Johnson proved the perfect alchemic blend of earnest and absurd innocence for Martin’s sensibilities, and audiences went wild. With his debut feature, he was more than just a bona fide movie star; Steve Martin was the comedy zeitgeist.

Film success paved a road for Martin to walk away from the grueling world of stand-up and focus full-time on making movies. “A movie career, ” he said, “seemed to foster longevity, whereas a career as a comedian who had become a fad seemed finite.”

Bold in his choices, Martin leveraged his bankable cachet to champion riskier projects — like the Depression-era anti-musical PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981) and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982), his brilliant homage to film noir. He also continued to refine his comedic voice with THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (1983) and ALL OF ME (1984), a film for which Martin was named Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle.

What followed was a diverse string of films that would further elevate Martin as America’s most loved cinematic Everyman — in roles that range from starring to supporting to ensemble — ¡THREE AMIGOS! (1986), LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986), PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987), DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) and PARENTHOOD (1989).

What is most notable about these films isn’t just their critical acclaim or their whole-hearted embrace by audiences, but rather the level of authorship that Martin was bringing to his image. His appearances were always distinctly “Steve Martin” — even across genres, themes and wildly diverse performances.

It was during this time that Martin debuted his first solo effort as a screenwriter with ROXANNE (1987), a modern adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” which highlighted his gentle comic touch, infused with equal parts heart and pathos. The screenplay earned him a Writers Guild Award, and critic Pauline Kael said of Martin’s performance: “He seems to crossbreed the skills of W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton, with some Fred Astaire mingled in.”

The ’90s saw Martin take on dramatic roles in GRAND CANYON (1991), A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE (1994) and David Mamet’s THE SPANISH PRISONER (1997), even as his comedic star continued to shine with FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1991) and its 1995 sequel. Two more critically praised films that Martin wrote and starred in during this period, L.A. STORY (1991) and BOWFINGER (1999), displayed Martin’s versatile talents at their best by affectionately lampooning his beloved Los Angeles.

Continuing to lightly and lovingly jab his adopted hometown, Martin soon added a line to his resumé that would redefine him again for an entirely new generation of movie-lovers — that of Oscar® host. For the first time in 2001, he took to the stage as the face and voice of the Hollywood creative community — imbuing the proceedings with his signature wit and warmth and establishing himself as an immediate icon of the movies’ biggest night. It is an often thankless role that has been a revolving door for countless one-time hosts, but Martin carried it with poise and panache, returning for a second time in 2003, and again in 2010 — joined by friend and co-host Alec Baldwin. Martin would receive his own Honorary Oscar® in 2013, “in recognition of his extraordinary talents and the unique inspiration he has brought to the art of motion pictures.”

A desire to try something different led to his first original play, the critically acclaimed “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (1993) — a whimsical imaginary meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in 1904 Paris — which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Rejuvenated by the experience, Martin began contributing a steady flow of witty essays to The New Yorker, many of which were later collected in his bestseller, “Pure Drivel” — the long-awaited follow-up to his 1979 debut, “Cruel Shoes.” His precise and paraprosdokian prose earned him the respect of the literary community, and several popular novellas followed — including the poignant “Shopgirl, ” which Martin himself adapted into the 2005 film. When asked what pushed him to become a more serious writer, Martin said, “I’d say it’s maturity, age, self-examination, experience, painful experiences — conversations, talking, thinking about it. And it’s having something to say.”

He also had something to play. While Martin’s on-screen persona continued to be silly and strong — with CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (2003), THE PINK PANTHER (2006), IT’S COMPLICATED (2009) and more — he turned up the volume on his lifelong love of music. He immersed himself in the bluegrass world, recording a series of popular albums featuring original compositions and touring, often with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers. He even earned two Grammys® for his music — one for Best Bluegrass Album and another for Best American Roots Song (with Brickell). And in 2010, he established the annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass to help encourage the development of talented musicians and promote the appreciation of bluegrass music worldwide.

Steve Martin has consistently challenged and redefined himself as an artist, keeping the world engaged and entertained across decades, genres and art forms. Recently adding parenthood to his already impressive array of accomplishments, the “wild and crazy guy” has evolved into one of the most accomplished and treasured figures in America’s cultural legacy.

The American Film Institute is proud to present Steve Martin with the AFI Life Achievement Award for talent that has, in a fundamental way, advanced the film art; for accomplishments that have been acknowledged and celebrated by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and for work that has stood the test of time.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.