In 2013 when they honored Mel Brooks with the 41st AFI Life Achievement Award, the AFI suddenly seemed to discover that those who can make audiences laugh may have just as significant a career on film as all the more serious awardees that came before. After that highly successful evening ( the broadcast version even won an Emmy) it certainly made sense not to stop there, and last night’s 43rd AFI recipient Steve Martin proved to be another winner and a night that had the industry crowd at the Dolby Theatre nearly falling off their chairs laughing. TBS (and later TCM) will be airing the show and they got a bonanza of comedy stars who came out to honor, in some ways even roast, Martin. This almost felt like it belonged on Comedy Central instead with the likes of Tina Fey, Martin Short, Amy Poehler, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Dan Aykroyd, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, Carl Reiner and finally, Brooks himself who presented the award to Martin at the end of a nearly two-hour barrage of jokes mixed with sincere tributes to a guy many referred to as a renaissance man (author, screenwriter, musician, actor, standup comic, playwright, art maven etc). Even AFI Chairman Sir Howard Stringer got into the (Martin ) act early on when he came out to make his opening remarks wearing an arrow through his head (although his own attempts at delivering zingers showed just how difficult comedy really is). Knowing the lineup to come, AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale didn’t try to be funny, just his usual elegant self in getting the unforgettable evening rolling. Actually, both were preceded by a brilliantly edited clip reel which alternated classic film performances with everyone from Bogart to The Three Stooges compared to scenes where Martin showed his versatility in doing similar kinds of comic high wire acts in his movies. Good friend Tom Hanks speaking via taped remarks (he couldn’t be there due to filming in Europe) summed up what we all saw in this amalgamation of clips – that had Martin been around in the silent film era “we would have been talking about four greats: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Steve Martin”.
Certainly the proof was in those film segments pointing to Martin’s gifted comic timing in everything from The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid to All Of Me and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As a physical comedian he is second to none, but the showcase was remarkable in displaying his range. He wasn’t even afraid to take on the iconic Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau in a couple of updates of The Pink Panther and somehow made it his own without making us forget the memory of the great Sellers. Watching all of this I realized Martin has been walking a tightrope for years and almost never falling off. I suppose that is why he has been awash in awards lately from the Kennedy Center Honors to an Honorary Oscar and now AFI.
And everyone seemed to have their own favorite Martin film. Fey mentioned some of his more traditional leading man turns in movies like Father Of The Bride, Parenthood, and Planes Trains And Automobiles as her personal choices. She also had high praise for his philanthropic activities and “all those white suits he wore that he donated to lesbian commitment ceremonies”. In fact her hilarious tribute focused on the “rock star” career pre-movies when Martin sold out huge arenas, topping every music act of the day. “By 1978 Steve achieved his lifelong goal that music was stupid and everyone hated it,” she said.
Fellow SNL alum Aykroyd relived the “wild and crazy guys” bits he did on the show with Martin and thanked him for a career by putting his Blues Brothers act with John Belushi on the bill at one of his shows. Silverman talked about his more serious nature in real life, his “standoffish” reputation. “You should never meet Steve Martin”, she said.
Bringing Down The House co-star Queen Latifah sang a song from The Jerk after pointing out “Steve is the whitest man on earth”. All Of Me co-star Lily Tomlin, who essentially had to share a body with Martin in that masterpiece of physical comedy (he won the NY Film Critics Best Actor award), had a terrible time trying to read the prompter before declaring, like Hanks, that Martin would have been a great silent film star. It is one of the criminal omissions in Oscar history that he wasn’t nominated for that performance showing a prejudice against comedy in the Academy – and elsewhere when it comes to awards – that they tried to make up for in giving him that Honorary Oscar two years ago.
Carell talked about how he stole everything from Martin, even in school. ” I did a King Tut imitation that was the sincerest form of plagarism”, he said. During the dinner Carell told me he first discovered Martin in a near walk-on for a long-forgotten TV show of the 70’s called Doc that starred Barnard Hughes. “I saw this guy doing a very small bit on it and I said , ‘who is that?’ I had to know. He was great even then when no one knew who he was,” he said.
Poehler tried to do an auction bit that went on too long. “We have to remember why we are really here tonight. To raise money for Fifa and support the new President, Queen La Fifa, ” she said reminding us again that life is easy, comedy is hard.
There were lots more clips from movies like Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon and Frank Oz’s Bowfinger that made you immediately want to run out and rent them (guests were actually give a specially designed box of Martin films at the end of the evening thank god). And then there was 93-year-old Carl Reiner who directed Martin in four greats, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and All Of Me. When he stood up to make some remarks I noticed Martin got visibly excited to see him there. “I think I am the oldest person in this room tonight. Is there anyone here older than me?” Judging by the non-reaction I think he may have been right. He said he was wearing a tie that he stole from Martin hero Johnny Carson and got the camera to highlight the initials jc on the bottom. “I know this was Johnny’s. Jesus Christ didn’t wear neckties,” he said, still getting laughs in his ninth decade.
But absolutely killing it with a ten-minute routine skewering and praising best friend and five time co-star Martin was another Martin, Short. “Tonight we are honoring the films of Steve Martin. Why? Because no one spoke up when the idea was first floated and now it’s too late,” he began before getting edgy in describing Martin’s beginnings when he worked at Disneyland. “Steve Martin started as a young boy turning tricks at Disneyland. Let me rephrase that. Steve Martin worked at a magic shop at Disneyland and then after hours he would stand in the parking lot offering pleasures straight to men for a quarter. Steve Martin told me one of his fondest memories was strolling through Disneyland with Uncle Walt and playing Walt’s favorite game of ‘jew or not a jew'”, he said to perhaps the biggest laugh of the night. I looked over to see if the Disney table (which included Alan Horn) was laughing. They were – with everyone else. Short ended his bit with a nice song (accompanied by banjos of course) Martin wrote with Edie Brickell for an upcoming Broadway show that recently had a tryout to good reviews in San Diego. Inexplicably Father Of The Bride co-star Diane Keaton came on next and sang the same thing. Not sure why , but it was sweet.
Finally, as you might expect, Martin managed to come on and accept the award from Brooks and topped everyone, though he
seemed genuinely moved by the evening. “When I was a kid I used to get all dressed up and play AFI Life Achievement Award,” he said before trying to define the phrase he kept hearing about himself all night. “What is a ‘comic genius’? A comic genius is someone who decides never to go into comedy!” He also mentioned his agents and recalled a phone call he once got from another legendary agent, Sue Mengers trying to steal him away. “She called and said ‘Steve, I don’t like the movies they are putting you in’ and I said ‘but Sue, I wrote those movies.” After thanking everyone who participated he closed with a line from another comic legend. “Jack Benny once said, ‘I don’t really deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.”
The Benny reference was interesting because before the show started Mad Men’s Matt Weiner showed me the gold cufflinks he bought at a Benny auction. One says “Jack” and the other says “Benny”. Very cool. Weiner said he’s been enjoying the strong reception to the ending of his series but is ready to move on. “I am itching to get back to work. It’s been since October,” he said.
I also caught up with the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who made a terrific speech earlier in the evening accepting AFI’s 25th Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal. Deschanel’s most recent film is the much-awaited untitled Warren Beatty movie about Howard Hughes. “I just finished the timing on it today, although I have one more session booked at Technicolor in case Warren wants any more changes. But it’s finished, and by the way it’s a very good movie,” he said. Here’s hoping perfectionist Beatty will let the world see it soon, but we’ll just have to be patient.
Beatty, a past AFI recipient, wasn’t there last night but there was a strong turnout of industry heavyweights. I ran into 20th Century Fox’s Chairman Jim Gianopulos who was over the moon about Spy, which opens today. “I sit in meetings and they show promos I have seen at least 15 times and I still laugh every single time. I never do that,” he said. Gianopulos got a lot of laughs at his table too, since Brooks was seated there. Mel really rated in the room as the waiters brought him a special bowl of Matzo Ball soup which was not on the menu.
Gianopulos’ former partner at Fox and now Sony Pictures head Tom Rothman told me he was happy that The Walk (which Rothman shepherded at the rebooted Tri Star before taking on the Sony job) had just been accepted as the opening night of the New York Film Festival. “I will tell you Robert Zemeckis is an absolute genius. This is a movie that plays through the roof for 8 to 80. It’s PG. And it got it on the first pass. How many of those kinds of live action movies are out there that appeal to everyone in the family? It’s rare,” he said.
Certainly Steve Martin has made his share of those movies, and so many others. Here’s hoping he’s got a few more left in a lifetime of great achievement.
TBS will air an edited version of the 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award to Steve Martin on Sunday, June 13 at 10 PM.