Since his breakout role as the sweetly naive Navin Johnson in director Carl Reiner's 1979 hit "The Jerk" and the three Reiner collaborations that followed — "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains" and "All of Me" — Steve Martin has made about 40 films, most recently the animated hit "Home."
Two days after this interview, he was to report to work on Ang Lee's forthcoming "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," in which he plays the owner of a professional football team.
"I never had a vision for my career," Martin said. "So I kind of do what comes along that I like."
FOR MORE CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD: Sign up for Susan King's weekly newsletter
What comes along next is the 43rd American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, which Martin will receive at a Thursday evening gala at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. He will join an elite group of actors and directors who have won the honor, including fellow funnyman Mel Brooks, who will present the award, as well as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Al Pacino, Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda.
The company is so profound, said Martin, who will turn 70 in August, "the only thing I can think is, 'What am I doing up there?' "
His good friend and frequent costar Martin Short ("Three Amigos," "Father of the Bride") said the answer is obvious: Martin takes the craft of comedy awfully seriously.
"He will phone me up and say, 'Tell me if you think this joke is funny,'" Short said. "He likes to have fun on the set and is loose on the set [but] he's very prepared. I don't think Steve has walked through anything in his life."
Best known for comedies including the late '80s hits "Roxanne," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," not to mention the 1991 film "L.A. Story," Martin has taken his dramatic work just as seriously.
After the success of "The Jerk," he made a bold choice by not doing another comedy. Instead, he chose for his second film "Pennies From Heaven," a dark Depression-era tale in which the characters lip-synced to songs of the era. The film was not a hit when it came out in 1981, but it has grown in admiration during the last three decades.
"I loved 'Pennies From Heaven' so much," Martin said. "I really didn't have the option to wait. The movie was there, then. It was also an escape for me from my own persona, which I had been doing for essentially 18 years. So it represented so many things to me. I found it very emotional. Probably in truth, it was too soon for me to do something like this."
Since then, Martin has been able to transform himself into a modern-day renaissance man. Besides an actor and screenwriter, he's a bestselling author, playwright, producer, magician and fierce banjo player. (His 2013 bluegrass collaboration with Edie Brickell, "Love Has Come for You," won the Grammy for American roots song.) He's also the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor and an honorary Oscar.
"He is very, very smart and enormously curious," Short said. And he's a great dinner guest. Just the night before, Short said, the two were at a dinner party where Martin performed two mystifying card tricks.
"Everyone at the table was saying this is insane, this is impossible what he had just done," Short said. "Then he could have taken the lemons in the middle of the room and started juggling perfectly. Then he is a novelist, writes plays, knows every painting on anyone's wall and its origin and history and why it's good or bad. And, oh yeah, he plays the banjo. There's a lot going on with that young man."
That's high praise for someone who came to fame as a stand-up comic wearing bunny ears and a fake arrow on his head and proclaiming, "I'm just a wild and crazy guy!"
In his bestselling memoir "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life," Martin recalled the summer of 1965, when he stayed in an $8 hotel room in San Francisco while performing for free at the club Coffee and Confusion.
"At this point, my act was a catchall, cobbled together from the disparate universities of juggling, comedy, banjo playing, weird bits I had written in college, and magic tricks," he said. "I was strictly Monday-night quality."
Fifty years ago, Martin said, he never would have dreamed of what his career would become.
"This is an artist who was a rock star first and then became someone who we know him to be today," said Bob Gazzale, AFI's president and chief executive. "Even that's hard to describe. He is a talent that cannot be contained by a single art form."
Just a few years after his gig at the Coffee and Confusion, Martin worked as a writer on the CBS series "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," winning an Emmy. After years of struggling and fine-tuning his comedy routine, Martin developed a surreal performance-art style of stand-up that captured the zeitgeist of the 1970s. He sold out arenas. His comedy albums were bestsellers. His novelty tune, "King Tut," which he introduced during one of his many hosting gigs on "Saturday Night Live," was a surprise hit in 1978.
Working with Reiner taught Martin a lot of practicalities about film.
"When we had the script for 'The Jerk,' he said the first thing I do with the script is change all the nights to day, just to make the shooting easier," Martin said. "Any night we can change to a day, we change."
Comedy, Martin said, isn't pretty. It leaves you unsteady.
"You have to get those laughs, and if they are not there, it's devastating," he said. "Especially when you are thinking this is going to kill them and then it doesn't."
Martin has discovered over the years, though, that the comedy bits he loved but didn't think would get a laugh "those are the bits that people actually remember, that grow on them," he said.
Like a quick joke in "The Jerk."
"Carl and I were laughing driving to work for 30 minutes at this joke," Martin said. "The joke is: I'm hitchhiking in Missouri and the character's name is Navin Johnson. A car pulls over and said, "St. Louis?' And I say, 'No, Navin Johnson.' "
TBS will air the AFI tribute on June 13. TCM will present an encore on July 30 during an evening of Martin's films.
For the record
June 4, 2015, 1:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this post listed an incorrect TV channel for the tribute's June 13 airing. It will be on TBS, not TNT.