After all the tributes and all the talk, after the film clips that showed a grace that mocked gravity as it defied belief, the guest of honor said it best. "I did all that? I didn't realize I did all that," said Fred Astaire, a bit dazed. "I saw some things up there I don't remember doing, but gosh it looked good to me."
Astaire was the ninth recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award (ceremony to be telecast Saturday at 9 p.m. on Cbs) and in some ways he was the most popular. Some 1,200 eager guests dined on rack of lamb and chocolate artichokes at the Beverly Hilton's grand ballroom and offered obeisance to the man George Balanchine once called "the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times."
Audrey Hepburn flew in from Rome, host David Niven from Switzerland, James Cagney and Mikhail Baryshnikov from the East Coast, and they and everyone else, from Gregory Peck and Gene Kelly to Dick Cavett and Art Buchwald, acted just like fans, beaming at the clips, singing along with the songs, and in general seconding Cagney's comment that "the one question I have is why they [the AFI] waited so long. He is the greatest entertainer I've ever seen in my life. I hope he goes on for another 100 years, bless him."
Astaire, exactly a month shy of his 82nd birthday, looked impossibly trim, every sandy hair in place, a sporty purple cummerbund brightening his tuxedo. Sitting with his wife Robin Smith, his son and daughter, choreographer Hermes Pan and other friends, he seemed stunned by all the attention, even clapping his hand to his forehead in mock disbelief at the first of the frequent standing ovations he received during the evening.
Several of Astaire's dancing partners, including Cyd Charisse, were present, and Eleanor Powell watched a clip of her and Astaire tap-dancing furiously in "Broadway Melody of 1940" and said "every time I see that I'm a nervous wreck, I'm always afraid I'll miss a tap. We were so serious, like two scientists in a lab." Audrey Hepburn, the picture of elegance in a black off-the-shoulder gown, beamed as she talked about how she "experienced the thrill all women at one point in their life dreamed of, dancing just one dance with Fred Astaire."
Noticeably absent was the woman who danced more dances with Astaire than anyone else, Ginger Rogers. She sent a telegram which read "It certainly was fun, Fred. When they put us together it was a blessed event. Working with you was an experience I'll cherish."
Since Astaire liked to film his dances in one long take if at all possible, the clip selection featured great batches of his work. There was a section on Astaire and Rogers, one with miscellaneous partners ranging from Gracie Allen to Judy Garland, a strictly vocal section and a collection of Astaire solos, where he created magic with a golf club, a coat rack, a set of drums and other umpromising material. The clip most missed was Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling in "Royal Wedding," while the most popular was him dancing with a chorus line of nine duplicate Astaires in "Blue Skies."
The two most memorable tributes came, as might be expected, from fellow dancers. Bob Fosse, now best known as a choreographer and film director ("All That Jazz") said "Fred Astaire has been my idol my whole life" and recalled the day on the MGM lot when a preoccupied Astaire had walked by and said simply "Hi ya Foss.' It was such a moment, Fred Astaire said hello to me, even if he had mispronounced my name. I went back and rehearsed so hard my muscles are still aching."
It remained for the American Ballet Theatre's Baryshnikov, however, to speak the deftest words of the evening. "I've been asked to say something about how dancers feel about Fred Astaire," he said, deadpan. "It's no secret we hate him. He gives us complexes because he is too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity, causing unforgettable jealousy.
"When I first saw Mr. Astaire's movies it was very discouraging, I thought everyone in America was that good. He is everywhere, moving. I give a performance, I go home feeling good, I turn on the TV to relax and there he is. It is like what Ilie Nastase said about Bjorn Borg: 'We are playing tennis, he is playing something else.'"
Finally, after reading a few lines from that old hoofer John Milton -- "Grace was in all his steps, heaven in his eye and in every gesture dignity and love" -- the AFI's George Stevens called Astaire to the podium to a torrent of rhythmic applause. Astaire did a few half steps, kissed the award, turned to the audience and said "now comes the hard part. I don't know how to start, how to finish. This is a wonderful way to celebrate your 76th year in show business."
Astaire paid tribute to his sister and first dancing partner, Adele, who died in January, saying, "She was the one who had the talent, she was the whole show, the shining light, I was just there pushing along." He looked around the room for Barrie Chase, his last partner, who'd said earlier that dancing with Astaire had been tough and "there were times you were a monster," and told her he'd felt "horrible" at those scenes. "I'm thrilled to death," he said finally. "I can't explain it any more than that." He bowed deeply and a rhythmic applause began all over again. CAPTION:
Pictures 1 and 2, The young Fred Astaire in an early movie, and Astaire Friday at the AFI dinner where he received the Life Achievement Award; by AP