LOS ANGELES -- George Lucas figures this is the ideal time to receive the American Film Institute's life-achievement award, now that he's getting out of the "Star Wars" business and embarking on a second career as an avant-garde filmmaker.
One of Hollywood's highest honors, the award Thursday came as Lucas was bidding goodbye to his six-film sci-fi epic about the Skywalker clan, with the final chapter cruising to a $400 million-plus domestic haul.
AFI actually approached him a decade ago or more about the career prize, said Lucas, who turned 61 days before last month's debut of "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith."
"I said, 'You know, I'm too young. Look, I'm not ready yet,'" Lucas told The Associated Press. "Then they came back again, and I said, 'Look, wait until I'm over 60. Then I'll do it.' As soon as I turned 60, they called me."
Never a prolific filmmaker, Lucas has focused largely on "Star Wars" since the mid-1970s, along with producing the "Indiana Jones" movies and TV series.
Before that, he was a filmmaking wunderkind who directed the cult sci-fi satire "THX 1138" and the enormously popular "American Graffiti." Now planning to return to his roots and make out-of-the-mainstream art films more akin to "THX 1138," Lucas jokes that since he views the six "Star Wars" installments as one long movie, he's receiving a career honor while barely getting started in show business.
"If you think about getting their award for a body of work but you think of 'Star Wars' as one movie, then I've only done three movies, and the only achievement is I actually finished 'Star Wars,'" Lucas said.
"At the same time, I'm starting a new career, so it's kind of the end of one phase and the beginning of another phase. So it's kind of the perfect time, probably as good as it's going to get in terms of being successful."
Of course, the films themselves are only part of Lucas' legacy. "Star Wars" reinvigorated sci-fi and visual-effects films, and Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic outfit revolutionized the industry.
The company has created special effects for many of Hollywood's modern spectacles, including "Titanic," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and the "Jurassic Park," "Star Trek," "Terminator" and "Harry Potter" flicks. ILM's advances in computer effects paved the way for such projects as "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Lucas has been a key proponent of the gradual conversion from film to digital production and projection of movies. His last two "Star Wars" movies were shot digitally, helping to drive a trickle-down effect of technology that allowed independent filmmakers to gain access to low-cost and flexible digital equipment.
The recipient of the 33rd annual AFI award, Lucas joins such past honorees as Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Taylor, Sidney Poitier, Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg, the latter two his collaborators on the "Indiana Jones" films.
Longtime pal Spielberg was picked to present the prize to Lucas.
"I think it's very appropriate," said Lucas, who plans to team with Spielberg and Ford for one more "Indiana Jones" movie. "We're friends, he's gotten his award here, and it's kind of fun to get it from a friend. It makes it more of a personal kind of award."
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