A who's who of Canadian stage and screen were in Toronto on Monday to celebrate the career of actor Christopher Plummer.

Plummer, 81, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It is the first time the festival has given such an award.

Plummer played his first big role at Stratford – as Henry V – in 1956 and played frequently with the company as his Broadway and film acting career took off. He had a critically acclaimed role in its 2008 production of Caesar and Cleopatra, followed by a turn as Prospero in The Tempest in 2010.

"When Chris performs you never know what he's going to do from moment to moment, where he's going to go —there's a dangerous quality to his work that's deeply deeply thrilling," said Stratford general director Antoni Cimolino.

"To play Hamlet, to play Macbeth, to play Prospero, to play King Lear — these are monumental challenges and only someone whose heart belongs to the theatre can rise to meet those challenges," Cimolino said in an interview before the start of the tribute.

The tribute itself featured festival performers reprising some of Plummer’s famous roles, as well as musical tributes to the actor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role of Tolstoy in 2009 film The Last Station.

Tickets to the tribute were $1,000 each — the money went to classical and contemporary programming, training and educational outreach at the festival.

Veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent also paid tribute to Plummer, whom he worked with at Stratford back in 1962.

"The man is extraordinary. He's got so many sides to him. He's quite remarkable and when you share a stage with him it's magic," Pinsent said.

Plummer seemed touched to receive such acclaim from his contemporaries.

"This means something special to me because it's from Stratford, that I've known since I was 26 years old. It’s like coming home a bit," he said.

But his trademark wit soon surfaced.

"Oh yes, you always feel you're going to die the next day after you're given a lifetime achievement. I've got a lot of lifetime achievements and I'm still alive so to hell with that theory," he said.

Plummer’s career continues strong – the film version of his play Barrymore just opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, he drew praise earlier this year for playing a gay father in Beginners and he will appear later this year in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

"I'm working more now than I did 10 years ago for example, it's just extraordinary. I feel like I'm beginning all over again, it's lovely," he said.

Plummer returns to the Stratford stage next year – with a one-man show based on his favourite literary quotations.