There were mixed emotions at the AFI in Hollywood on Thursday, June 8. First was a celebration as Sir Sean Connery received the AFI’s Life Achievement award at a star-filled event at the Kodak Theater, taped for a two-and-a-half-hour special to air June 21 on the USA Network. However, at the start of the show, AFI’s Board of Trustees chairman Sir Howard Stringer announced that Jean Picker Firstenberg, chief executive officer of the AFI for the past 26 years, would step down next year. She is only the second person to hold that office. George Stevens, having started the organization in 1967 at the Kennedy Center, segued to L.A.‘s Greystone and stepped down. Jean Firstenberg took over and the AFI started its unmatched creative career on an eight-acre Hollywood campus.
The announcement of Firstenberg’s news was not known to Connery as he dined Wednesday night with her and members of the AFI Board at Morton’s. “No one at the table knew of the upcoming announcement,” Firstenberg said to me Thursday. “It is a very emotional day, for me,” She admitted that her decision had been in the planning stages for a year and that she plans to continue into the 40th anniversary celebration of the AFI in 2007. “It’s time to hand over the reins,” she said. “I’m 70, but I’m in great shape. I’m going out strong.”
Among AFI Board of Trustees members at dinner at Morton’s with Connery was David Picker, Firstenberg’s brother. He is chairman of the Producers Guild of America – East and had been the head of production at United Artists when they made the deal to launch the James Bond pix starring the virtually-unknown Connery in “Dr. No.” Picker recalled the budget was $1,100,000. Now 75, the same age as Connery, Picker has several film projects perking, including “Motherland” by Fern Chapman. It’s the story of a holocaust survivor. Picker scripted and will direct.
Jean Firstenberg also attended Wednesday’s AFI commencement exercises for 125 students. James Earl Jones, Sydney Pollack, Chuck Fries and Jeanine Basinger received honorary degrees.
Tributes to Jean Firstenberg are mounting. They include toasts from Howard Stringer, John Cooke, Jon Avnet, as well as AFI Trustees and Chairs of the Board of Directors, plus Ed Zwick and Marshall Hershkovitz, who studied as fellows at the AFI Conservatory.