From Czechoslovakia to the top of the DGA class

For Milos Forman, being honored by the Directors Guild of America is a bit like being dragged out of a burning building by a fireman, who then hands you a gold watch.

“I owe a lot to the DGA and its members,” Forman says from Prague, where he’s directing the filmed version of “A Walk Worthwhile,” the jazz opera he staged there last year.

“I made my first film (in the U.S.) on an H1 visa,” he adds, referring to 1971′s “Taking Off.” “When it expired, of course, I didn’t want to go back to communist Czechoslovakia, so I asked for a green card and was denied.”

So his colleagues from the DGA — “Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet, Franklin Schaffner, Paddy Chayefsky, Buck Henry and a few others” — wrote on his behalf to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The decision was reversed in 1972. “I was allowed to stay and work in the United States and become a citizen. Finally.”

Forman, received U.S. citizenship in 1977, two years after he made “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” one of the few films to sweep Oscar’s top five awards (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay). Other films for which Forman is famous are “Amadeus” (1984), which earned him a second directing Oscar, and another best picture winner; and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), which garnered nominations for the director and Woody Harrelson.

But he had made the films that had earned him — and his alma mater (the FAMU film school in Prague) and Czech film in general — a worldwide cache: pics such as “The Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball,” much earlier — in the ’60s.

“For me, he was always a hero,” says DGA prexy Michael Apted. “But I also love his work because I’m European. I remember his early (Czech) films, and to see him make the step into American film and go to straight to the top of the class, was a great achievement. And it’s something we all struggle with. Do we get subsumed by American cinema? Or do we manage to bring what we learned in Europe and put our footprint on American movies? He did that brilliantly.”

While Forman’s DGA honor is for his body of work, Apted says it also recognizes Forman’s efforts on behalf of artist’s rights: Before he got involved in the creative rights struggle, Forman was surprised at the difference between European and American law — the latter of which recognizes the “author” of a work as the one who holds the copyright. “So ‘Hamlet’ is neither by Shakespeare nor Laurence Olivier,” Forman says, “but Universal Pictures.”

“I directed a film based on a musical called ‘Hair,’ ” he adds. “That film has 21 musical numbers in it. And after the ‘author,’ which at the time was MGM-UA, sold the film to syndication, I saw the film on television, and half the musical numbers are cut out! And yet it was still presented as ‘a Milos Forman film.’”

So Forman joined the successful efforts of the DGA, testifying before Congress alongside the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers and Woody Allen, to convince Congress to accept a law ‘that would at least allow the filmmakers to announce how their film was altered.”

Forman, whose parents were killed in Auschwitz and who grew up under Communism, has never been one to veil his point of view. But at the same time, he says, politics have never been a prime motivator in the projects he chooses: “I look for some kind of a truth. But I know that the moment you tell the truth, you are becoming political, whether you want or not. I am aware of certain political aspect of films. But the primary thing for me is to find a good story with interesting characters.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more