AFI, Kennedy Center Honors Founder George Stevens Jr. on His Youth Spent on His Father’s Film Sets

George Stevens Jr First Time in
illustration: michael Hoeweler

Fifty years ago, multiple Emmy Award winner George Stevens Jr. helped found the American Film Institute. The organization’s many activities include the annual AFI Fest and essential preservation efforts as well as televised salutes to top film creatives, which have earned Stevens Jr. two Emmy awards and 15 other nominations as a producer and writer. He came to AFI after growing up on sets where his father created cinematic masterpieces such as “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane” and “Giant.”

In 1961, Stevens Jr. went to Washington, D.C., at the behest of newsman Edward R. Murrow to supervise the film and TV output of the U.S. Information Agency. He later founded the Kennedy Center Honors. His career is filled with awards, including 17 Emmys (10 for his work on the “Kennedy Center Honors” telecasts), a 2013 Honorary Academy Award and eight Writers Guild trophies. He was first mentioned in Variety on Sept. 5, 1951, during the Wyoming location filming of “Shane.”

Variety columnist Mike Connolly reported you were “ablaze” with Alan Ladd’s daughter Carol Lee Ladd.

We were acquainted. “Ablaze” would be an overstatement.

You were still a teenager. What was your role on the production?

I believe my formal title was “company clerk.” What that meant was I kept track of every shot, every camera angle.

This sounds like quite an introduction to filmmaking.

I learned about leadership from my father. It was how he ran his company, how he worked with actors. I learned excellence from him. He gave me a compass, so to speak. But I think the real crucible of my learning was earlier, in the editing room when my father was finishing “A Place in the Sun.” He made his films in the editing room. It came so naturally to me to tell pictures with stories, and I learned how to see performances and how they’re refined and modulated. And I learned pacing.

The editing room on that film was a controlled environment, but is it fair to assume Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1951 was not?

Almost all great films are an act of war. You’re going to war against long days, bad weather and nervous studio executives. My father developed ulcers on the set of “Shane,” but he concealed his discomfort because he had work to do.

Aside from the hard work, being part of Hollywood in the 1950s must have had its pleasures.

I remember having lunch with Elizabeth Taylor on the Paramount lot the day of her 18th birthday. And I was sitting next to my father the night he won the Oscar for “A Place in the Sun.” I remember driving home that night with Oscar on the backseat of the car between my mother and grandmother. I was so excited. And my father said, “We’ll have a better idea what kind of film this is in about 25 years.”

So you were absorbing filmmaking lessons they never teach in film schools.

I got my acting work permit when I was 2 years old on an “Our Gang” comedy. By the time I was working on my father’s films, I was already seeing the world through the eyes of film directors of that time — people like Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann and John Huston. Years later, I wrote a long, verbose, windy request letter to Huston [asking him] to help us with a USIA film. Huston put my verbosity to shame with a two-word reply: “Of course.”

Any other George Stevens films that you’re fond of?

When I was a kid, I used to run a 16mm print of “Gunga Din” over and over at our house.

That was an influential film for so many filmmakers.

Well, we know that Steven Spielberg watched it!

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