As founder of the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors, George Stevens Jr. built two of the most influential and respected artistic institutions in the United States. By simply working within those organizations, his legacy would have been secure — but Stevens has never been inclined to stand still.
In a career spanning six decades, he has remained a tireless, faithful steward of the arts — protecting and defending others’ important works while creating a few of his own along the way. As his friend Warren Beatty puts it: “One would be hard pressed to find someone who has done more to further the artistic stature of American film than George.”
The son of a legendary director, Junior was — from an early age — inculcated with a strong sense of artistic purpose and responsibility. “My father was a great man, a courageous man,” he recalls Stevens. “He had something to express about the world. He instilled in me the idea of always reaching for quality and respecting the audience.”
As a young man, Stevens worked with his father, preparing for a career as a Hollywood director. Then, at age 29, he was unexpectedly summoned to Washington, D.C. — at the behest of journalist Edward R. Murrow — to helm the film division of the U.S. Information Agency. “It caused me to lead a different life” Stevens says. “I realize, retrospectively, that it relieved me of spending the rest of my life trying to become the second-best film director in my family.”
At his post in Washington, Stevens became a leading voice for film on a national level. In time he secured funding for what would become the American Film Institute. The early educational wing of the AFI, known as the Center for Advanced Film Studies, produced a remarkable number of important filmmakers including Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel and David Lynch.
“Whenever I saw George Stevens Jr., I’d see a guy who really had the right stuff to make the AFI work,” says Lynch. “The bottom line is that you’ve got to give students the freedom to make the films they want to make. And George did that. He was really rooting for me.”
In 1977, Stevens founded the Kennedy Center Honors — a televised celebration of artistic achievement, which he continues to write and produce to this day.
“It makes a statement, that what we do culturally is important,” Stevens says. “American creativity is of tremendous value.”
Stevens has had a fertile, if oft-interrupted creative life. As a writer and filmmaker, he has received numerous accolades for his documentaries (“The Five Cities of June” “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey”), an emotionally charged miniseries (“Separate But Equal”) and perhaps his finest work, “Thurgood,” whose star, Laurence Fishburne, was nominated for a Tony.
The Motion Picture Academy rewards his long career Saturday night with an Honorary Oscar. It’s the first award Stevens has ever received from the Academy.
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Jeffrey Katzenberg | Honorary Oscar: George Stevens Jr. | Honorary Oscar: Hal Needham | Honorary Oscar: D.A. Pennebaker