The MFA graduates from the American Film Institute Conservatory weren’t the only ones receiving degrees Wednesday morning at the TCL Chinese Theater.
Cicely Tyson and Oscar-winning scribe Robert Towne were awarded honorary degrees during the AFI commencement ceremony, which also bestowed diplomas upon the students in the areas of cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design and screenwriting.
Following an introduction from the dean, who reminded the students that they were in “hallowed halls,” special guest and AFI founding trustee Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to present to his friend Towne.
Towne told the grads that Coppola has been instrumental in his career since 1971, when Coppola was shooting “The Godfather” in New York. The film had “a script problem,” as Towne put it, and Coppola turned to him for help. Towne, who worked closely with Marlon Brando on his performance, said the experience taught him to learn from his peers, a message he passed along to the young filmmakers.
“Wherever you are in your careers, chances are that the people right next to you with whom you’ve worked for these past few years are going to be the biggest and best and most enduring influences on your life,” Towne said.
Towne also shared that he would get nervous when it came time to show a scene to Brando.
“Marlon, then and now, was and is probably the only actor who could thoroughly intimidate me,” he confessed.
Tyson, who was presented with her honorary degree by her “Fried Green Tomatoes” helmer and producer Jon Avnet, shared the reason why she decided to become an actress, though she originally thought she’d pursue another profession.
“I’ve always been curious about what goes on in people’s minds. I truly wanted to be a psychologist,” Tyson said, adding that she was incredibly shy and quiet as a young girl and preferred to watch, listen and soak in her surroundings.
“I became an actress because I discovered that I could express my emotions through other people,” she explained. “That made it possible for me to speak.”
While she said she hasn’t ruled out trying her hand at another helming venture, Tyson said she’s content with her work as an actress, even though her mother didn’t think it was a good idea when she first began.
“She asked me to move out of her house and she didn’t speak to me for about two years,” Tyson said of her mother’s reaction to her choice of work.
Tyson laughed as she explained that her mother eventually came around when she ended up sitting near Ed Sullivan at the opening of “Sounder.”
Though she’s received countless awards, including a Tony for her work in “The Trip to Bountiful,” Tyson said she stopped keeping track of the number due to competition with another luminary.
“I stopped counting after my dear friend Dr. Maya Angelou began to compete with me,” Tyson teased before concluding her speech by telling the late Angelou, “Well doctor, you’re not here and I’m telling you that I have another one, and that’s one more than you.”
Student speaker Kendell Klein then addressed her classmates before “X-Files” creator Chris Carter introduced outgoing AFI dean Bob Mandel to begin the presentation of the diplomas and conferring of degrees.
As the graduates filed out of the theater, the celebration continued across the street with a reception at the Hollywood Roosevelt.