George Stevens Jr. pens autobiography on founding American Film Institute, Kennedy Center Honors

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with George Stevens Jr. (Part 1)

George Stevens Jr. helped his Oscar-winning father create some of Hollywood’s greatest movies before moving to Washington to influence presidents, invent the American Film Institute and create the Kennedy Center Honors.

Now, at 91 years old, he pens the must-read autobiography “My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington,” which is available on audio book, but worth grabbing a hard copy for the photos.

“I knew along the road that I would do this one day,” Stevens Jr. told WTOP. “I kept notes and calendars and made an outline of it eight years ago. I started to write it a couple of years later, then COVID sentenced me to finish the book. It enabled me to spend time on it. The care you take and the refinements you make are what make a book work. … The most pleasing thing is for readers to say I read every page, saving it because I didn’t want it to finish.”

The text is broken up into easily consumable chapters with utmost “respect for the audience,” creating a page-turner for anyone who loves movies, politics and the intersection of both worlds for the betterment of humanity.

“Just that idea of respect for the audience,” Stevens Jr. said. “The studios in that Golden Age used to say that the audience has the mentality of 14-year-olds, but my father felt very differently about it. He respected the audience, and he wanted to leave something for the audience to do, not put it all out there in front of you, let your contribution take place. … My father was a wonderful influence. This is not a story of a son with father troubles.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1932, Stevens Jr. grew up just as his father, George Stevens, was becoming Hollywood royalty, directing Katharine Hepburn to her first Oscar in “Alice Adams” (1935), the finest Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers picture “Swing Time” (1936), the action-adventure epic “Gunga Din” (1939), the bittersweet romance “Penny Serenade” (1941) and the first Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy rom-com “Woman of the Year” (1942).

“He had a 16 millimeter projector and I remember when I was 11 or 12 threading up ‘Gunga Din’ on this projector and running it,” Stevens Jr. said. “I so loved that film, the humor, the adventure. … He learned from Laurel and Hardy — he was their cameraman when he was 24 — that comedy could be graceful and human. … That’s what makes ‘Swing Time’ the best of the Astaire-Rogers pictures. There’s a deeper characterization of the two people.”

In 1944, a 12-year-old Stevens Jr. attended the 16th annual Academy Awards with his mother and blurted out his disapproval when his father’s movie “The More the Merrier” (1943) lost Best Picture to “Casablanca” (1942).

“My mother and I went to the Oscars because Dad was nominated,” Stevens Jr. said. “When the guy opens the envelope and says, ‘Casablanca,’ in the silence before the applause, I said, ‘We was robbed!'”

His father couldn’t attend. He was busy documenting World War II alongside fellow filmmakers Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford and John Huston (I highly recommend the 2017 Netflix docuseries “Five Came Back”). That’s right, George Stevens Sr. actually filmed the D-Day invasion, the liberation of France and the discovery of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. His rare color footage now resides at the Holocaust Museum.

“He was well beyond draft age,” Stevens Jr. said. “He watched Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ one night in a Columbia Pictures screening room. Riefenstahl made epic films about Hitler and the Third Reich and that night he decided that he couldn’t stay on the sidelines. … Eisenhower put him in charge photographing the invasion. He rode across Europe in a jeep with a pistol on his hip. I’m very proud that he knew what the right thing to do was.”

Having witnessed the dark side of humanity, his father’s postwar films took on a more serious tone. The result was a run of cinematic masterpieces, including “A Place in the Sun” (1951), in which Montgomery Clift drowns Shelly Winters in order to date Elizabeth Taylor. Stevens’ soft-focus camera created dreamlike kisses, while showing the transition from night to day using a dissolve on a windowsill radio — all to earn his first Best Director Oscar.

“It’s one of the great ones,” Stevens Jr. said. “Mike Nichols’ first film was ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ a wonderful picture, and he said, ‘I watched ‘A Place in the Sun’ 150 times. … I was going to college, didn’t have a summer job and he said, ‘You can help me.’ He gave me two assignments: one was to break down Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ … because he was about to write the screenplay of ‘A Place in the Sun.'”

The other assignment was to read various books and scripts that Paramount sent over for his father to read, including a bunch of frivolous romances that he found very taxing to a 17-year-old on long summer days.

“One day I picked a book off the pile, read it in the afternoon and went to see my dad at night in bed,” Stevens Jr. said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you tell me the story?’ I found myself pacing around the bedroom trying to reconstruct the story of ‘Shane.’ I now look back and realize that he was giving me an opportunity to find out if I had an interest or aptitude for his profession. The next summer I was in Jackson Hole working on my first movie: ‘Shane.'”

Together, they turned “Shane” (1953) into one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Stevens Jr. idolized his father just like Brandon De Wilde’s character Joey idolized Alan Ladd’s title gunslinger, who rides onto a homestead to help a family win a land war in 1880s Wyoming. The film’s violence felt real thanks to rigging the actors with girdles attached to three wires that would be yanked, sending them flying onto mattresses beneath the mud.

“Dad had come back from the war and he’d seen what a .45 could do to another human being, but he’d see movies as people get shot, grab their chest, get up and shoot again,” Stevens Jr. said. “In this, when [Jack Palance] shot him, he flew back into that mud. Sam Peckinpah said, ‘After Elisha Cook was yanked into the mud, gunplay in movies changed.’ My father wanted to show the power and danger of a weapon, a lesson we are still trying to learn today.”

My personal favorite remains “Giant” (1956), which is 10 times the movie as “Gone with the Wind” (1939) because it’s on the right side of history. The sprawling epic follows a Texas cattle rancher (Rock Hudson), his feminist wife (Elizabeth Taylor) and a cocky oil driller (James Dean in his final role) amid racism on the Mexican border, building to a final shot of their white and brown grandkids in a playpen, earning his father a second Best Director Oscar.

“The important theme in that film is the independent woman — there were not a lot of those in movies in those days,” Stevens Jr. said. “She’s the one who cares about the Latinos in the village. Then of course addressing the condition that continues to trouble us today, which is the equity for Hispanic Americans. … ‘Gone with the Wind’ has got all of the production, but it didn’t have the foresight about the truth. ‘Giant’ is about the truth.”

His father kept pursuing the truth in his seminal Holocaust movie “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), based on “The Diary of a Young Girl,” which had been published in 1947 after the 15-year-old’s death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Stevens Jr. shot pickup footage of exteriors in Amsterdam around the Frank house.

“This child from the ages of 12 to 14 was in hiding and wrote this remarkable diary,” Stevens said. “My father and I went to Amsterdam to see Otto Frank, her father, who had come back from Auschwitz. We sat in a little office and he went to a filing cabinet and took something out wrapped in cloth and opened it in front of us — it was her diary. … Hitler’s voice fell still and this voice (lived on). For us to be able to tell this story was for us very important.”

His father next directed the Biblical epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), but it was up to Stevens Jr. to convince Sidney Poitier to play Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus Christ carry his cross to the crucifixion.

“[He] was usually played by a white character,” Stevens Jr. said. “Dad asked me to talk to Sidney, so I flew to New York and met Sidney for lunch. I was 27 or 28 and he was in his early 30s. … I told the story of what the character did and I said, ‘My father would be greatly appreciative if you would consider playing this role.’ I showed him this illustration. Sidney was silent and then he said, ‘I would be honored to work with your father.'”

Then came his life’s turning point. One day, while directing TV episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Peter Gunn,” Stevens Jr. received an offer he couldn’t refuse on the other side of the country in D.C. Legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow offered him a job at the United States Information Agency (USIA) under John F. Kennedy.

“I used to joke that I’m going to spend my life working to become the second best film director in my family,” Stevens Jr. said. “Then Murrow appeared with the new frontier and John Kennedy and offered me this position. … I went to the studio with Dad and I told him this. He stopped walking and looked at me and said, ‘I think you may have to do it.’ … It was a decision that so broadened my career, being brought into the Kennedy years.”

The autobiography goes into wonderful detail about his time at USIA creating important newsreel documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “The Five Cities of June” (1963) about JFK’s landmark trip to Berlin.

“We made documentaries of presidential trips in 35 millimeter color,” Stevens Jr. said. “We made a really very good film of Kennedy in Berlin speaking to 575,000 people at the Berlin Wall with his personal magnetism and his famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech. We showed it in many languages overseas. President Kennedy saw it (and called me) saying, ‘It’s one of the best government documentaries I’ve seen. … Keep up the good work.'”

Suddenly, his soul was forever shaken by the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968.

“My God, just unimaginable,” Stevens Jr. said. “The first assassination was arguably one of the great tragedies in American history, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then five years later when we think we’re on the way back. In a way, Bobby’s murder was more consequential because Bobby I believe he would have been elected president. … The working class, young people, African Americans, he could have pulled that together. Instead, we got Nixon.”

After JFK’s assassination, he went to work helping Lyndon B. Johnson create the American Film Institute in 1967.

“President Kennedy initiated the idea of the National Endowment of the Arts but did not live to see it,” Stevens Jr. said. “The National Endowment knew it could sponsor symphony orchestras, opera companies, but didn’t know what to do about film. … I proposed an American Film Institute. We went to the White House and (LBJ) surprised us by saying, ‘We will create an American Film Institute to preserve the great films and train young filmmakers.'”

Thus, Stevens Jr. launched a two-pronged approach, working with the Library of Congress in D.C. to preserve classic films, while opening the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles to train a new generation of filmmakers.

“I thought I could set it up in three years but it took 12,” Stevens Jr. said. “In that first two years, Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Caleb Deschanel and Paul Schrader, there were only 18 in the first year. … Film preservation became the cornerstone of the AFI for the first 20 years. We would rescue films. … I said we would go find the films and bring them to the library. There are now 50,000 restored films in the AFI collection in the Library of Congress.”

Meanwhile, he created the annual AFI Life Achievement Award, the first going to John Ford, followed by the likes of Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock and Meryl Streep. He also conducted sit-down interviews with these legends for two AFI books: “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age.”

“Bringing something like that to life is a challenge,” Stevens Jr. said. “Ironically, it was Richard Nixon agreeing to come to Hollywood for the John Ford event that gave it a liftoff. … Writing and producing the Life Achievement Award show, I did it for 25 years even after I’d left being director of AFI. It was a creative jewel for me to have that responsibility. It was always a challenge every year, but a delightful one, and people wanted to participate.”

After filming an AFI 10th anniversary special on CBS featuring a newly-elected President Jimmy Carter at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Stevens Jr. proposed the idea of launching an annual Kennedy Center Honors.

“I said to Roger Stevens, Chairman of the Kennedy Center, ‘You should have your own event and television show,'” Stevens Jr. said. “He said, ‘You got any ideas?’ I said, ‘I do. It’s carved in one sentence on the wall of this building of JFK quotes: ‘I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace and beauty, that will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.’ That’s what the Kennedy Center Honors became.”

From 1978 to 2014, Stevens Jr. honored 198 of the nation’s most brilliant creative artists, including an epic performance by Heart paying tribute to Led Zeppelin in 2012. His proverbial “white whale” was Katharine Hepburn, who insisted for years that she wouldn’t attend before finally relenting over a phone call in 1990.

“She didn’t like to do that stuff (but) every year Katharine Hepburn would have more votes than anybody,” Stevens Jr. said. “She said, ‘You can call me Wednesday but don’t get your hopes up.’ I called her back Wednesday and she said, ‘It would just be too painful,’ and I heard myself saying, ‘We hear so much of this Yankee fiber of yours. Why don’t you just summon some of that Yankee fiber and say yes.’ There was a long pause and she said, ‘Alright, yes!'”

In 2014, Stevens Jr. produced his final Kennedy Center Honors. He sadly recounts Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein visiting his office to say, “You’re receiving the honor this year,” which might sound like an accolade except that it was another way of saying that he was relieved of his duties. After a run of consecutive Emmy nods, it was like Jerry Krause breaking up the Chicago Bulls in 1998 with Michael Jordan still winning titles.

No matter, his legacy speaks for itself, producing the annual “Christmas in Washington” specials at the National Building Museum — a favorite of the Reagans and Bushes — as well as “America’s Millennium” at the Washington Monument for the Clintons. His crowning achievement was President Barack Obama’s inaugural special “We Are One” at the Lincoln Memorial with live performances by Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, U2 and Beyoncé.

“Ronald Reagan was born to sit in the box at the Kennedy Center Honors next to Cary Grant,” Stevens Jr. said. “With George W. (Bush) after that rough Supreme Court decision giving it to him over (Al) Gore, there was a real thought that the artists would not come, but we organized that and the Bushes wanted to be responsive and were. Every year, people of different persuasions would come together and I think it did make a difference.”

Make no mistake, this isn’t the story of a Washington politico who gave up on Hollywood dreams. Stevens Jr. concurrently cranked out the acclaimed documentary “George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey” (1984), Emmy-winning TV miniseries from “The Murder of Mary Phagan” with Jack Lemmon to “Separate But Equal” with Poitier and Burt Lancaster, even original stage plays like “Thurgood” starring James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne.

His honorary Oscar in 2012 was proof of a perfectionist work ethic that applies to his prolific filmmaking, his live TV specials, his star-studded awards galas, his political power broking, his memoir writing — and even reserving several hours to conduct this WTOP interview over three back-to-back Zoom calls to get it just right.

“Another thing I learned from my father from working on ‘Giant,’ editing it for a year … I said, ‘Why don’t we just put it out there?'” Stevens Jr. said. “My father said, ‘Think about how many man and woman hours are going to be spent watching this picture over the years at three hours and 20 minutes a session. Don’t you think it’s better that we spend a little more of our time making it as good as it can be?’ That is something that’s really guided my life.”

His final chapter, “Getavasia,” is a term he learned from James Cagney about leaving a room with a tap-dance. The book’s final flourish is a salute to his family, honoring his late son and producing partner Michael Stevens, as well as his son David, stepdaughter Caroline and wife Elizabeth. Local readers will appreciate his sendoff story about watching his grandmother’s silent comedy films at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland in 2018.

“What made this extraordinary was that I had never seen my grandmother on a movie screen,” Stevens Jr. wrote. “As the lights went down, notes from the organ introduced my grandmother in shimmering black-and-white images on the giant screen. I laughed with others as Alice endured.”

His memoir, like his family’s creative work, will stand the “test of time.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with George Stevens Jr. (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up