A New Audiobook Reveals The
True Story Of The Golden Era in Hollywood
& Washington, DC – And Of A Celebrated Family – As Told By The Award-Winning Man Whose
Career Exploits In Film, TV, Politics & Cultural History Are Exceeded By Few
Stevens, Jr. penned a book My Life in the Sun, that was just released in
audiobook form. He was interviewed by PBS News Hour and NPR Weekend Edition.
His book, which has received praise from Steven Spielberg, Yo-Yo Mama, Quincy Jones,
Tom Brokaw, and dozens of other cultural, entertainment, and political stars in
Hollywood and Washington, DC. Kirkus Reviews says of it: “A gripping glimpse into 20th-century
Hollywood.” The Wall Street Journal calls it” “Elegant and engaging…this
Jr., the recipient of an honorary Oscar for his lifelong contributions to the
film industry, is a well-decorated American writer, playwright, director, and producer
with a rich career spanning eight decades.
founder of the American Film Institute, he is the creator of the AFI Life
Achievement Award. As co-chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and
Humanities, he has worked with nine United States presidents.
of 15 Emmys, he has received two Peabody Awards, a Humanitas Prize, NAACP Legal
Defense Fund Award, eight Writers Guild Awards, and The Spirit of Anne Frank
Below is an interview with Stevens, Jr.:
1. George, what inspired you to pen your memoir, My Place in The Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington? I’ve led an interesting and productive life populated with fascinating and accomplished people, making my living as a storyteller, so I decided this was the time to tell my story.
2. What message do you want to bring home in your book? I want to engage, entertain, and inform the reader. Along the way, she may make discoveries about family, creativity, and adventures in movies, the performing arts, and politics.
3. Your dad was a wildly successful Oscar-winning Hollywood director-producer. Tell us about him? He was a decent man with integrity who made it to the top of the movie profession, then put aside his career to join the army and lead combat film coverage from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau. He kept his Oscars and other awards in a large metal filing cabinet.
Was it hard to grow up in his shadow, even if his success gave
you entree to your career?
I once worried about devoting my life to becoming the second-best
movie director in my family. He helped me decide to accept Edward R. Murrow’s
proposal to join Kennedy’s New Frontier—to make movies to tell America’s story
abroad. It provided me with adventures, achievements, and new pathways I could
not have dreamed of.
5. You collaborated with legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow (by the way, I attended the HS named after him). What was that like? Ed Murrow accepted JFK’s offer to head the United States information Agency. He was a gifted man with rock-solid integrity. He was a sterling leader and valued mentor when I joined him to head USIA’s Motion Picture Division at age twenty-nine.
6. Were you surprised to receive not just praise from people of a high caliber such as record producer Quincy Jones and world-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but from people like Presidential Historian Doris Kearns Godwin, who wrote of your book; “This eloquent, tender, profoundly moving memoir captured my heart from start to finish?” I had not expected the book to touch people as deeply as it has. I worked at it in the same way I approached my film and television work—guided by my father’s mantras—"to respect the audience” and “to keep working until you get it right.”
7. In a life full of accomplishments, what sticks out for you? Living a productive life and enjoying a wonderful family. Founding the American Film Institute and creating the Kennedy Center Honors are lasting contributions. Also ranking high has been the opportunity to tell stories on film and television and in the theater that entertained and enlightened audiences.
8. Your commitment to promoting and preserving the cultural arts of America are unrivaled. How did you see your role as the founding director of The American Film Institute? There was a need to rescue and preserve America’s disappearing film heritage, and a need to support and give training to young, independent filmmakers. There are now 60,000 American movies preserved in the AFI Collection in the Library of Congress; there is the American Film Institute Catalog on-line for the public and scholars to discover details of all feature films; the AFI Conservatory is regularly ranked as the number one film school with graduates ranging from David Lynch to Patty Jenkins, along with Paul Schrader, Mimi Leder, Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, Sian Heder, and Todd Field; and for 40 years the Women’s Directing Workshop has been providing opportunity for female filmmakers.
9. Fifty years ago, you championed for movies to be recognized as a major art form. It is hard to imagine now that society, addicted to movies, didn’t view them in that light. Do we credit you for this? When legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts was written in Congress in 1965, it listed the arts and motion pictures were omitted. I succeeded in seeing that film was added. Through the efforts of many individuals through the years, motion pictures are now recognized in the United States as a major art form.
10. You served as the co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities for President Obama. How do we grow the arts in America, in all its forms, so that more people can experience and appreciate them? The widespread inclusion of the arts in schools is a necessary first step. Studies show that children exposed to the arts improve in their schoolwork—and they become the audiences of tomorrow.
Tell us about working with President Kennedy. Did he influence
you as the creator of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center
Honors? I worked for President Kennedy in my years at USIA. He was
inspiring. He was eloquent in stating the importance of the arts to a great
nation. He said, “I look forward to an America that will not be afraid of grace
and beauty, that will reward achievement in the arts the way we reward
achievement in business or stagecraft.”
Those words are the essential idea behind the Kennedy Center Honors. He
also awakened my appreciation for the importance of national institutions—and
after his death I worked on the development of the Kennedy Library and the John
F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. These experiences guided me in the
creation of the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors.
12. You also worked with other presidents. Yes, I enjoyed associations with President Johnson, Reagan, Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 42, and Obama. Each of them supported me in my work in the arts and with productions like the Honors, the AFI Life Achievement Award, thirty-two years of Christmas in Washington, and We are One, Obama’s Inaugural Gala at the Lincoln Memorial. I value each of those relationships which broadened my vision.
13. What is the secret to your extraordinary level of success? Hard work, good luck, and willingness to take risks. I stayed focused and dedicated to serving the arts because I hold deep convictions about their value.
14. Which other politicians did you enjoy working the most with? I would say Senator Robert Kennedy influenced me the most. His idealism and sense of purpose was compelling. I believe his murder was even more consequential than that of his brother. I am confident he would have been elected in 1968. Bobby was uniquely equipped to bring together the working class and minorities—and he would have ended the Vietnam War years earlier—and saved the country from Nixon’s disgrace and his discoloring of the presidency.
15. Which Hollywood starlets did you most admire from behind the camera? I promised them that I would keep that a secret.
16. What challenges did you overcome to win 15 Emmy Awards? It was a continuing effort to do work of high quality in commercial television that tended settle for the lowest common denominator. I worked to persuade them to accept high aspirations, including producing programs centered on the arts that were very rarely seen on commercial television. These creative challenges were met through the years with the support of a small army of creative collaborators.
17. What state is the film industry today? It is a time of systemic change. The introduction of “streaming” poses the question of how audiences will see filmed entertainment, and whether movie theaters will be able to regain a central and stable presence in our lives.
18. Which is a tougher town — Hollywood or DC? Both towns are intensively competitive, and both operate under constant public scrutiny by the media. Failure and success are public matters. I find both cities stimulating and feel fortunate to have had both in my life.
19. Is your story America’s story? How so? My life could have taken place in no other country.
20. Do you have any advice to a young person seeking to become a filmmaker? Be curious and develop an interest in the world around you. Work hard, try and try again, and, when opportunity comes, be bold and diligent. And, of course, respect the audience.
For more information, please consult: www.georgestevensjr.com
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