Public Media Arts Hub

George Stevens Jr. reflects on his life in Hollywood and Washington in a new memoir


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Writer, director and producer George Stevens Jr. has long been at the center of culture and politics in America.

He and I recently sat down to discuss his extraordinary life and fascinating career, which he details in his new book, "My Place in the Sun."

George Stevens, congratulations on the book. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

George Stevens Jr., Author, "My Place in the Sun": Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Your father, the legendary director George Stevens Sr., director of so many extraordinary films over his career. You had a family that went way back in — working in the theater, your grandmother, your mother.

Were you aware growing up of just how special all this was and that this might be your calling?

George Stevens Jr.: You know, I really had a little sense of my family. We didn't talk about it that much.

I knew they'd been in entertainment. But I grew up in a rather quiet little part of Hollywood, North Hollywood, Toluca Lake, and led what I considered a relatively normal life.

Judy Woodruff: It seemed normal to you.

George Stevens Jr.: Yes. Yes.

Judy Woodruff: And yet your eyes pop out in this book on virtually every page with the stories about Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, these other directors who were so well-known.

Are there one or two figures — it's so hard to ask this question — who particularly are memorable for you?

George Stevens Jr.: Yes.

But I would say, more generally, it was writing this book that I realized just how extraordinary the companionship, the friendships, the associations that I have had in my life, because it encompassed entertainment, government, politics, journalism.

In 37 years with the Kennedy Center Honors, one of my projects, we honored 188 of the greatest performing artists in the history of the world They're international. And to know those people and be able to tell their stories was such an opportunity.

Judy Woodruff: And this is all built on the title of the book, "My Place in the Sun," you take the title from "A Place in the Sun," one of your father's great films.

What do you think made him the great director that he was?

George Stevens Jr.: He had — he had a sense of the audience. I mean, he was an interesting and thoughtful man.

In 1951, after my father had made "A Place in the Sun," we went to the Academy Awards together, and I sat next to him. And Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had won the Oscar the year before, came out to present the award. And "A Place in the Sun" won.

And that night, riding home in the car, my father was driving, and the Oscar was in the seat between us. And I don't know why, but he looked over at me. And he said he said: "You know, we will have a better idea of what kind of a film this is in about 25 years."

And that was before streaming or cinema techs or DVDs. But he understood, from the theater, really, that the measure of the work was the test of time. Now, he didn't know that he was talking to the future founder of the American Film Institute, but the American Film Institute was all based on the test of time, preserving the great films.

Judy Woodruff: You came to Washington and then early 1960s. You went to work for Edward R. Murrow at the U.S. Information Agency.

Tell us what he was like. What was going on then?

George Stevens Jr.: Well, he was — for me, this change of leaving Hollywood and having this invitation to come be part of the new frontier, Kennedy's most exciting time to be in government.

And Ed Murrow was, again, another man of integrity, humor, and purpose. And to have had the influence of my father and Ed Murrow was really, awfully good for me.

Judy Woodruff: The American Film Institute, something you created, what is the significance of that?

George Stevens Jr.: It was — film did not have the kind of broad respect that it really has today as an art form.

And when they created the National Endowment for the Arts, the legislation listed nine arts, but not motion pictures. And I was acquainted with Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was one of the authors of the legislation. And I was able to call him and say, look, this is our indigenous American art form. And he included it.

And then they didn't know quite what to do about movies. They knew what to do about theater and dance. And I was asked, and I suggested an American Film Institute.

Judy Woodruff: Why do you think they didn't think to include films?

George Stevens Jr.: People didn't recognize film as an art form. And they didn't know who directors were. They only knew of Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock, who were personalities of the day.

And, gradually, people have — Turner Classic Movies has been a great help. People see and enjoy those films that were made 50, 60 years ago.

Judy Woodruff: You mentioned a minute ago, George Stevens, the Kennedy Center Honors.

You produced and directed that wonderful annual program for, what, over three decades?

George Stevens Jr.: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: What do you think that brought to Washington? I mean, that was — that really has been the principal connection between Washington, the seat of government, and the seat of entertainment.

George Stevens Jr.: To have these great artists, five a year, come and be honored at a gala performance and a reception at the White House, which was very important.

And the nation saw and — all of these dimensions of the arts and enjoyed them and realized that they were popular and should be part of their lives. And it's endured because of that.

Judy Woodruff: The perspective of George Stevens Jr.

The book is "My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington."

Thank you very much.

George Stevens Jr.: And thank you so much, Judy.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.