The well-connected George Stevens Jr. in front of his legendary photo wall
Three’s company: Stevens with Art Buchwald and Bobby Kennedy
Stevens’s wall of fame
Nestled along the banks of the Potomac, in the shadow of the Washington and Lincoln monuments, The Kennedy Center features some of the city’s most breathtaking views. But inside, in the first-tier, windowless office of George Stevens Jr., cocreator of The Kennedy Center Honors (to be celebrated this year on December 4), the view is absolutely awe-inspiring.
Every inch of Stevens’s office is covered with photos and posters that mark his career as a writer, director, producer, playwright, author, and overall champion of the arts. There’s the photo of Stevens with Elizabeth Taylor at her 18th birthday party, as well as pictures of Stevens with Katharine Hepburn, several presidents, and Arnold Palmer. There are framed posters of both The Thin Red Line, the Oscar-nominated film Stevens produced, and Thurgood, the one-man play he wrote about Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the country’s highest court. The waist-high shelves that line the walls are filled with books and topped with Emmy awards, Kennedy Center keepsakes, and other mementos from the American Film Institute— which Stevens also founded—and the Honors.
There are also tokens that speak to the Stevens family legacy, like a poster for a silent film that starred his mother’s mother—both grandmothers and one of his grandfathers were actors. And there are photos of his father, the famed filmmaker behind movies like The Diary of Anne Frank and A Place in the Sun.
It is this, Stevens’s family, of which he is most proud and which he credits as the greatest influence on his own success. Stevens’s first job in Hollywood was reading scripts for his father the summer he was 17. That is when he read a novel by Jack Schaefer that would become the film Shane. The next summer, Stevens went to work with his father on the set of the Western; the experience launched the younger Stevens’s Hollywood career. “I think I somehow acquired his instinct and his taste by sitting in editing rooms and on movie sets,” explains Stevens, who says his proudest career achievement was the documentary he produced about his father, titled George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. “To use your talent to tell the story of the person who inspired you was really satisfying.”
After several years in Hollywood, Stevens accepted a position within the Kennedy administration, working in the United States Information Agency and forging a personal bond with the young president. It led Stevens to establish the AFI and The Kennedy Center Honors. “I was inspired by Kennedy’s support of the arts and his articulation that achievement in the arts is as important as achievement in business or governing,” says Stevens.
Since its founding in 1978, the Honors has provided a forum for the nation to recognize the achievements of such diverse artistic talents as Paul McCartney, Lauren Bacall, Tennessee Williams, Lucille Ball, and Jack Nicholson. As Stevens proudly notes, “There’s a role for government to nurture and honor the arts, because it’s such an important component of civilization.”