George Stevens Jr. is a writer, director, 11-time Emmy winner, a founder of the American Film Institute, the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker George Stevens ("A Place in the Sun" and "Giant") and—phew!—now the author of "Thurgood," a new Broadway play starring Laurence Fishburne. He spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Connie Leslie. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Vernon Jordan is a producer of "Thurgood"?
George Stevens Jr.: Vernon has been a kind of mentor to me in terms of the black community, starting with the 1991 miniseries I wrote and directed on the story of Brown v. Board of Education called "Separate but Equal," in which Sidney Poitier played Thurgood Marshall. Vernon introduced me to the key people who had worked with Marshall at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.
What triggered your interest in Marshall?
When I decided to make the "Separate but Equal" miniseries, I did all this research. Thurgood was at the center of the Brown case. And years ago I saw Henry Fonda do a play called "Darrow" about Clarence Darrow. I think that play was somewhere in the corner of my brain—how effective it was. And the idea of doing a play about Thurgood Marshall occurred to me.
What would Marshall say about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas today?
I doubt if he would comment. He had a great civility about the court. There is a reference in the play, which is exactly what he said in his last press conference in 1991 when asked, "Should the president appoint a negro?" Marshall said, "I would hope he doesn't appoint a negro for the wrong reasons. My father used to tell me that there is no difference between a white snake and a black snake. They both bite." Now, whether that was a direct reference to Clarence Thomas we will never know.
What about Barack Obama?
I'd put it the other way. Barack Obama has one portrait in his office, and it's of Thurgood Marshall. And I think about the scene in the play when Marshall recalls Charlie Houston, the then-dean of Howard University's law school, telling him and his classmates, "We're going to make Howard University the West Point of negro leadership." Well, I saw Barack Obama speak at Howard about two months ago to maybe 1,500 students. He talked about Thurgood Marshall. And the students were inspired and Thurgood's memory was exalted.
Did you spend a lot of time on the sets of any of your father's movies?
I did. We were great friends and collaborators. I was in the editing room on "A Place in the Sun," but I was just starting college. As a college student I worked with him first in "Shane." I was called a company clerk—production assistance is a fair description. Then I worked with him on "Giant." And I was the associate producer and I directed the location scenes in Europe on "The Dairy of Ann Frank." I was listed in the credits for "The Greatest Story Ever Told," but that was around the time that Ed Murrow invited me to Washington, D.C., to head the film division of the United States Information Agency.
So you worked with James Dean on "Giant?"
I got to know Jimmy Dean pretty well. He was difficult. But he was mercurial, and gifted. He was really quite an unusual fellow, and he would have had a great career had he lived.
You also worked with Elizabeth Taylor, who starred with Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun."
Elizabeth is a great deal of fun and a good friend. I think with most of these famous actors you see enough of them that I think any of us gets a sense of what they're like.
You also directed Alfred Hitchcock's television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
He had that wonderful, obscure sense of humor and that haughty attitude that he played that was very appealing.
You've said that the influence of World War II on your father and other directors of his generation gave them a second act. What do you mean?
I think that war experience made directors of that generation more interesting people. That would apply to my father, John Huston, Willie Wilder and others. Dad was 35 years old and one of the five biggest directors in Hollywood when he went out one day and joined the army. He was away for the better part of four years. And as he said, he saw men at their best and at their worst. He came back, and I think it informed the rest of his life and the rest of his work. "A Place in the Sun," "Shane," "Giant" and "The Diary of Ann Frank" were of a different nature than his prewar comedies. Except for Oliver Stone, who served in Vietnam, I don't think most American directors have a war experience today. It's not a criticism of directors today. We deal with whatever experiences come our way.