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Writer and director George Stevens Jr. releases memoir 'My Place In The Sun'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've got a few minutes to talk now about a book about a life that's 90 years long and still going strong. It has memories of having milkshakes with a teenage Elizabeth Taylor, producing the Kennedy Center Honors, being in then out of "Apocalypse Now," getting voicemails from Barack Obama, who couldn't join him at some event because, you know, this president thing. George Stevens Jr., the son of a legendary Hollywood director who joined his father in movie sets, then set off to make films of his own and later created the American Film Institute - his memoir, "My Place In The Sun." George Stevens Jr. joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

GEORGE STEVENS JR: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: So you grew up on a lot of famous film sets, your father making "A Place In The Sun," "Shane," "Giant," "The Diary Of Anne Frank." What did you learn about fame, talent and film, do you think, on those sets?

STEVENS: Well, I guess I learned a good bit about all of those things. First of all, my father was, as you describe, a tremendously gifted filmmaker with a great sense of humanity. But he was also a wonderful father. And the year I graduated from high school, I didn't have a summer job, so he gave me two assignments. One was to read the books and scripts that came from Paramount Pictures, where his company was, and the other was to break down Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" because he was about to start the screenplay for "A Place In The Sun" based on Dreiser's "American Tragedy." And these books were pretty dreary for a 17-year-old. They were kind of summer treacly love stories. And one day a small book came. And I read it in the afternoon, and I went over to see my dad. And I said, dad, this is really a good story. I think you ought to read it. And he said, why don't you tell me the story? So I found myself trying to organize my memory of Jack Schaefer's "Shane"...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEVENS: ...In order to tell it to him. And, of course, I look back on it, and I realize it was my father's way - this summer job - of finding out whether I had any aptitude or interest in his racket.

SIMON: Well, you talked a great film. It became a great film. And I got to ask about milkshakes with Elizabeth Taylor.

STEVENS: Yes. I was and she was 17 at the time. But to go from Occidental College, where I was in my freshman year, to the set of "A Place In The Sun," where she was working with Montgomery Clift and my father - and then I was introduced to her. And then when they broke for lunch, she came over and said, would you like to go to lunch? So I found myself walking down the studio street with Elizabeth Taylor and followed her into the Paramount dining room in her wake. And we sat down and had hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes.

SIMON: You have actually held the diary of Anne Frank in your hands.

STEVENS: Yes.

SIMON: How did that happen?

STEVENS: Well, when - my father asked me to be the associate producer on that film. And before we shot it, we went to Europe, and we drove around Normandy. And then we went to Amsterdam and went to a small office building one morning, rang the doorbell, and the door was opened by a tall man - white-haired man - named Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father. And we went in and sat down with him. And at one moment, he went over to a filing cabinet and pulled it open and took out something wrapped in cloth, opened it, and there was Anne Frank's diary with the pictures she pasted in it. You know, and it was just so moving to see that object. And then Otto Frank took us to the hiding place. And we went up beyond that bookcase behind which they hid, and he told my father of the day the Germans came.

SIMON: My gosh. That would imbue anyone with a special sense of responsibility. What do you - I mean, to tell her story, but I'm going to guess also for - to make the rest of your life useful somehow, too.

STEVENS: It really did. And I was always attracted - my father made stories about outsiders and underdogs - "Alice Adams," the young girl trying to find her way, "Shane," Anne Frank, Jesus - "The Greatest Story Ever Told," if you will.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEVENS: And - you know, and I found when I - later, when I went to United States Information Agency under President Kennedy, I found myself making films like "The March" and "Nine From Little Rock" that were films about social justice and later had the opportunity to make "Separate But Equal," which was the story of Brown v. Board of Education. So I found, like my father, I was attracted to those themes.

SIMON: May I ask, what do you watch for fun?

STEVENS: I really love Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal talking about...

SIMON: You mean TNT basketball?

STEVENS: Absolutely, but not the basketball. These men are so amusing and insightful. Yeah.

SIMON: They're very funny. They're hilarious. Let me ask you this, finally, if I can. After a lifetime in the business, what enthralls people? What can uplift and engage them and make a difference in their lives that entertainment can do?

STEVENS: If you ask me the lesson that I gained most importantly from my father, it was respect for the audience. And they used to say - studio heads - that the audience has the mentality of 14-year-olds. He always said, trust them. Leave something for them to bring to the story. And I think, you know, people find out about their own lives by seeing the lives of others, and particularly if you respect them.

SIMON: George Stevens Jr. - his memoir, "My Place In the Sun." Thank you so much for being with us.

STEVENS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.