It started with a casual, almost offhand request.
“If you don’t mind — since this is my last Honors — I’d like to say something,” George Stevens Jr. told Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.
The two men, along with Stevens’s son Michael, were standing backstage last December just before the second half of the Kennedy Center Honors program. In years past, Rubenstein gave brief remarks and, as producers of the show, George and Michael took a silent bow. But this night was different, Stevens said: “I’d just like to thank everyone for the last 37 years.”
Despite their private differences, Rubenstein was determined to give Stevens, then 82, a dignified public send-off. “Of course,” he said. “You’re going to need a microphone.” That’s when he noticed a mike already affixed to Stevens’s left lapel.
Seconds later, Rubenstein went onstage and launched into an effusive introduction. “The show tonight is an example of extraordinary talent that George and Michael have brought to this,” he told the audience. “I just want to thank them for creating a crown jewel for the Kennedy Center.” Father and son walked out to a standing ovation. Then George Stevens explained how he had come up with the idea for the Honors, praised the artists who received them, and thanked his son.
What happened next was the topic of fevered gossip for weeks afterward. “A little while back,” Stevens continued, “David Rubenstein came to talk with us. He advised us that he felt that the Honors was in need of a fresh concept, and it was time to look for new producers — and we respect that — and that this would be our last Honors.”
A spotlight stayed locked on Rubenstein, who found out later that Stevens’s speech had been written in advance and placed in the teleprompter. The farewell ended with another standing ovation and dropped jaws.
Those in the audience who had no inkling of the departure were stunned. Those privy to the exhaustive behind-the-scenes negotiations were astonished that Stevens, who had clashed with Kennedy Center officials for years, had singled out the billionaire chairman as the person behind his ouster.
Even Stevens’s close friends were baffled by his speech. Some say he was angry and lashed out. Others think his son goaded him into it.
Most, however, think that Stevens genuinely believed that his long string of A-list admirers would rally to his defense and force the Kennedy Center to take him back. Instead, the speech killed any goodwill he had left in this town.
A year later, Stevens is still confused by the uproar and thinks he was very gracious to Rubenstein. But he’s not interested in discussing the speech or the reactions to it.
“Yes, I wanted to continue producing the Kennedy Center Honors,” he said. “David Rubenstein felt it was time to look for other producers. That’s his decision. We live with it. Nobody’s unhappy. It is what it is.”
If only that were true. The truth is that in the end, George Stevens Jr. lost almost everything that mattered to him.
Washington is obsessed with power, and Stevens was as obsessed as anyone, friends said. He created a power base with the Honors, expanded that power and refused to give up even a fraction of it for the 37 years that he produced the show. He charmed, he bullied, he maneuvered and he survived. It was a remarkable run in a city full of deeply ambitious people.
“He ran it like a czar,” said a former Kennedy Center employee, one of nearly two dozen friends and current or former employees interviewed for this article who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the Kennedy Center or for Stevens.
The Honors weekend has been very, very good for the Kennedy Center: What started as an awards show has grown into a huge fundraiser, complete with a two-hour broadcast on CBS and an audience that includes the president and first lady, politicians, corporate leaders and many of the world’s biggest stars.
“I can’t underscore how important the Honors is to the Kennedy Center,” said Deborah Rutter, the center’s president. “It’s a very big night. It’s a way that a lot of the world knows us, first and foremost.”
Everybody credits Stevens with giving birth to the franchise. The only child of Academy Award-winning film director George Stevens, George Jr. had a brief career in Hollywood before coming to Washington to work for Edward R. Murrow at the U.S. Information Agency. In 1967, Stevens founded the American Film Institute, which moved into the Kennedy Center in 1971. After an AFI tribute in 1977, he told then-Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens (no relation) that the center should recognize great American artists.
And that, essentially, was that. With a handshake and a deal with CBS, Stevens produced the first Honors in 1978. In the early years, the show had a hard time selling tickets. But Stevens, who effectively handpicked the honorees, artfully fused his connections on both coasts and grew it into the center’s signature event.
The Honors now represent a critical portion of the center’s annual fundraising, with a minimum donation (currently $10,000) just for the opportunity to purchase tickets. In 2014, the center made $6.5 million from Honors ticket sales and sponsorships, spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said. The evening also brings in an estimated $12 million to $15 million in related donations, former staff members said, although Andrews is quick to say it’s impossible to know precisely what motivates supporters.
The Honors have also been very, very good for Stevens. Officially, CBS pays the Kennedy Center a licensing fee to deliver a finished product; in 2014, the figure was just shy of $6 million. The center, in turn, gave the money to Stevens’s production company. After expenses, Stevens earned millions from the show over the years.
The Honors also gave him enormous leverage in the cosseted world of Washington’s elite, where he bestowed favors — tickets, invitations, introductions to his Hollywood pals — like alms. Stevens and his wife, Liz, controlled not only seating for the Honors show itself but also guest lists for the State Department dinner Saturday night (where the Honors are awarded), the White House reception and post-performance dinner. A few years ago, said a former staff member, center officials sent him to observe preparations for the State Department dinner. “I wish you would just leave,” an exasperated Liz Stevens told him as she arranged place cards.
The Stevenses moved in a tight circle of Washington power brokers and Hollywood blue bloods, ignoring those they considered nouveau riche. Their annual brunch, held on the afternoon of the Honors show, was strictly invitation-only, a social Maginot Line that separated the arrived from the arrivistes. That, friends said, would come back to haunt Stevens, who forgot that the snubbed never forget. And he miscalculated the bottom line of fundraising: To the institution, the age of the money doesn’t matter, just the amount.
After three decades as executive producer, Stevens was unfazed by any challenges to his power. Kennedy Center chairmen and presidents came and went; he endured. According to former staff members, he ignored the center’s development office, which wanted more control of the Honors weekend. (Although the center paid a hefty annual fee — $240,000 in 2014 — to event planner Carolyn Peachey, she effectively answered to Stevens.) The response to any critic: “None of your business.”
Blame it on inertia and the institutional reluctance to kill the golden goose. Stevens was dismissive and arrogant, but he was feared and respected because he cared deeply about the show. And he was brilliant when it came to dealing with even the most difficult performers.
“George has an astounding track record in creating a show that honored so many remarkable and worthy performing artists,” former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser said.
At the same time, Stevens butted heads with Kaiser, former president Larry Wilker, former chairman Stephen Schwarzman and others over the selection of honorees. Stevens was accustomed to picking artists, with a rubber stamp from the board, which caused no end of issues — most notably, an embarrassing lack of Latino honorees.
In 2009, Stevens lost a critical protector when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died. The Kennedy name is revered at the center, and the two men were close. Even critics willing to take on Stevens knew that it was a losing battle while Kennedy was alive.
When Rubenstein became chairman in 2010, he ordered a top-down study of the entire institution — what was good, what was bad, how to improve. One complaint he heard repeatedly: “We need to do something about the Honors.”
It’s not that the show was terrible. Every year there was a transcendent performance or a lump-in-the-throat moment. But it became formulaic and predictable — would the last tribute have a gospel choir, a marching band or both? “The first time, everyone loves it,” said a former staffer. “After 20 years, it’s, ‘Ugh, the same old thing.’ ” Stevens never figured out how to honor actors in a variety-show setting, and those segments invariably fell flat. But even CBS, which asked for minor tweaks over the years, was rebuffed, a network source said.
Still, the show won a handful of Emmys and remains a great source of pride for CBS. “Not only is it a prestigious broadcast that our network has hosted since its inception 38 years ago this December, it is also an important expression of our company’s strong commitment to the performing arts in all its forms,” CBS President Les Moonves said.
In early 2013, Rubenstein asked new trustee David Bohnett, a philanthropist who chaired the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s board for five years, to head a special committee to study whether Stevens’s contract, up at the end of 2014, should be renewed. Bohnett says the committee held several meetings with George and Michael Stevens and also met with center staff members and CBS executives.
“In every single meeting, there was a great sense of respect and appreciation for their accomplishment with the Honors,” Bohnett said. “From the beginning, I understood the responsibility and seriousness of the process.”
Neither George nor Michael thought the show needed changes. But what stunned committee members, one trustee said, was Stevens’s adamant refusal to discuss the current budget. They knew that he paid for the production staff, the sets, and some of the artists’ travel and hotel costs; performers received minimum AFTRA rates, and choirs and bands were free. Experts estimated that a similar production would cost $3 million to $4 million. Using the $6 million fee that CBS paid, they calculated that Stevens could have made as much as $2 million on each show over the past few years.
After a year of research, Bohnett submitted a confidential report to the board’s executive committee recommending that Stevens’s contract not be renewed. Rubenstein and Bohnett met with George and Michael in mid-2014 to deliver the news. That meeting was cordial, Bohnett said. “We walked out thinking that this was the end of a certain phase and that the focus was on the 2014 show and making it the best that it could be,” he said.
But it was not the end. Stevens claimed that he owned the intellectual property rights to the show and threatened to sue. He also expected his son to continue as producer. But Michael lacked his father’s charm and skills, former staff members said, and had no chance of staying.
George Stevens implored his powerful friends, including Vernon Jordan and former Kennedy Center chairman Jim Johnson, to intercede with the board. Jordan declined to confirm or deny the request. “George is my friend,” he said. “I view conversations between friends as privileged.” Many who made those calls, however, said that they ended up giving different versions of the same advice: “If you must choose between George or the Kennedy Center, do what’s best for the institution.”
Rubenstein was determined that Stevens should leave publicly unscathed. “If you’re getting run out of town,” he likes to say, “get out front and make it look like you’re leading a parade.”
Stevens is, as he said in his farewell, “the son of a famous father. And it took people a little while to look behind those Oscars and see me.”
It is the family curse. Stevens inherited his father’s Oscars and received an honorary one of his own in 2012 for founding the AFI. He doubts that anyone else can maintain the standard he set and is indignant at the implication that his son was not a creative force in his own right — a judgment he thinks was made by trustees with no understanding of show business.
But his artist friends got it. One wrote him a paean that boiled down to, “The Honors will never be the same without you.” Another was more succinct: “Philistines!”
During a brief interview, Stevens declined to discuss the contract renewal process, although he told friends that he never met with Bohnett’s committee and met with him socially only once. He also declined to discuss money: what the show cost to produce, what he earned, terms of his leave-taking. An actual Kennedy Center Honor was discussed but not finalized. What he really wanted, close friends said, were the courtesy perks of retired Hollywood executives: a large office at the center, an ongoing title, a role with the show.
Instead, the board selected Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, best known for the Tony Awards, to produce this year’s Honors.
“The biggest transition over the last year is that it really fully belongs to the Kennedy Center,” Rutter said. For the first time in 38 years, the invitation to become an honoree came directly from the center’s president: “I’m the one who placed every single phone call and made that offer.” The finances have moved in-house; the broadcast will be more tailored to the individual artists and less formulaic.
Stevens said that he has a “great” relationship with Rutter, who started at the center as he was leaving, and that he’s rooting for the Honors.
After the show last year, Rubenstein and Stevens attended the post-performance dinner in the Grand Foyer. Rubenstein, quietly furious, greeted donors and guests. To this day, he has never publicly criticized Stevens. “George’s remarkable vision and artistry has been a gift to the nation for 37 years,” he said for this article. “Following a thorough and thoughtful review, we now build upon that foundation to keep the Honors fresh, relevant and exciting for new and loyal audiences alike.”
Stevens was surrounded by Hollywood friends who were outraged on his behalf. “I was delighted by the response of the artists who have contributed so much to the center and mean so much to Michael and me,” he said.
But his closest friends were brokenhearted, because they understood something that Stevens did not: By giving that speech, he lost any chance for a graceful exit — there would be no office at the Kennedy Center, no splashy tribute, no honorary titles. As far as the board was concerned, he was done.
A few also knew a devastating secret: Michael Stevens was very sick. In 2013, he was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer. He believed that he would beat the disease and lived as normally as possible, even spending a year in a bitter fight with the board.
In hindsight, Stevens’s friends circle back to the only explanation that makes sense to them: It’s true, they admit, that George was arrogant and didn’t know when to leave. Yes, he misjudged how the speech would be perceived. But maybe it was the blind, irrational love a parent has for a child that drove George to believe that he could somehow keep the show and give it to his son.
It was not to be. Michael Stevens suffered a stroke shortly after last year’s Honors and died in October, leaving a wife and two children. He was 48 years old.
This year, Stevens settled with the Kennedy Center over his intellectual property claim. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Stevens will receive a check for multiple years. He is listed on the Honors Web site as “Founding Producer” but has no function. In an unrelated blow, he lost “Christmas in Washington”: After 33 years, Time Warner and TNT pulled the plug on the holiday concert.
Washington, a town that moves on with ruthless efficiency, has no comfortable role for Stevens to play. He remains unbowed, surrounded by his father’s two Academy Awards and his own honorary Oscar, a man in grief.
Knowing everything he knows now, would he do anything differently?
Stevens considered the question and responded, “I really don’t think of anything.”