When Tom Met George

A glimpse of a 50-year friendship – and a legendary father-son relationship

| 02 Jun 2022 | 09:40

George Stevens, Jr. first bonded with Tom Brokaw some 50 years ago.

“When we moved to Washington, George and Liz gave us a 4-star Georgetown Party,” recalls Brokaw. “And since our kids were the same age, we began to spend weekends together. Memorably, we had two family vacations–one an African safari and the other a trip down the Nile.”

“Tom and Meredith have been dear and close friends for half a century,” adds Stevens. Which makes an upcoming conversation they will have at the 92nd Street Y both powerful and touching.

As he often reminds me, I wrote one of the first articles about a young (though still older than me!) Brokaw when he was the local anchor at Los Angeles’ NBC affiliate. Since officially retiring from the network, and going public with his battle with cancer, he has been seen very little. I have met Stevens a few times, and just finished reading his new autobiography, “My Place In The Sun: Life in The Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington,” which will be the subject of their conversation.

In the book, the author makes clear that his lifelong goal was to become the second-best filmmaker in his house. (His dad won Oscars for directing “Giant” and “A Place In the Sun”) Well, George Stevens, Jr. accomplished that and much more. And he has known virtually every famous person on both coasts. “I want to be George when I grow up,” said three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tom Friedman, at a recent event in Washington.

The personal reviews of the book are the kind one dreams of. Like this one from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin: “This eloquent, tender, profoundly moving memoir captured my heart from start to finish. ‘My Place in the Sun’ delivers both a beautifully written account of a remarkable father/son relationship and a sweeping history of more than a hundred years of life in Hollywood and politics. “

Brokaw adds to the chorus and told me, “George has written a wonderful book about his show biz parents, especially his dad, who was a top tier director in the thirties, and then took his skills to WW2.”

Storming Those Beaches

The stories recounted in the book are endless. His father, George Stevens, Sr., enlisted and spent three years away from his wife and son, filming virtually every key event in the Second World War, including storming those beaches and being among the first to witness those concentration camps. When he came home, returning to romantic comedies did not feel right.

He asked his son to work with him on one of the future choices he made postwar. Stevens, Jr. recalls when they visited Otto Frank in Amsterdam, who told them that everything he owned, that might be considered valuable, had been confiscated. Except for one seemingly unimportant, rather messy notebook that George Sr. and Jr. held in their hands. Yes, that diary the one that became one of the bestselling books in the world: the diary of Anne Frank.

Stevens, Jr. was also the one who found a script called “Shane,” and recalls how his father recast it in ten minutes to overrule a reluctant studio executive. The book helps us remember those who left their private lives to serve their country. It also–albeit accidentally—captures how we are currently emotionally dealing with the tragedy of a small town in Texas. “In ‘Shane,’ writes Stevens, “my father wanted to undermine the glamor of gunplay. ‘A gunshot, for our purposes,’ he said, ‘is a holocaust.’”

The younger Stevens went on to a spectacular career of his own. He describes his days working with Edward R. Murrow in Washington, founding The Kennedy Center Honors, and perhaps most importantly, the American Film Institute. (His stories about dealing with honoree Orson Welles are classic.) This is a bi-coastal story that encompasses the author’s relationships with everyone from Liz Taylor to Cary Grant to Katharine Hepburn to Barack Obama. But none had the charisma of the president he met and befriended in 1961. “To see John F. Kennedy, in color, walk into a room, was much more memorable than meeting any Hollywood star,” he says.

There are many New York connections in this very large life — including visiting the Brokaws on the Upper East Side. Stevens wrote one play, “Thurgood,” which was a success on Broadway and beyond. (Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones both wanted to do it, but were afraid they could not memorize the lines. Laurence Fishburne was the star.) He also visited Sloane Kettering for medical issues. It is not a life without sadness. “This is the chapter I didn’t wish to write,” Stevens says in recounting the tragic death of his own son to cancer.

Stevens Sr. had witnessed and accomplished a lot, winning countless awards (“Though he always said, ‘we’ll see how the movies hold up in 25 years,” recalls the author) and the respect of all he worked with. The son has written a beautiful tribute to him, as well as to the art of filmmaking. No one has done more to ensure that movies be admired, endowed and preserved.

And few friendships have endured as his with a man who gave us our Nightly News for decades.

This story has been updated to reflect the postponement of a June 5 conversation between Stevens and Brokaw at 92NY, which will be rescheduled for a later date.