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The AFI Life Achievement Award was established by the Board of Directors of the American Film Institute on February 26, 1973 to honor a single individual for his or her lifetime contribution to enriching American culture through motion pictures and television.

The Trustees initially specified that the recipient must be one who fundamentally advanced the art of film and whose achievements had been acknowledged by the general public as well as by film scholars and critics and the individual's peers. The Trustees also specified that the work of the recipient must have withstood the test of time.

History of the award

Director John Ford was the unanimous choice of the Board of Trustees for the first award as he "clearly stands preeminent in the history of motion pictures." President Richard M. Nixon attended the gala dinner at which Ford was presented the award on March 31, 1973.

The Board of Trustees later amend the "test of time" requirement to enable the AFI Life Achievement Award to be presented to individuals with shorter careers, such as Tom Hanks, who at age 46, was the youngest recipient ever, and Steven Spielberg, who received the award at age 49.

All Life Achievement Award ceremonies have been televised. Agreeing to appear at the televised ceremony apparently is part of the AFI's criteria for selecting the award. The televised ceremony generates income for the AFI, which is no longer funded by the US federal government. Due to the exigencies of television, the popularity of the award recipient in terms of potential ratings likely is a factor in selecting the Life Achievement Award honoree, which could explain why it never has been awarded to such major American directors as Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom were Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute honorees, or such distinguished actors as Robert Redford, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, the latter of whom was a recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille Award for life achievement. Out of 37 honorees to date only six have been women, Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, and Meryl Streep.

Politics also seems to be a factor in the award, as that likely was behind the notable omissions of Charles Chaplin, exiled from America during the Cold War for his left-wing sympathies, director Elia Kazan, controversial due to his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War, and Charlton Heston, whose presidency of the National Rifle Associationmarker made him unpopular in many circles. Heston was also the chair of the AFI Board of Trustees that created the award in 1973.

Other notable omissions were Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, John Wayne, George Cukor, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine,(all of whom are recipients of a Lincoln Center Gala Tribute), Cary Grant, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.

David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock and Sean Connery are the only non-Americans to win the award.

List of recipients

Year Honoree
1973 John Ford
1974 James Cagney
1975 Orson Welles
1976 William Wyler
1977 Bette Davis
1978 Henry Fonda
1979 Alfred Hitchcock
1980 James Stewart
1981 Fred Astaire
1982 Frank Capra
1983 John Huston
1984 Lilian Gish
1985 Gene Kelly
1986 Billy Wilder
1987 Barbara Stanwyck
1988 Jack Lemmon
1989 Gregory Peck
1990 David Lean
1991 Kirk Douglas
1992 Sidney Poitier
1993 Elizabeth Taylor
1994 Jack Nicholson
1995 Steven Spielberg
1996 Clint Eastwood
1997 Martin Scorsese
1998 Robert Wise
1999 Dustin Hoffman
2000 Harrison Ford
2001 Barbra Streisand
2002 Tom Hanks
2003 Robert De Niro
2004 Meryl Streep
2005 George Lucas
2006 Sir Sean Connery
2007 Al Pacino
2008 Warren Beatty
2009 Michael Douglas
2010 Mike Nichols


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