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AFI Plans to Honor 50 Stars

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Film Institute, hoping to sustain public awareness in the nation’s storied film history and raise money to offset cuts in arts funding, announced plans Tuesday to honor the 50 greatest American screen legends of the past century.

The actors--25 men and 25 women--will be chosen from a list of nominees dating back to the early 1900s and be unveiled by 50 of today’s current stars during a prime-time special on CBS this June called “AFI’s 100 Years . . . 100 Stars.”

In making its announcement, the AFI produced a list of 500 nominees--half men and half women--who have graced the big screen in years past. Some of the nominees are already considered legends like John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis and Jean Harlow. But others are names many Americans might not have heard of, like Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, who made his screen debut in 1903 in “The Messenger Boy’s Mistake.”

The “100 Years . . . 100 Stars” program will come one year after the AFI conducted a similar show on CBS to choose the 100 greatest films of the past century.

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That list invited blistering criticism for omitting--among others--Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, the dance movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the films of director Preston Sturges and no Greta Garbo movies. Instead, the list was heavily weighted toward more recent movies.

AFI Board Chairman Tom Pollock conceded that any attempt to select the top 50 American screen legends will likely trigger controversy as well. “People are as passionate about movie stars as they are films,” Pollock said.

But he welcomed the public debate if it gets people talking about films.

“We saw the ‘100 Years . . . 100 Movies’ last year as a big success because it got people to talk about what are the greatest movies as opposed to what was the No. 1 movie at the box office this week,” Pollock said.

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For its “100 Stars” ballot, the AFI defines an “American screen legend” as an actor or a team of actors with a significant screen presence in American feature-length films whose screen debut occurred in or before 1950, or whose screen debut occurred after 1950 but whose death has marked a completed body of work.

By that criteria, deceased actors like John Belushi, James Dean, Grace Kelly, Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley are eligible. Meanwhile, 13 actors who had their screen debuts in the 1950 cut-off year will be eligible. They include such names as Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

However, current box-office stars like Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock are not eligible, although many of the bigger stars will be recruited as hosts for the AFI’s show.

AFI Director Jean Picker Firstenberg stressed that the institute is not seeking the 50 most famous movie stars of all time. Instead, judges will be asked to vote on a set of criteria that includes star quality, craft, legacy, popularity and historical context.

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The AFI will send the list of nominees to more than 1,800 members of the film community. The nominees were selected by AFI’s film historians.

For more than three decades, the AFI has championed the cause of “advancing and preserving the art of the moving image,” but in recent years, the nonprofit organization has been striving to overcome severe cutbacks in funding.

As a result, the institute has turned to nontraditional ways to make money. Last year’s show on CBS drew more than 11 million viewers who wanted to see how their favorite films were ranked--from No. 1 “Citizen Kane” to No. 100 “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

But the telecast drew widespread criticism in the media and on the Internet that the selections were designed as a way for studios to sell their videos. AFI officials strongly disputed the claim, saying the studios had no knowledge of which films would be selected.

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