For 27 years, Jean Picker Firstenberg was the guiding force behind the American Film Institute. She was the organization’s second CEO and the first woman to lead it. Founded in 1967 to “preserve America’s vanishing film heritage,” the AFI boasted an original board of trustees that included Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Under her leadership, AFI purchased its eight-acre campus in Hollywood, and its film school became an accredited graduate program. With Firstenberg at the helm, AFI launched its acclaimed program, AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, showcasing the very best of American film. AFI also presents annual installments, focusing on one aspect of American cinema—everything from the best musicals to the most memorable quotes and America’s brightest silver screen stars.
Firstenberg expanded the AFI, creating opportunities for anyone to learn the art of filmmaking. During a speech at the Clinton School of Public Service, she explained why she believes that film artists of all types are public servants. “Film reaches us in a way that few things can,” she said. “Film art shows us ourselves, the world … issues, and emotions.” Speaking of two public servants and film artists involved with the AFI, Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, she said, “Their films gave us hope, courage, and faith. They helped us appreciate that we can call on our better selves.” Through her work at the American Film Institute, Firstenberg fought to form lasting legacies for the public servants of film, and in the process, became a great public servant herself.