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New AFI chief is a producer and film lover

Bob Gazzale is a 15-year veteran who has served as outgoing President Jean Picker Firstenberg's right-hand man.

June 27, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Bob Gazzale was only 9 years old when he watched a tribute to actor James Cagney on the American Film Institute's "Life Achievement Awards" television special, but from that moment, he began to fall in love with movies and moviemaking.

Years later Gazzale would find himself producing and writing the same show, even receiving multiple Emmy nominations as producer and writer. He also conceived another AFI special that became a vital moneymaker for the organization -- the "AFI's 100 Years ..." series, which highlights the best moments in Hollywood films over the last century.

On Tuesday, Gazzale, who has spent the last 15 years at AFI, most recently as head of AFI productions, was named president and chief executive. He will succeed Jean Picker Firstenberg, who has announced she will retire at the end of AFI's 40th anniversary this fall. Gazzale will assume the office on Nov. 1. Firstenberg, who spent nearly three decades at AFI's helm, was named president-emeritus and a lifetime trustee.

"I think when you look at the cultural landscape we live in today, it's easy to sense now, more than ever, the need for an American Film Institute for film education and training filmmakers," Gazzale said. He noted that over the last four decades, notable films like "Casablanca" have gone from being occasionally shown "in the art-house theater down the street -- now these images are almost omnipresent."

Gazzale is only the third person to lead the nonprofit organization since President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the institute's creation in the White House Rose Garden. AFI's stated mission is "advancing and preserving the art of the moving image" and, to that end, operates one of the nation's most recognized film schools along with other well-known film-related programs. But AFI has generated its share of controversy during those decades because of what critics say is its penchant for hyping itself and not doing enough film preservation.

AFI board members interviewed numerous outside candidates for the post during a lengthy search, but ultimately selected Gazzale, an AFI veteran who had worked as Firstenberg's right-hand man.

"I think it is always a temptation to scan the world for the perfect choice and forget that you have the perfect choice at home," said Howard Stringer, who chairs the AFI board of trustees. "He's creative and dynamic as a producer and writer, he's a scholar of film, he comes from a university background and he has great marketing instincts."

Stringer credited actor Sean Connery, a recent recipient of the AFI's Life Achievement Award, for convincing the board that Gazzale should be given serious consideration.

"Sean said, 'This is a wonderful man. Why don't you just hire him?' " Stringer recalled.

Bob Daly, a long-time AFI board member who was part of the search committee, said he had breakfast with Gazzale five weeks ago and, "One of the things I said to him was, 'There's only one problem with you, Bob. It's the same problem I had at CBS when I started there. Insider candidates are often overlooked. That is your biggest handicap. You're right here.' "

Gazzale said he met his wife at AFI. They have two children.

robert.welkos@latimes.com

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