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Director/activist Spielberg is '09 Liberty Medal winner

Steven Spielberg, the master storyteller whose films Amistad, Empire of the Sun, and Schindler's List underscore the triumph of freedom over tyranny, will receive the 2009 Liberty Medal on Oct. 8 at the National Constitution Center.

Steven Spielberg, the master storyteller whose films Amistad, Empire of the Sun, and Schindler's List underscore the triumph of freedom over tyranny, will receive the 2009 Liberty Medal on Oct. 8 at the National Constitution Center.

The award, along with a check for $100,000, will be presented by former President Bill Clinton, chairman of the Philadelphia center as well as a prior medal recipient, a longtime Spielberg friend, and a partner in activism. The annual award, marking its 20th anniversary, honors those who strive to secure liberty for those without it.

Previous winners of the medal include South African President Nelson Mandela, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and U2 singer and social activist Bono.

"It's truly humbling to be added to the distinguished list of past recipients, a group of men and women whom I admire deeply for their commitment to educating the world about the importance of freedom and the blessings of liberty," Spielberg said in a statement.

Highest-profile among his many philanthropies is the Shoah Foundation, established in 1994 to preserve video and oral histories of Holocaust survivors. The foundation is working in Rwanda now, collecting testimonies from survivors of the genocide there, Philadelphia attorney Steven A. Cozen said yesterday. A founding partner of Cozen O'Connor, the attorney has a family foundation supporting the Rwanda project alongside the Shoah and Clinton foundations.

"Spielberg is as intense in his philanthropy and his humanity as he is in his creativity," Cozen said. "He was the inspiration and driving force behind the collection and preservation of Holocaust testimony across 56 countries in 32 languages."

Spielberg, 62, whose personal wealth was estimated at $3.1 billion last fall by Fortune magazine, is a major donor to the Philadelphia-based National Museum of American Jewish History.

"He's very generous and very quiet about his philanthropy," Linda E. Johnson, chief executive officer of the Constitution Center, said yesterday.

"The unpretentious guy in jeans and baseball cap," as Cozen described him, spent his formative years in Haddon Township, and can remember his mother parking him under the Wanamakers eagle when she went shopping.

"I like to think that I captured that childhood terror of predatory creatures when I made Jurassic Park," the director told The Inquirer in 1994, adding that his interest in dinosaurs was sparked by seeing their skeletons at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Man, businessman, artist, and benefactor: There are many facets to Spielberg, not all visible at once.

"He is in the great tradition of Americans like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson - he's a storyteller, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, and politically aware," film historian Jeanine Basinger said yesterday.

Added the Wesleyan University professor, who has served with Spielberg on the board of the American Film Institute, "Most Americans know him as a filmmaker and great storyteller, but he makes multiple contributions to American life."

"He's very focused," Basinger said, echoing Cozen. Interestingly for a Hollywood personality, Spielberg doesn't wear one face on camera and another one off. "He's consistently the same - in a TV interview, one-on-one, or in the boardroom, he's modest and self-effacing."

He directed four of the Top 25 all-time box office films (inflation-adjusted, they're E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park). Unadjusted for inflation, his movies had grossed $8.8 billion as of last year, according to Variety.

He has been honored by his peers (three Oscars and three Golden Globes) and by his country (a 2006 Kennedy Center Honor). Queen Elizabeth II named him a Knight of the British Empire, French President Francois Mitterrand presented him with the Legion of Honor, and after Schindler's List, German President Roman Herzog gave him the Federal Cross of Merit.

Not too shabby for an unremarkable student who was rejected by most of the film schools to which he applied.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Spielberg became rich and famous by making the kind of movies he wanted to see.

"I think his secret is that, like Walt Disney, he is his audience," film historian Leonard Maltin observed yesterday.

(Spielberg first met Hitchcock when the younger man was an unpaid "observer" at Universal Studios during the 1960s, where, at 21, he became the youngest director signed to a long-term contract. "Hitch" was a fan of Jaws.)

In the 1970s, Spielberg made movies about ordinary joes in extraordinary situations. Movies like Duel (1971), the one about the guy at the wheel terrorized by a truck driver. Movies like Jaws (1975), a pop Moby-Dick about the guys trying to kill a killer shark.

Movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), about a family man awestruck by a UFO. (At the time, the unassuming Spielberg spoke of Richard Dreyfuss, the rumpled star of Jaws and Close Encounters, as "my alter ego.")

After the failure of 1941 (1979), a World War II comedy, Spielberg directed Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for his pal George Lucas, which begot one of the most profitable movie franchises of all time. After that, he permitted himself another personal film, E.T. (1982), an intimate story of an American family broken by divorce (as was Spielberg's own) and healed by the love of a gentle alien creature. The success of E.T. gave him the confidence to make other stories of families in crisis, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987).

"Spielberg was both an early bloomer and a late bloomer," observed Basinger. By which she means his early films showed precocious mastery of the medium, while his mature work expresses a deeper interest in history and how we can learn from it. In 1994, he released both the popcorn movie Jurassic Park and the pop history Schindler's List.

"I don't think of Spielberg as a pop historian," Stephen E. Ambrose, the late historian who served as an adviser on Saving Private Ryan, told The Inquirer in 1998. "Spielberg is the real thing, in the league of Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis in terms of his curiosity about things and people."

Yesterday, Roger Ebert put it another way: "Spielberg is a master of the cinema, with a sure touch for emotion."