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 Recipient is selected and honored at a ceremony annually, with the award presented by a master of ceremonies and recently, the prior year's recipient, who usually gives a brief synopsis of the awarded individual and career background including highlights and achievements.
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.
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 amended the "test of time" requirement to enable the AFI Life Achievement Award to be presented to individuals with active careers, such as Tom Hanks, who at age 45, was the youngest recipient ever, and Steven Spielberg, who received the award at age 48. Silent film star Lillian Gish was the oldest recipient of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, at the age of 90.
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 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 George Cukor or such actresses as Joanne Woodward, all of whom were Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute honorees, or such distinguished actors as Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and Doris Day, all of whom were recipients of The Golden Globes Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille Award for life achievement. Of the first 45 honorees, nine have been women: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton.
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 Association made him unpopular in many circles.
Other notable omissions were Claudette Colbert, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Laurence Olivier, (all of whom are recipients of a Lincoln Center Gala Tribute), Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich, Irene Dunne, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Stanley Kramer, Stanley Kubrick, Myrna Loy, Sidney Lumet, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, John Wayne and Robin Williams.
Living people who appeared in or directed films in the top 10 of the AFI's 100 Years…100 Movies list that have yet to receive the award include Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Donen, Olivia de Havilland and Kim Novak. One living actress who was listed on AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars has not received the award: Sophia Loren.
The American Film Institute has awarded the AFI Life Achievement Award to one person each year since 1973. The 44th Award was presented to John Williams on June 9, 2016, in Los Angeles. Williams is the first composer to receive the honor. The event was broadcast on June 15, 2016 on TNT. It was also broadcast on September 12, 2016 on TCM as a lineup dedicated to John Williams, and an encore presentation followed after.