Peter Simpson, the Artistic Director of the Port Townsend Film Festival, died on Thursday night, April 16, 2009, age 74. Peter had been involved with the PTFF since its inception and for many of us was the public face of the festival.
I knew Peter once a year. Since 2001 I have been spending five days out of each September in Port Townsend, Washington, a very special place. As charming as the location itself is – with its Victorian downtown and windswept views of the corner of Earth where the Strait of Juan de Fuca curls into Puget Sound – Port Townsend is remarkable because of the bright, personable, and invariably offbeat people who live there. Peter embodied that, and another quality: gentleness. How that quality survives running a film festival I don’t know, since a film festival is orchestrated chaos; but frequently I would come to Peter, asking for something or other in the middle of the weekend, and he would seem strangely serene.
Flexible, too; last year when news came that Paul Newman had died (the same day PTFF was scheduled to show The Hustler in a tribute to Piper Laurie), I walked around town looking for Peter to suggest that maybe the panel I was scheduled to lead the next day should instead morph into a tribute to Newman, given that we had Piper Laurie, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and actor (and Newman buddy) John Considine in town. It took Peter all of 10 seconds to greenlight the event, and he had posters printed and hung within a few hours announcing it. No second-guessing, no worrying the notion. He liked the idea, so we were doing it.
Peter wore Hawaiian shirts and sportcoats. This should suggest the humor of the man. Last year when I was onstage helping hand out the awards with Piper Laurie, I mock-chided Peter because, as he was stepping to the microphone to read the winners, he was blocking Ms. Laurie’s spotlight. He rolled with the joke, of course. (Why did Peter annually ask me to participate in the awards-giving ceremonies? I don’t know, but he always communicated a trust that I would pull it off. You can do a lot when people express their confidence in you. Peter unfailingly did that.)
In 2001 I came to the Port Townsend Film Festival for the first time, to talk about The Bad and the Beautiful and speak to some classes at the high school. Because of September 11, Robert Osborne could not attend to interview the guest of honor, Eva Marie Saint, so I did the duties at the eleventh hour, in front of a huge crowd. Did you ever have one of those nights where everything clicked? That was one of those nights. It pretty much set the tone for the lovely experiences I’ve had in Port Townsend since.
I even got married in Port Townsend. And Peter helped with that, too. I didn’t know him well, but I remember a significant block of time we had once; I think it was in the green room the night of the Debra Winger and Arliss Howard evening, between the introduction of the film and the post-movie interview. I found out more about Peter than I’d known, and it seemed as though we ought to have more conversations like that.
There is more about Peter in this article at the Peninsula Daily News. Update: longer article in the Port Townsend Leader, here. The photo above is from an evening when he was surprised with his own award at the 2007 festival. Much deserved.