The Directors Guild of America saved its best for last when it came to honoring "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, giving its top award Saturday night to Peter Jackson for the story's final chapter, "The Return of the King."
In the 56 years since the guild began presenting its top honor, the winner has gone on to receive the Academy Award for best director all but six times.
Jackson became the first filmmaker ever nominated for the prize three years in a row, and this is the first time he won. He spent seven years putting the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy books on film.
"We live in an age where people write books about nightmarish experiences on film sets -- and I didn't have one of those -- I had the most amazing time," Jackson said.
Also honored was director Mike Nichols, who took the award for TV movie direction for HBO's two-part "Angels in America."
Nichols is a previous lifetime achievement award winner for his work on such films as "The Graduate," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," "Catch-22" and "Working Girl."
Christopher Misiano, directed the TV drama series award winner for an episode of NBC's "The West Wing," while Timothy M. Van Patten was recognized in the TV comedy series category for an installment of HBO's "Sex and the City."
The guild previously nominated Jackson in 2002 for the first "Rings" installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," but gave the prize to Ron Howard for "A Beautiful Mind." His bid last year for "The Two Towers" lost out to Rob Marshall for "Chicago."
The consensus in Hollywood is that many voters -- for both the directors guild and the upcoming Academy Awards -- took a wait-and-see approach to honoring the wizard, warrior and warlock story, about a diminutive Hobbit on a quest to destroy a malevolent ring.
Now that the mythology-and-magic tale is told, Jackson and "The Return of the King" are regarded as front-runners for many of the movie industry's top prizes this awards season. He already collected best director at the Golden Globes and the movie won best drama there.
"The Return of the King" also has a leading 11 Academy Award nominations, including best picture and director. Those honors will be presented Feb. 29.
Also nominated for the Directors Guild Award were Sofia Coppola for "Lost in Translation," her tale of unlikely friendship in Tokyo; Clint Eastwood for "Mystic River," a brooding drama of murder and revenge; Gary Ross for "Seabiscuit," the story of the Depression-era racehorse; and Peter Weir for the Napoleonic naval adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."
Coppola, daughter of past guild winner Francis Ford Coppola, and Ross earned their first guild nominations. Eastwood is a past DGA winner for "Unforgiven," and Weir was nominated three times previously, for "Witness," "Dead Poets Society" and "The Truman Show."