Factually the most financially successful filmmaker of all time, arguably the most influential director of the last forty years, and indubitably a cinematic prophet whose celluloid visions have inspired generations, Academy Award-winning director, producer, and screenwriter Steven Spielberg is a living legend – a man whose humble beginnings only underscore his meteoric accomplishments.
Steven Allan Spielberg was born on December 18th, 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio to Jewish parents – his father Arnold was a computer engineer, and his mother, Leah, a restaurateur and concert pianist. The Spielbergs moved to Scottsdale, Arizona when Steven was yet a boy. Always entranced by the movies, Steven was still quite young when he began making his own 8mm films – whether war epics (Escape to Nowhere), science fiction stories (Firelight), or homages to Ford and DeMille featuring train wrecks staged with his own Lionel toys – the boy’s fertile imagination offered respite from his crumbling family life, and the religiously bigoted tensions of the day. They also profited him 25 cents a ticket when he would screen his mini-masterpieces for family and friends … his sisters sold the popcorn.
When his parents divorced, Steven moved to California with his father, while his three sisters stayed behind in Scottsdale with their mother. Though Steven had attended Arcadia High School in Phoenix for three years, in 1965 he graduated from Saratoga High School in California’s like-named town. He later called this time as “hell on Earth” and “the worst experience” of his life.
It must be noted that – before Steven’s parents divorced, before he moved to California, and before he graduated high school – Steven was visiting cousins in Los Angeles, and decided to go on the Universal Studios tour. During a bathroom break, Steven hid away until the tour bus had left, and spent the next few hours walking the Universal lot, peeking in doors, and investigating sound stages. At the end of the adventurous day, while asking a film librarian (Chuck Silvers) to use his phone to call his cousins to pick him up, Chuck asked the teenager who he was. Steven told him the truth, and Chuck was so impressed with the young man’s chutzpah, he gave him a three-day pass so he could come back. Steven did. By day four, he had so ingratiated himself with “Scotty” the guard, he had only to wave his expired pass in a friendly wave to be allowed entry. For the next two-and-a-half months, Steven spent nearly every waking moment on the Universal lot … at least until he had to go back to Arizona.
After he had moved to California, Steven applied thrice to the USC, but due to his C-grade average, he was denied each time. He eventually attended CSU Long Beach. Steven returned to Universal Studios as an unpaid (still), seven-day-a-week intern in the editing department. While there, Steven made his first short film entitled Amblin. Sid Sheinberg, then Vice-President of production for Universal Television, was so impressed with Steven’s film, he signed the 22-year-old filmmaker to a directing deal.
Steven’s first professional gig was directing one of the segments of the 1969 pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The episode was called Eyes, and starred Joan Crawford in one of her final acting roles. More television work followed, including episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Columbo, and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law.
1971 – enter Richard Matheson and a little story called Duel. The plot was deceptively simple: man driving across desert is terrorized by an 18-wheel truck. But in the hands of Steven Spielberg, this television movie became his calling card. Seasoned directors could not deny their amazement that so much had been done with so little by someone so young. Duel, starring Dennis Weaver, is available on DVD.
After making another scary TV movie (Something Evil, which has never been released on video or DVD), producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck hired Steven to direct his first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express. The movie, which starred Goldie Hawn, told the true story of a married couple on the run from the law, who are trying to regain custody of their baby. Though it garnered great reviews, the film did not make much of a dent at the box office.
Despite this, producers Zanuck and Brown were so impressed with Steven that they offered him another film. This one, JAWS, based on a novel by Peter Benchley, regarded a 25-foot Great White Shark terrorizing a New England beach community. Though production problems of near-Biblical proportions almost sank the film, Steven would not give up. Bruce, the mechanical shark created for the movie, barely worked – yet through the ingenious idea of using yellow barrels to signify the shark’s presence, and the brilliant editing of Vern Fields, JAWS became the first film to top the $100 million mark at the box office. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw starred, and the movie is considered one of the greatest thrillers of all time. The term “blockbuster” is generally associated with this movie. The year was 1975, and Steven Spielberg, the once picked-on little Jewish kid from Arizona, was now a household name.
Steven’s next film, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, told of an everyman (Richard Dreyfuss again) whose close encounter with some flirty UFOs, causes him to flip out, alienate his family, and eventually risk all to meet them at a mysterious rendezvous in Wyoming. Steven wrote the script, and was also nominated for a Best Director Academy Award. He lost out to Woody Allen (Annie Hall), but the film was another massive box office success, beat that year only by a little film called Star Wars.
In 1979, Steven directed and released a comedy about World War II called 1941. The insanely over-the-top script (by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) asked what would happen if after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they turned their attentions to Hollywood. The film bombed (to put it mildly), though there are still those who champion it as a very entertaining movie (myself included).
Teaming up with Star Wars’ George Lucas, Steven moved on form his biggest bomb to one of his greatest successes: Raiders of the Lost Ark. An homage to the cliffhanger serials of the 1930s, the film starred Harrison Ford as archeologist Indiana Jones. It was the biggest hit of 1981, garnered numerous Oscar nominations, and is, to this day, considered one of the greatest action movies ever created.
The next year, Steven knocked it out of the park again with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The tale spun regarded a tenderhearted boy from a broken home who befriends a stranded alien. The film went on (like Jaws) to be the highest grossing film up till that time, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and became a global phenomenon.
Over the next few years, Steven turned at least some of his attention toward producing. Films like Gremlins, Back to the Future, and The Goonies were all Spielberg productions, even if he wasn’t in the director’s chair.
In 1982, the same year as E.T., Steven produced Poltergeist – and that film’s production credits remain controversial to this day. Steven is credited with story, co-screenwriting, and producing, yet he was on the set almost every day. Tobe Hooper was there, too (after all, he is listed as director), but this film oozes so much Spielbergian goodness, that even now, thirty years after the fact, the issue of who really directed Poltergeist is a hot-button among its makers.
In 1984, Steven directed his first Indy sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The much darker film was another box-office sensation, even if it did receive much criticism for marketing such violent images to young children. By the time the Spielberg-produced (Joe Dante-directed) Gremlins came out the same year, Steven asked the MPAA to create a new rating, PG-13, for films that fell between PG and R. They complied.
Wanting to try his hand at more serious fare, Steven next turned his attentions to an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. The film starred Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey, and was yet another box office smash. It was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but Steven was not nominated for Director (I guess it directed itself). The Color Purple is also the only theatrical Spielberg film not scored by John Williams – that honor went (aptly) to Quincy Jones.
Next came Empire of the Sun, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, starring a then 12-year-old Christian Bale. It wasn’t the financial success of his previous efforts, but was generally well-received by critics.
By 1989, Steven was ready to return to the popcorn fare that had so defined his early career. Teaming up once again with Lucas and Ford, Steven directed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Bringing Sean Connery along this time as Indy’s dad, the adventure involved a quest for the Holy Grail. It went on to be the highest-grossing film of that year worldwide (despite being beat domestically by Tim Burton’s Batman). Also that year, Steven reunited with Richard Dreyfuss again for their third collaborative effort, Always (a remake of the Spencer Tracy fave, A Guy Named Joe). The film had middling returns and reviews (though I personally like this film a great deal).
Two years later, Steven directed a live-action update of Peter Pan, entitled Hook. The $70 million production (starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman) was not received well by critics, but ultimately grossed over $300 million worldwide.
Steven made a much welcome return to action-adventure in 1993, with an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, about a theme park populated with genetically engineered dinosaurs. ILM provided the jaw-dropping special effects, and this film would mark the third time that one of Steven’s films became the highest grossing film up till that time: $914 million worldwide.
That same year, Steven directed the polar opposite of Jurassic Park. Schindler’s List told the true story of a German business man (Liam Neeson) who risked his life and career to save over 1,100 Jews from the Holocaust. It went on to win Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Steven did not accept a director’s salary for this movie, and in fact used the profits to form the Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization that archives filmed testimony of Holocaust survivors. The AFI currently has listed among the 10 greatest American Films ever made.
Taking the next three years off, Steven divided his time between his family, and building his new production company Dreamworks (cofounded with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen). He returned to directing in 1997 with two films, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (cold reviews, hot box office), and Amistad (hot reviews, cold box office).
Over the next few years, Steven took more cinematic chances than ever before. Some paid off, some didn’t, but no one could ever accuse him of resting on his laurels.
1998’s Saving Private Ryan grossed $481 million worldwide, and won Steven his second Oscar for Best Director (Best Picture was robbed by Shakespeare in Love).
2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was a film initially shepherded by Stanley Kubrick. Though it received very mixed reviews, it did do $236 million worldwide off a $100 million budget.
2002’s Minority Report was based upon the Philip K. Dick short story about a cop in 2054 Washington D.C., who is foreseen by “pre-cogs” to murder a man he does not know. The film was (again) a critical and commercial smash.
2002’s Catch Me If You Can told the true story of con artist Frank Abignale, Jr (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). A hit with both audiences and critics, the film was a return to more low-tech, character-driven fare like The Sugarland Express.
2004’s The Terminal starred Tom Hanks as a man of Eastern European descent stranded at JFK International Airport – he is denied entry into the U.S, yet cannot return to his native country due to a revolution. Small film, big heart. Good reviews, great box office.
2005’s War of the Worlds reunited Steven with Tom Cruise, and marked the director’s third film about aliens … only these encounters were certainly not of the previously benevolent kind. The adaptation of H.G. Wells classic story received mostly glowing reviews, and nearly $600 million worldwide.
Also that year, Steven directed Munich – about the events following the 1972 Munich Massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games. The film garnered critical raves, but disappointed at the box-office – it is considered Steven’s most controversial film to date.
In 2008, after years of being asked if he would ever direct another Indiana Jones film, Steven (along with George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf and a returning Karen Allen) made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The film received mostly good reviews (although some hated it), and made over $758 million at the worldwide box office. (Click here for MY review.)
2012 saw another Spielberg double feature: War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.
What else can I say about this director without taking the length of this profile from way too long to waaaaaaaaaay too long. Is he responsible for infusing my otherwise painful childhood with cinematic magic? Yes, he is – that is why I remain a faithful fan to this day. Keep ‘em coming, Steve – you make us all feel like kids again.
An exhaustive list of Steven’s producing credits would require 10 more pages, so I will not include them here – check out his IMDb page for that.
Steven was married to actress Amy Irving from 1985 - 1989. In their divorce settlement, Amy received $100 million from Steven after a judge controversially vacated a prenuptial agreement written on a napkin. Their divorce is the third most costly celebrity divorce in history. In the wake of the divorce, Steven and Amy shared joint custody of their son, Max Samuel.
After this less-than-amicable split, Steven developed a relationship with actress Kate Capshaw, whom he met while making Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. The couple were married on October 12, 1991. There are seven kids in the Spielberg brood (including two from previous relationships). When not working, the Spielbergs bounce between four homes in Pacific Palisades, California, East Hampton, NY, New York City, and Naples, Florida.
Up next on Steven’s director’s plate: Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis, Robopocalypse, and, possibly, Indiana Jones 5.
Steven Spielberg Quotes:
“When I grow up, I still want to be a director.”
“Why pay a dollar for a bookmark? Why not use the dollar for a bookmark?”
“The most expensive habit in the world is celluloid, not heroin, and I need a fix every two years.”
“I want to be the Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.”
“I like the smell of film. I just like knowing there's film going through the camera.”
“I'd rather direct than produce. Any day. And twice on Sunday.”
“I've discovered I've got this preoccupation with ordinary people pursued by large forces.”
“I hate that people think it's wrong to say you're inspired by Jaws or by Raiders Of The Lost Ark. You're allowed to be.”
“I don't think any movie or any book or any work of art can solve the stalemate in the Middle East today. But it's certainly worth a try.”
“I think every film I make that puts characters in jeopardy is me purging my own fears, sadly only to re-engage with them shortly after the release of the picture. I`ll never make enough films to purge them all.”
“When I grow up, I still want to be a director.”
“Poltergeist is the darker side of my nature, it`s me when I was scaring my younger sisters half to death. In Poltergeist, I wanted to terrify and I also wanted to amuse – I tried to mix the laughs and screams together.”
“The person I enjoy working for more than anyone else is George Lucas. He`s the best boss I ever had because he`s the most talented boss I ever had.”
“I never felt comfortable with myself, because I was never part of the majority. I always felt awkward and shy and on the outside of the momentum of my friends` lives.”
“What I`m saying is that I believe in showmanship.”
“I don`t work weekends. Weekends are for my kids. And I have dinner at home every night when I`m not physically directing a movie - I get home by six. I put the kids to bed and tell them stories and take them to school the next morning. I work basically from 9:30 to 5:30 and I`m strict about that.”
“I don`t drink coffee. I`ve never had a cup of coffee in my entire life. That`s something you probably don`t know about me. I`ve hated the taste since I was a kid.”
“All those horrible, traumatic years I spent as a kid became what I draw from creatively today.”
Regarding E.T. – “I always wanted to tell the story of a child’s reaction to his parents splitting up when he’s still only about 10 years old, and how it impacts the rest of his life. Perhaps E.T. was a subconscious fantasy of mine since childhood, to make myself feel less lonely in my life. It was a childhood dream of a special friend who rescues a boy from the sadness of divorce.”
“Before I go off and direct a movie I always look at four films. They tend to be: Seven Samura, Lawrence of Arabia, It`s a Wonderful Life, and The Searchers."
“I dream for a living.”