“My dream,” director Steven Spielberg proclaimed only five years ago, “is that people will stop calling me a prodigy.” Like most such dreams, it came true with a vengeance. Spielberg’s second picture, Jaws, was then the biggest money-maker ever (it’s currently ranked second, behind Star Wars), and his sci-fi thriller, Close Encounters, joined it in the Top 10 a year later. Together, the two films earned a staggering $600 million before Spielberg was 30. Then, in 1979, the prodigy became a prodigal. His first out-and-out comedy, 1941, about a rumored Japanese invasion of L.A., was a critical and box office bomb—despite its bloated $30 million budget.
But Spielberg was already working on Raiders of the Lost Ark, a feature-length reprise of the serials of yore in which hero Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, battles Nazi villains in a race to unearth the shattered tablets of the original Ten Commandments. The film opened last month to near-unanimous raves (though critic Pauline Kael, in the past a Spielberg admirer, likened seeing the fast-paced film to being put through a Cuisinart) and has already grossed $46.7 million.
From the beginning Spielberg was determined to redeem himself for the excesses that had dogged 1941. “Steven was totally organized from the first frame,” says Paramount Pictures chief Michael Eisner, who was appalled by 1941 but was convinced Spielberg wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice. “He got in one or two takes what other people take 10 to get. Every cent we spent is on the screen.” Spielberg personally made 2,700 sketches showing every scene in Raiders before shooting, one reason he was able to bring the film in 12 days ahead of schedule and dead on its $20 million budget, despite one challenge after another. One scene, which required 7,200 live snakes, had to be postponed while a supply of snakebite antidote was flown in from India. Another time, an out-of-control fire during a barroom-brawl scene nearly leveled London’s EMI Elstree Studios. On location in Tunisia, cast and crew were at the mercy of flies, dysentery and 120° heat, but through it all Spielberg stayed cool. “He makes working fun,” says Ford. “He’s so secure about what he’s doing that he welcomes input from everyone.” Adds Mike Fenton, who helped cast the movie, “We would never send an actor with a star mentality to Steven. He doesn’t have an ego, and he hasn’t got time for that sort of thing. He just loves making movies.”
Such is his passion, in fact, that the millions he makes seem almost irrelevant. A perfectionist who used his own money, and broke union rules, to re-shoot part of Jaws in his film editor’s swimming pool just days before it opened, he often puts in 100-hour weeks, then gets physically ill when a picture is finished. “It means that the project is over,” explains his screen-Photographs by writer sister, Anne. “On a film, the people involved become his family. He loves them, and he hates for it to be done and to leave everyone. That’s why he goes from one thing to the next.” Spielberg once said: “Making movies is really all I know how to do.”
Born in Cincinnati, Steven was a skinny kid with big ears, and he admits, “I suffered through school as a wimp.” “Steven always had a highly developed imagination,” says his mother, Leah, once an aspiring concert pianist. “He was afraid of everything. When he was little he would insist that I lift the top of the baby grand so he could see the strings while I played. Then he would fall on the floor, screaming in fear.”
By age 10, however, Steven had learned to inspire fear in others. “He loved to torment his sisters, all of whom are younger,” says his mother. “When I would put Annie to bed, Steven would hide outside her window and say in this eerie voice, ‘I am the MOOOOON!’ Annie would scream in terror. Another time he cut the head off one of Nancy’s dolls and served it to her on a platter, surrounded by lettuce and tomato. Steven was not a cuddly child.” Sister Anne agrees. “Every Saturday morning my parents would escape from the four of us kids,” she recalls. “The minute they were out of the house I would run to my room and blockade the door. Steven would push it all away and then punch me out. My arms would be all black and blue. Sue and Nancy would get it next, if they had done some misdeed. Then when he was through doling out punishment, we would all get down to making his movies.”
The filmmaking started after the Spielbergs moved to Phoenix in 1955. Steven’s father, Arnold, an electrical engineer fascinated by science fiction, began shooting home movies, and he was baited by his son. “If you know so much,” the elder Spielberg finally challenged him, “why don’t you try?” Soon Steven was starring his family in a series of horror films, which he financed with a tree-debugging business. “He’d always have us in crazy costumes doing outrageous things,” Anne recalls. “At the preview of Jaws, I remember thinking, ‘For years he just scared us. Now he gets to scare the masses.’ ”
“People ask me if I knew Steven was a genius,” says his mother. “I didn’t know what Steven was. From 12 on, he was always writing little scripts and enlisting everyone to act in them. I supplied the cold cuts. Once he got a hospital to close off a wing for one of his location shots. Another time he got the airport to close a runway. No one ever said no to him, and it’s a good thing. Steven doesn’t understand no.”
When he was 16 the Spielbergs moved to California. Steven finished high school and his parents got divorced. (Remarried, Leah Adler runs a kosher eatery in West L.A.) Steven enrolled at Long Beach State but spent most of his time hanging out at the Universal lot. Soon he was introduced to a young would-be producer who put up $10,000 for Amblin’, a 22-minute short about a boy and a girl who hitchhike through the desert. The film attracted the attention of Sid Sheinberg, now president of Universal, who signed Steven, then 20, to a seven-year contract.
Spielberg next honed his skills on TV, where his first assignment involved directing Joan Crawford in a Night Gallery pilot. “I went over to her apartment,” he recalls, “and she greeted me with a blindfold on. She was going to be playing a blind person, and she went lurching around the apartment. I was terrified. When I suggested we go to lunch, she took off her blindfold and said, ‘I’m not going to be seen in public with you. People will think you’re my child.’ ” But after the show wrapped, she called Steven a “genius.”
Spielberg went on to direct episodes of Marcus Welby, Columbo and Owen Marshall and a harrowing 1971 TV movie, Duel, in which a mild-mannered motorist (Dennis Weaver) is threatened for 74 minutes by a menacing black truck. Released in theaters in Europe, it was critically acclaimed, even attracting the attention of Spielberg’s idol François Truffaut, who later accepted a part in Close Encounters. Spielberg found backers for his first feature, The Sugarland Express, starring Goldie Hawn, a critical (and minor box office) success. While editing that, he saw advance galleys of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. “I thought it was about a pornographic dentist,” he jokes.
After taking the novel home, he begged the producers to be allowed to direct it, and later asked Richard Dreyfuss to star. “I told him the picture would only take two months,” he recalls. “He said it would take six, that the shark wouldn’t work and I would have nothing but grief.” As an oracle, Dreyfuss proved highly reliable, but the picture made Spielberg a millionaire. It also won three Oscars, though Spielberg had to wait for Close Encounters before being nominated for directing. He claims that film, which he also wrote, grew out of his dismay that he might never know if UFOs are real. “One night,” he said, “I went outside, looked up at the sky and started crying. I thought I was falling apart.” He eventually went $6 million over budget, but the film did so well at the box office the producers allowed him to shoot four new scenes and release a retread “Special Edition” in 1980.
Before the re-release, Spielberg left with actress Amy Irving for a trip to Japan, where they planned to be married. Instead, they split (neither will talk about the reasons), and Steven returned home alone. The breakup coincided with the release of 1941, which marked the low point of a brilliant career. “It’s almost a good thing that everything happened at once and I got it over with,” says Spielberg. “To this day I have never read a review of that movie.”
Describing himself as “suspicious of women” after splitting with Irving, Spielberg played it safe by dating a series of 19-and 20-year-olds, including actress Valerie Bertinelli. “They were all nice girls,” he says, “but I was playing big brother.” Then he was introduced to Kathleen Carey, now 32. A divorcée who works in the record business, she began spending time with Spielberg listening to music, and eventually the relationship ripened. “Amy and I must have been together for a year and a half before we got to be friends,” says Spielberg, “but Kathleen and I were friends before we were lovers. That makes a real difference.”
Carey, who is negotiating to run a subsidiary of Warner Records, says, “Steven inspires me in my career, and I help him to be a more rounded person. He was always so busy working before he never had time for real relationships. He needs friends, not people telling him how wonderful he is.” The couple have no plans for marriage or children, and Kathleen keeps her own place in L.A., though she spends most of her time in Steven’s 14-room lumber-and-fieldstone Beverly Hills mansion. On weekends the scene shifts to his Malibu beach house, where Spielberg and Carey sometimes cook dinner for friends. Steven, however, prefers tacos and pizza. “His idea of exercise,” says Kathleen, “is to sit on the beach eating Häagen-Dazs ice cream while I run a mile.”
A no-show at most Hollywood parties (“When I go, I’m the guy in the corner eating all the dip”), Spielberg reads voraciously and spends much of his downtime watching TV. “All I see is junk,” says Carey, “but he looks for scripts and techniques.” So frightened of elevators he sometimes holds meetings in lobbies, Spielberg rarely drinks and won’t have ashtrays in his office. Much of his time is spent talking shop with movie cronies Brian (Dressed to Kill) De Palma, John (Big Wednesday) Milius and George (Star Wars) Lucas, who produced Raiders after he and Steven hatched the idea on a 1977 Hawaiian vacation. Steven relished their advice, because the trouble with 1941, he suspected, was that “people were intimidated by my success, and didn’t tell me when something was wrong.”
Spielberg doesn’t plan to make the same mistake again. He may direct a Raiders sequel—the current film is part of a planned trilogy—and perhaps even Star Wars IV for Lucas. He is currently producing Poltergeist, a chiller with occult overtones, and in the early fall he plans to direct E.T., a film about Chicago schoolkids. Says Spielberg, “I want to begin working with more personal subjects and in a more intimate manner. I’m coming out of my pyrotechnic stage,” he concludes. “Now I’m going in for close-ups.”