March 15, 1999 12:00 PM

At the age of 8 in the magical darkness of a movie theater, Steven Spielberg found the credo of his career in a coon-skin cap. “I saw Dairy Crockett,” he recalls, “and he said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead.’ That was the Davy Crockett motto, and I’ve lived by it all my life.”

Since his ambitious first feature film, The Sugarland Express, in 1974, Spielberg has seldom made a false step. With Jaws, released June 20, 1975, he changed forever the Hollywood calculus. The tale of the omnivorous shark was the industry’s first summer blockbuster—and the first movie in history to gross more than $100 million. Among the 25 top-grossing films of all time, no less than six, including E.T, and Jurassic Park, bear the Spielberg credit. With 1993’s Schindler’s List and last year’s Saving Private Ryan, he took his child’s eye and master’s craft to a new level of ambition and achievement. At age 52, with two Oscars (and another nomination for Private Ryan), Spielberg has explored the deepest core of the human comedy, becoming in the process ,the most successful moviemaker in history. “He is the storyteller of our time,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the cofounders with Spielberg of DreamWorks SKG studio in 1994. “I don’t think there is anyone who has reached as many people with their stories as he has.”

The tales he tells form a single arc of human yearning—and healing. Spielberg’s three Indiana Jones adventures gave audiences an uncompromised hero in an era of flawed idols, and the classic E.T. brought to life the imaginary friend of every lonely child. Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were stellar attempts at probing grander themes. With The Color Purple and Schindler’s List, Spielberg grappled with racism, the Holocaust and the meaning of evil. “Steven’s passion and enthusiasm for ideas and for human understanding is very much what fuels his work,” says Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. “He has a romantic view of life.”

He takes a very personal stake in his visions. For starters, he dared to co-launch Hollywood’s first new major studio since the Jurassic, or at least the Goldwyn Age. DreamWorks struggled at first, missing with movies like The Peacemaker and Small Soldiers, but lately seems to have found its stride with hits such as Deep Impact and Private Ryan, which together have grossed nearly half a billion dollars. For his last project, Spielberg found inspiration close to home. “I made Saving Private Ryan for my father,” says Spielberg. “He’s the one who filled my head with war stories when I was growing up.” After viewing the film, Arnold Spielberg, 82, an electrical engineer who was a radioman on a B-25 bomber in World War II, told his son, “As a veteran, thank you for making this movie, and as your dad, I’m real proud of you.” Says the director: “That’s all you want to hear from your father. You take that to the bank.”

Growing up in Cincinnati, Spielberg heard other, more disturbing war stories. His grandmother Jenny taught English to Hungarian Holocaust survivors. “Our house was filled with survivors with numbers on their forearms,” he recalls. “I remember a man teaching me how to count by the numbers tattooed on his arm.”

Spielberg’s family moved often, and Steven found himself an outcast in high school in Saratoga, Calif., where, he says, “I felt like the only Jewish kid in the school.” He recalls being the butt of jokes and the target of anti-Semitism. He once went to bed with duct tape fastened from his nose to his forehead. “I tried to give myself a bobbed nose,” he says. “I wished I wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t want to be anything else, but I didn’t want to be harassed, and I wanted to assimilate into the popular majority.”

As a means of expression, he took up his dad’s 8mm camera. Edward Burns, one of his Private Ryan cast, was treated to a rare screening of a WWII short Spielberg made at age 12. “He had shots in that film I still haven’t figured out how to do,” says Burns, himself a director (She’s the One). “You could see he was just made to be a filmmaker.” The Spielberg household auteur also shot horror films starring his three younger sisters.

His equipment is now more sophisticated, but family is still Spielberg’s muse. He lives in a huge Spanish-style home in Pacific Palisades with actress Kate Capshaw, his wife of eight years, and their collective brood of children, ages 2 to 22 (one from her first marriage, one from Spielberg’s first marriage to actress Amy Irving, and five of their own). “Having seven children in different age groups keeps him young and active,” says David Geffen, the music-mogul member of DreamWorks’ founding triumvirate. “He watches movies with them, and he plays games with them. The kid in him is as alive today as it was when he was a kid.”

He can afford to be childlike. Spielberg has an estimated personal fortune of $2 billion, but maintains, “Money to me is not a factor in my life.” A quiet philanthropist, he contributes generously to his favorite projects, including Star-bright World, an interactive computer network on which hospitalized children can talk to each other, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, which distributes the profits from Schindler’s List ($55 million to date) to Jewish organizations. He also founded Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which chronicles the testimony of Holocaust survivors. So far, 50,000 stories have been recorded.

At home he’s not an easy-touch father. “The kids have to make their beds every morning,” he says. “And they have to carry all their dishes to the sink. They have to do their homework the minute they get home from school.” TV is prohibited on weeknights, but, says Dad, “sometimes we’ll watch a video together.” And forget the expensive gifts. “We don’t splurge on the kids,” says Spielberg. On weekends, he often does the grocery shopping. Spielberg proudly shows off his supermarket charge card and his video card from Blockbuster (where he recently rented Armageddon). “I’m not a great man to my children,” he says. “I’m just Pop. The more involved I am with my kids, it keeps my head flat on top.”

Sure, but if you’re a Hollywood icon, you maybe want to bask in the glow a little and share it once in a while. “A couple of months ago Steven called me up and said, ‘Let’s go to Beverly Hills and get recognized,’ ” says Spielberg’s mother, Leah Adler (she was divorced from Arnold Spielberg in 1966), who owns a deli in Los Angeles. “We walked down Rodeo Drive and people started screaming, ‘My God, you’re Steven Spielberg’s mom!’ Then he took me to Harry Winston and bought me a little something.”

J.D. Reed

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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