Sandford-on-Thames, Oxfordshire - save 47%
TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Steven Spielberg - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
In the fickle world of cinema, there are very few names you can splash across a billboard to ensure a film's financial success. Harrison Ford, perhaps, or Julia Roberts. George Lucas, if it's a Star Wars movie. Tom Cruise seemed a cert till Eyes Wide Shut. These names will probably make you millions, but there's only one sure-fire guarantee - Steven Spielberg. As a director, he's the most successful of all time. His films have been so popular, so consistently entertaining, that people rush to see anything tagged as A Steven Spielberg Production, even movies he merely financed. No one else has muscle like that. No one else ever has.
As a film-maker, he started early. He was born Steven Allan Spielberg on the 18th of December, 1946, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer involved in the development of computers, while mother Leah, a concert pianist, looked after the four children - Steven was the oldest, the others being Annie, Sue and Nancy. The family soon moved to Scottsdale, Arizona - Steven would attend Arcadia High School in Phoenix - and it was here that his love for movies (and his financial acumen) began to blossom. Perhaps unnaturally quickly, if reports that Spielberg suffered from Asperger's Syndrome are to be believed. This is a mild form of autism that leads to obsessional interests - often with very positive results.
Leah being as indulgent as Arnold was emotionally remote (many fathers in Spielberg movies are either missing or distant), Steven's interest in film-making was encouraged. By 12, he'd made his first amateur film, an 8-minute Western called The Last Gun, which Steven financed with a tree-planting business. He'd charge admission to his home movies, getting Annie to sell popcorn, and his projects rapidly became more ambitious in scale and scope. By 14, he'd made a 40-minute war film, Escape To Nowhere, on 8mm, and another short, Battle Squad, which mixed WW2 footage with sequences he'd shot at Phoenix airport. Even that young, he'd learned how to make stationary aircraft seem as if they were travelling at supersonic speed. Within two years he was working on Firelight, a 140-minute sci-fi epic, based on a story his sister Nancy had written about a UFO attack. He would, as all the world knows, return often to the subjects of war and alien life-forms.
There would be an emotional side to his story-telling, too, and a vaguely autobiographical one. Many of Spielberg's films feature kids in distress and that aforementioned distant father. This mirrors Steven's own relationship with Arnold - not a good one. On one occasion, Arnold brought a tiny transistor home, showed it to Steven and told him is was the future. Steven took it, put it in his mouth and, washing it down with milk, swallowed it. So much for Arnold's future (though, of course, he was very right). Eventually, Arnold and Leah's marriage began to fall apart. Steven would shove towels under his door to keep out the noise of the arguments. Divorce followed, and Steven was estranged from Arnold for 15 years.
As an Eagle Scout (he'd later serve on the Advisory Board of the Boy Scouts of America, only to quit over a perceived discrimination against homosexuals) with such enthusiasm and practical experience, you'd have thought he'd walk into film school. Yet Spielberg was twice turned down for the prestigious film course at the University of Southern California, instead studying English at California State University at Long Beach, then moving into film.
It was a minor hitch since, by the age of 22, Spielberg was signed up by Universal. Legend has it that the canny Steven inveigled his way into the industry by sneaking away from a tour of Universal studios, finding an abandoned janitor's backroom, doing it up as an office and turning up for work every day until someone mistakenly gave him some work to do. In reality, it was a 26-minute movie called Amblin' that scored him his big chance. Concerning a boy and girl who meet while hitch-hiking and become friends and lovers on their way to a paradisiacal beach, the film was a prize-winner at the Atlanta Film Festival and won Steven his 7-year contract with Universal. In fond memory of this, he would name his first production company Amblin Entertainment.
There is a further story here. Amblin' was financed to the tune of $15,000 by one Denis C. Hoffman. In return for his money and support, Hoffman agreed that, instead of taking a cut of the boy's future earnings (which Hoffman apparently thought to be mean-spirited), Spielberg would direct a film of Hoffman's choosing within 10 years of the contract's signing - on 28th of September, 1968. However, in 1975, when Spielberg broke big with Jaws, the contract was said to be unenforceable. Being born on December 18th, 1947, it was claimed, Spielberg was still a minor when he signed. Come 1994, when it was revealed that Spielberg was actually born in 1946, Hoffman would sue for fraud and breach of contract.
Contracted to make TV shows, Spielberg directed episodes of Marcus Welby MD, The Name Of The Game, The Psychiatrist and Owen Marshall: Counsellor At Law. He also made a full-length Columbo movie, and helmed one of the more famous episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. Here Joan Crawford played a rich blind woman who purchases the eyes of Tom Bosley, who's badly in debt, in order to gain eight hours of sight. She thinks the operation is a failure but, unbeknownst to her, New York is suffering a power-cut. Spooky stuff, despite the nagging suspicion that New York might have the odd emergency generator.
This episode was superb, with Spielberg drawing an excellent performance from the ageing Crawford. But it was his first TV movie proper that made him. Starring Dennis Weaver as a travelling salesman taunted, menaced and nearly killed by the faceless driver of a monster truck, Duel was a classic, so good it actually opened in European cinemas. Next came spook-flick Something Evil, with Sandy Dennis, and blackmail thriller Savage with Martin Landau, but Spielberg now had his own cinema project in mind. This was Sugarland Express, where Goldie Hawn (desperate to escape her dippy comic image) played a mother who, fearing her child is to be put up for adoption, persuades her hubbie to come on the run. The movie, while often hilarious (the couple are eventually tailed by hundreds of police cars), was also taut and upsetting, brilliantly handled. For his role as co-writer, Spielberg won for Best Screenplay at Cannes.
Now came the big one. Peter Benchley had scored a massive hit with his book Jaws, about a Great White Shark feasting on New England holidaymakers, and Spielberg was handed the job of taking the bestseller to the screen. It proved a nightmare big-budget debut. Not only were there all the extras to choreograph, but seabound shoots are notoriously difficult. And of course there was the shark. State of the art technology was employed to create a convincing 25-foot man-eater (affectionately known as Bruce), yet malfunctions were continual. The production was bad-tempered, the shoot over-ran by 100 days, Spielberg was almost replaced, and editing continued right up until the eve of release.
Everyone expected disaster. Yet, thanks to Spielberg's mastery of suspense and clever action techniques, the $8.5 million Jaws took off, making $260 million and, in the process, beginning the trend for summer blockbusters. Beyond this, it made the world afraid to go back in the water. Some of us haven't gone back in since. We don't much like to inspect the underside of boats either. Spielberg was now Hollywood's It Boy, and he immediately took the opportunity to make a "real" sci-fi movie. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, like Jaws starring Richard Dreyfuss (Spielberg calls him his alter ego), was a monster. Combining sweeping action with intensely emotional close-ups, it saw Spielberg attempting to match his hero, David Lean, director of Lawrence Of Arabia and Bridge On The River Kwai (another of his influences, Francois Truffaut actually starred in Close Encounters). The SFX were mind-boggling, even out-shining those of the movie's sci-fi rival in 1977, Star Wars.
Spielberg could now do as he pleased, and he nearly blew it. 1941 was another epic, this time concerning events surrounding Pearl Harbour. However, starring John Belushi, it was also intended to be a comedy and, though stylish, it just wasn't funny. It was Spielberg's first and last real failure, having the effect of launching him on an unbelievable run of success. Next came the swashbuckling and enormously exciting Raiders Of The Lost Ark, produced by fellow-wunderkind George Lucas, which introduced renegade academic Indiana Jones and allowed Spielberg his first pop at the Nazis (his father had had relatives in the death camps). Next came ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, starring Spielberg's god-daughter Drew Barrymore and involving a cute baby alien abandoned on Earth. The first production by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, it was the biggest grosser in history, sending him on his way to a personal fortune that would eventually top $2 billion. More success followed with the movie version of The Twilight Zone and the Raiders sequel Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, if anything better than the original. In the meantime, there were big production successes with Poltergeist, Gremlins and The Goonies, the first and third based on stories written by Spielberg. He could do no wrong.
Well, not in the public's eyes. Critics, on the other hand, found his work spurious and emotionally flimsy, claiming his films were all flash and no content. Oscar-nominated as Best Director for Close Encounters, Raiders and ET, he was overlooked each time. Spielberg reacted by getting serious, taking on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple, another hit novel, this time concerning the journey of black women to self-discovery and inner liberation. Again the critics went at him, complaining that the film was too sugary (as if the book wasn't). The film was put up for eleven Oscars but Spielberg the director was pointedly ignored.
Still, he persisted. Empire Of The Sun was a superb film, outlining the boyhood of author JG Ballard in Japanese prison camps. There were brilliant performances by John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and a host of Brit favourites. Once more the stunning action was combined with scenes of tremendously human interaction, making sense of Spielberg's assertion that "Before I go off and direct a movie, I always look at four films. They tend to be The Seven Samurai, Lawrence Of Arabia, It's A Wonderful Life and The Searchers". It was superb, but not a big hit, unlike the following third Indiana Jones instalment (Spielberg had been working on Rain Man for five months, but had to helm The Last Crusade because he'd shaken on it). And, aside from the moderately successful Always (a remake of his boyhood favourite A Guy Named Joe, and featuring the final performance of Audrey Hepburn, who donated her entire $1 million fee direct to UNICEF), and Hook, a retelling of Peter Pan that was a little too whimsical for its own good, he now ONLY made big hits.
First came Jurassic Park. Like Jaws with dinosaurs, this allowed Spielberg to once again exhibit his awesome ability in the use of shock tactics. The computer-generated monsters furthermore kept him on the cutting edge of popular cinema and, as Jurassic Park was the biggest grosser ever (beating Spielberg's own ET) and, combined with its sequel The Lost World, made $1.6 billion, he was furthermore very rich indeed. But Spielberg really wanted respect and set to work on a movie he'd been planning for a decade. Based on Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-wining book, Schindler's List told the tale of a Nazi who risked his life and fortune to save Jews from the extermination camps. Spielberg had never dealt with ethnicity before but, with Empire Of The Sun, he did have experience of portraying large scale wartime misery. With the film shot in stark black and white, Liam Neeson excellent as the dissolute altruist and Ralph Fiennes even better as the cruel, tortured Kommandant, Schindler's List was magnificent. And, given Clint Eastwood's recent triumph with Unforgiven, the Academy were in the mood to accept that fact, bestowing upon Spielberg the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Of course, the movie made a fortune but Spielberg, considering it to be "blood money", gave his share to various Jewish projects via the Righteous Persons Foundation. He also established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation which, in 57 countries and 32 languages, taped over 50,000 statements from victims and witnesses of the Holocaust.
It all just got bigger and better. Having made Amistad, the tale of a slave revolt aboard ship and the subsequent trial ("Give us us FREE!"), Spielberg upped the ante by forming the multi-media giant Dreamworks with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, dealing in live action and animated features, music, television programming and interactive software - the company insuring Steven's life for $1.2 billion. He was building a big family with actress Kate Capshaw (who'd starred in Temple Of Doom), siring Sasha, Sawyer, Jessica and Destry and adopting Theo and Mikaela (both black, if you ever doubted Spielberg's sincerity with The Color Purple or Amistad). And he paid out a very big divorce settlement to his ex, Amy Irving, who bore him son Max and, in 1989, took him for between 100 and 125 million dollars.
Having proved himself as a "serious" director, Spielberg took his newfound reputation and returned to his roots (remember Escape To Nowhere and Battle Squad?) with Saving Private Ryan, the first large-scale WW2 movie since Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far. Almost foolishly ambitious, it attempted to accurately portray the full horror of the Normandy landings and, with the bullets hissing through the water, the sound and vision rising and falling, and the bodyparts flying, it was indeed as terrifying as it could be. Without Bruce suddenly gliding into sight, that is. The movie was extraordinary, spawning Band Of Brothers (a collaboration between Spielberg and Ryan star Tom Hanks and, at $120 million, the most expensive TV drama ever), and winning Spielberg another Oscar. So bruised was Spielberg by his previous Oscar experiences, he humbly asked in his acceptance speech "Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?"
Spielberg was now THE major player in Hollywood. Aside from his own monstrously successful projects, he'd been involved in the production of smashes like Deep Impact, Men In Black, Twister and the Back To The Future trilogy. On TV, there was ER and Sea Quest DSV. And there was the animation, a childhood love. Spielberg had his own Amblination studio, and helped make An American Tail, Land Before Time and Fievel Goes West, as well as the TV hits Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Pinky And The Brain.
Now came AI: Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg being one of the very few directors with the class and the cajones to take over the project after the death of Stanley Kubrick. Starring Haley Joel Osment as a 'borg seeking the meaning of humanity, it saw Spielberg once again viewing the world through a child's eyes, as he had done with ET, Empire Of The Sun and, in a roundabout way, with Duel and Raiders, the heroes of which were most child-like in being confronted and confounded by a cruel (read Adult) world. Arnold's distance had certainly left its mark. There would have been more, as Spielberg had been down to direct Big, with Harrison Ford in the Tom Hanks role, but he pulled out so as not to steal the thunder of sister Annie who co-wrote the script (and received an Oscar nomination for her pains).
In 2000, Spielberg was made a Knight of the British Empire for his services to the British film industry (though, not being a Commonwealth citizen, he cannot call himself Sir Steven), having earlier received a Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern, Germany's highest civil distinction. His face was now familiar to all, though he had made several high profile onscreen appearances. He'd turned up in Michael Jackson's video for Liberian Girl, and Cyndi Lauper's Goonies R Good Enough. He was Man In Electric Wheelchair in Gremlins, a tourist at the airport in Temple Of Doom, the Cook County clerk in The Blues Brothers, and a voice on the radio in Jaws.
It wasn't all good. In 1998, one Jonathan Norman was jailed for life for stalking Spielberg, and even threatening to rape him. But Spielberg deals in decency where he can. His deep love of film causes him to spend large sums on historical artifacts and donate them to the Academy for posterity - items including Clark Gable's Oscar for It Happened One Night ($607,500), Betty Davis's for Jezebel ($578,000) and an original Rosebud sledge from Citizen Kane. He ensured a US release for Dreams, by Kurosawa, another big influence. And he's strict but fair and kind with those around him. Hiring Tom Sizemore for Ryan, he was aware of the actor's addiction to heroin and cocaine and told him he'd have him tested every day of the shoot. If a trace of drugs was found, even on the last day, he'd re-cast and re-shoot, no matter what the expense. Sizemore stayed clean.
2001 saw Spielberg deliver the film version of another publishing phenomenon, Harry Potter And The Sorceror's Stone. At least, that's how the movie was presented even though Spielberg did not direct it. "For me," he said "that was shooting ducks in a barrel. It's just a slam-dunk. It's like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts". The movie was actually directed by Chris Columbus, but this is seldom mentioned. Though he helmed such mega-hits as Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire and Stepmom, Columbus's achievements pale beside those of his producer. Spielberg is now a kind of cinematic brand-name.
After the mega-success of Harry Potter, one of the biggest hits in history, came the collaboration everyone was waiting for - Spielberg and Cruise, the biggest name and the biggest face. In Minority Report (like Blade Runner based on the work of Philip K. Dick) Cruise played John Anderton, head of a pre-crime unit who, thanks to the work of psychics, bust criminals before they actually commit their crimes. Then he himself is accused and disappears into a world of crazy intrigue, in the first real detective story Spielberg's directed since Columbo. It was yet another US Number One.
After this came another thriller, Catch Me If You Can, this time with old buddy Tom Hanks playing an FBI agent tracking down young con artist Leonardo DiCaprio as he flips between a crazy series of identities and professions. The movie would bring an Oscar nomination for Christopher Walken (another mark of the respect Spielberg's films were now receiving) and would make a beefy $164 million at the US box office. Spielberg would stay with Hanks for The Terminal, where Hanks would play a displaced Eastern European, unable to return home or to step onto American soil and therefore doomed to a bizarre existence at a US airport.
These last two movies were almost entirely action-free, as if Spielberg were finally ready to consistently deal in character-driven pieces. But there was no way he could resist re-teaming with Tom Cruise to remake one of the great sci-fi classics of his youth, War Of The Worlds. This saw destruction reach unprecedented heights as Spielberg indulged in a feast of SFX, capturing the public imagination yet again and this time raking in a massive $264 million.
2005 would clearly define the two sides of the middle-aged Spielberg. War Of The Worlds proved he had not lost his childhood love of thrills and spills (or his ongoing dislike for absent fathers). Munich, on the other hand, saw the new(ish) politicized Spielberg, keen to explore the world's present problems by considering traumatic events in the past. The movie would begin at the Olympics of 1972, where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists, and would follow a crack squad assembled by Mossad as they criss-crossed the globe, hunting down the perpetrators and offing them in ever more ingenious ways. Naturally, the truth of his version of events was questioned and, just as naturally, so was the behaviour (both good and bad) of the state of Israel. Growing more thoughtful and therefore more provocative with age, Spielberg was suddenly controversial - about time, too, many would say - and Munich, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, would also see him nominated as director for the first time since Saving Private Ryan.
More hits, more money to add to the billions already made. Spielberg had reached a peak undreamed of by most directors. George Lucas has had hits, too, but - remember - almost exclusively with Star Wars (incidentally, Spielberg would help direct some of the action sequences for Revenge Of The Sith). All the different things Spielberg touches turn to gold. And now comes a new challenge. Spielberg has always wanted the respect of his peers, and always loved the history of cinema and its pioneers. He would love to be counted amongst them. Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich have have seen him taken seriously in most quarter but, even so, after the long-anticipated Indiana Jones 4, we can expect a deeper Spielberg, a Spielberg who consistently has something to say. Of course, he's sure to also deliver us a massive injection of entertainment. That's Spielberg - always the selling point, the ONLY guaranteed good time.
Search our film biographies.