"I Dream For A Living"

Steven Spielberg, the Prince of Hollywood, is still a little boy at heart

July 15, 1985

All is darkness -- as dark as a minute to midnight on the first day of creation, as dark as a movie house just before the feature starts. Then the movement begins, a tracking shot down the birth canal of a hallway, toward the mystery. Suddenly, light! A bright room filled with old men in beards and black hats: sages, perhaps, from another world. At the far end of the room, on a raised platform, is a blazing red light. The senses are suffused; the mystery deepens. There is only one persuasive explanation for this scene. It must be from a Steven Spielberg movie.

Well, no. And yes. It is Spielberg's earliest memory, from a day in 1948 when he was taken in a stroller to a Cincinnati synagogue for a service with Hasidic elders. "The old men were handing me little crackers," Spielberg recalls. "My parents said later I must have been about six months old at the time." What a memory; and what profitable use he has found for his memories and fantasies. If this synagogue scene has never made it into one of the director-producer's movies, still the mood and metaphor it represents -- of fear escalating into wonder, of the ordinary made extraordinary, of the journey from darkness into light -- inform just about every frame Spielberg has committed to film.

He is, of course, the world's most successful picturemaker. E.T. The ExtraTerrestrial (1982) has earned more money than any other movie in history. Jaws (1975) is fifth on the all-time list, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) seventh, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) eighth, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 15th, and Gremlins (1984), which he did not direct but developed and "presented," 17th. Only his pal George Lucas, with whom he collaborated on Raiders and Indiana Jones, approaches that patch of box-office ionosphere; and Lucas, at least since Star Wars eight years ago, has delegated the directing of his films to other hands. Spielberg is very hands-on; as Director Martin Scorsese puts it, "Lucas became so powerful that he didn't have to direct. But directing is what Steven has to do." Spielberg admits, "Yeah, I'm a mogul now. And I love the work the way Patton loved the stink of battle. But when I grow up, I still want to be a director."

This summer, as director and mogul, he has more than enough work to keep him happy. Two new comic adventures bear the "Steven Spielberg Presents" imprimatur. The Goonies, directed by Richard Donner from a Spielberg story, earned a healthy $41.4 million in its first 24 days' release; Back to the Future, a spiffy time-machine comedy from Director-Writer Bob Zemeckis, opened last week to positive reviews and audience acclaim. But that is just for openers. Next week E.T. will beam back down to 1,500 theaters for a saturation rerelease. At Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's studio-within-a- studio on the Universal Pictures lot, he is shepherding another pair of pictures, Young Sherlock Holmes and The Money Pit, toward Christmas premieres. September will see the debut of Spielberg's NBC anthology series Amazing Stories. He is directing four of the first season's 22 shows, and has written the stories for 15.

Last month he took two giant strides toward answering critics who say he refuses to grow up, artistically or personally. On June 5 he began directing The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker's stark, poetic novel about Southern blacks. Eight days later, his live-in love, Actress Amy Irving, presented him with 7-lb. 7 1/2- oz. Max Samuel Spielberg, whom the proud father describes as "my biggest and best production of the year."

That will sound like gentle facetiousness to anyone who does not realize that Spielberg's movie productions are his children too. He can be criticized for photocopying the boy-meets-his-better-self wonder of E.T. in his more recent films; the copy is rougher and darker in the comic nightmare Gremlins, a bit crumpled and smudged in the fun-house frenzy of The Goonies. But the films' very limitations are identity badges on a body of work as personal, even as obsessive, as that of Ingmar Bergman, David Lean or any other monarch of cinema academe. Spielberg the director is supposed to be a movie machine, and if that is so, fine. We need more artisans with his acute eye and gift for camera placement and movement, lighting, editing and the care and feeding of actors. But he is also a compulsive teller of stories about himself as he once was and still is. Each new film he directs or oversees is like another chapter in the autobiography of a modern Peter Pan.

The self-referential touches start with jokes on his own name. As Critic Veronica Geng has noted, Spielberg translates from the German as "play mountain." The hero of Close Encounters finds his way to the starship by molding a mountain out of a dirt hill. At the beginning of both Raiders and Indiana Jones, the hilly Paramount Pictures logo dissolves into other fantasy mountains. More directly autobiographical is the genesis of several of his films. Close Encounters was born one night when young Steven's father woke the six-year-old and drove him to a large meadow to see a meteor shower. E.T. and The Goonies find their wellsprings in the need of a young outcast for a playmate, real or imagined. Poltergeist, which Spielberg describes as being "all about the terrible things I did to my younger sisters," also emerged from a spooky encounter (ethereal figure, shivery bedroom, car that wouldn't start) that the filmmaker experienced in 1972. Each picture has allowed him to remake his own childhood, then to generalize it so it touches millions of once-again kids.

Take the word of another eternal youth, Michael Jackson. For years the pop megastar was rumored to have been chosen by Spielberg to play Peter Pan in a new adaptation of the James M. Barrie tale. It was not to be, and at the moment Jackson is working with Lucas on a project. But the reclusive young thriller declares it "my honor" to speak about Spielberg. "I must have seen E.T. around 40 times, and Jaws a good hundred or so," Jackson says. "You feel loved in his films. Steven never sleeps, never rests at ease. Last year, during the Victory Tour, I was on vacation with him in the Hamptons. But instead of vacating like everybody else, he found a Betamax and we made movies. He put a plastic bag around the whole camera, taped it up and shot underwater scenes in the swimming pool. I worked the lights. He is constantly creating, because making movies is like playing. He will always be young. I love Steven so much, it almost makes me cry. He inspires me more than anybody on earth today."

Hear, from the other end of the age scale, the evidence of David Lean. The director of Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India had seen Spielberg's 1971 TV movie Duel, released as a theatrical feature in Europe, and "immediately I knew that here was a very bright new director. Steven takes real pleasure in the sensuality of forming action scenes -- wonderful flowing movements. He has this extraordinary size of vision, a sweep that illuminates his films. But then Steven is the way the movies used to be. He just loves making films. He is entertaining his teenage self -- and what is wrong with that? I see Steven as a younger brother. I suppose I see myself in him. I have rarely felt so at ease with anyone. Curious thing, that."

Or maybe not so curious. Spielberg has that tonic effect on a lot of people. Prowling the bustling Amazing Stories set in his blue baseball cap, brown leather bomber jacket, salmon-colored jeans, pink socks and gray running shoes with SPIELBERG stamped on the heels, the Mogul of Magic looks just old enough to be the classmate-coach at a college touch-football scrimmage. He has time for everyone, with a few jokes in between: "TV stands for Tender Vittles. That's what we're givin' 'em, folks, Tender Vittles." Spielberg's noncombative vitality infects everyone he works with. Says Richard Donner: "Steven is over your shoulder the whole time. He always bows to you because you're the director, but he's got so many good ideas that you want to grab every one of them. It's as if he's 17 going on 18. Next year he's going to learn to drive."

The drive is there already, four on the floor, nonstop. "I dream for a living," Spielberg explains. "Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to, and I see another movie I want to make. Sometimes I think I've got ball bearings for brains; these ideas are slipping and sliding across each other all the time. My problem is that my imagination won't turn off. I wake up so excited I can't eat breakfast. I've never run out of energy. It's not like OPEC oil; I don't worry about a premium going on my energy. It's just always been there. I got it from my mom."

Mom is a stitch. At 65, Leah Adler still has enough vim to run a kosher restaurant in West Los Angeles with her second husband Bernie while moonlighting as an extra in the Amazing Stories episode directed by Clint Eastwood. Back in the early '60s, though, in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Leah Spielberg could summon just enough energy to ride the roller coaster called Young Steven. "He was my first, so I didn't know that everybody didn't have kids like him," she recalls with a happy shrug. "I just hung on for dear life. He was always the center of attention, ruling his three younger sisters. And me too, actually. Our living room was strewn with cables and floodlights -- that's where Steven did his filming. We never said no. We never had a chance to say no. Steven didn't understand that word."

Spielberg's memories of his childhood are as dramatic and fantastic as you might expect from a master fabulist. Could real life have been nearly so much fun? "It was creative and chaotic at our house," says Steven's father Arnold, 68, a computer executive with twelve patents to his name. "I'd help Steven construct sets for his 8-mm movies, with toy trucks and papier mache mountains. At night I'd tell the kids cliffhanger tales about characters like Joanie Frothy Flakes and Lenny Ludhead. I see pieces of me in Steven. I see the storyteller."

In every Spielberg "family" film since Close Encounters, the mother figure is the repository of strength and common sense; Dad is either absent or a bit vague, less in touch with the forces of wonder. As described by Steven, Arnold was neither a hero nor a villain, but a hardworking perfectionist. "Steven's love and mastery of technology definitely come from our father," says Steven's sister Sue, 31, a mother of two who lives outside Washington. "Mom was a classical pianist, artistic and whimsical. She led the way for Steven to be as creative as he wanted to be. We were bohemians growing up in suburbia. And everything was centered on Steven. When he was babysitting for us he'd resort to creative torture. One time he came into the bedroom with his face wrapped in toilet paper like a mummy. He peeled off the paper layer by layer and threw it at us. He was a delight, but a terror. And we kept coming back for more."

Why not? Each evening alone with big brother meant a new Amazing Story. The youngest, Nancy (now 29 and a jewelry designer in New York City), remembers: "We were sitting with our dolls, and Steven was singing as if he was on the radio. Then he interrupted himself 'to bring us an important message.' He announced that a tornado was coming, then flipped us over his head to safety. If we looked at him, he said, we'd turn to stone." Nancy played a featured role in Steven's minimum opus Firelight, a sci-fi thriller made when he was 16 and she was eight. "I played a kid in the backyard who was supposed to reach up toward the firelight. Steven had me look directly at the sun. 'Quit squinting!' he'd shout. 'Don't blink!' And though I might have gone blind, I did what he said because, after all, it was Steven directing."

The fateful day when this movie-mad child got close to his Hollywood dream came in the summer of 1965, when 17-year-old Steven, visiting his cousins in Canoga Park, took the studio tour of Universal Pictures. "The tram wasn't stopping at the sound stages," Steven says. "So during a bathroom break I snuck away and wandered over there, just watching. I met a man who asked what I was doing, and I told him my story. Instead of calling the guards to throw me off the lot, he talked with me for about an hour. His name was Chuck Silvers, head of the editorial department. He said he'd like to see some of my little films, and so he gave me a pass to get on the lot the next day. I showed him about four of my 8-mm films. He was very impressed. Then he said, 'I don't have the authority to write you any more passes, but good luck to you.'"

The next day a young man wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase strode past the gate guard, waved and heaved a silent sigh. He had made it! "It was my father's briefcase," Spielberg says. "There was nothing in it but a sandwich and two candy bars. So every day that summer I went in my suit and hung out with directors and writers and editors and dubbers. I found an office that wasn't being used, and became a squatter. I went to a camera store, bought some plastic name titles and put my name in the building directory: Steven Spielberg, Room 23C."

Two years later, Spielberg enrolled at California State University, Long Beach, but it is safe to say he matriculated at Universal U. Cramming 15 1/2 units into two frenetic days of classes a week, he was able to spend three days on the studio lot, asking executives to watch his films. "They were embarrassed when I asked them to remove their pictures from the wall so I could project my little silent movies. They said, 'If you make your films in 16-mm or, even better, 35-mm, then they'll get seen.' So I immediately went to work in the college commissary to earn the money to buy 16-mm film and rent a camera. I had to get those films seen."

Obsession and addiction: successful careers are built on these qualities, whether or not they are accompanied by talent. Spielberg had felt the craving ever since his first day on the Universal lot: "I was on the outside of a wonderful hallucination that everyone was sharing. And I wanted to do more than be a part of the hallucination. I wanted to control it. I wanted to be a "director." And so, bankrolled by a young friend with hopes of being a producer, he wrote and directed, in ten days, for $10,000, a short film called Amblin', about a boy and a girl hitchhiking from the desert to the Pacific Ocean. The day after Spielberg showed the film at Universal, he was called in by Sidney Jay Sheinberg, head of TV production, and offered a seven-year contract to direct Universal TV series. He was 20 years old. "I quit college," Spielberg says, "so fast I didn't even clean out my locker."

Today, after 20 summers on and off the Universal lot, the erstwhile trespasser practically owns the place. He might deserve to: E.T. and Jaws have grossed $835 million on a $19 million investment. Moreover, Sheinberg, now president and chief operating officer of Universal's parent organization, MCA, has maintained a paternal relationship with Spielberg. So, according to Sheinberg, "when Steven called me about two years ago and said, 'I want to come home,' I said, 'When?' and 'How much space do you need?' " In this fashion the man who saw a boy's film called Amblin' determined 15 years later to build that boy the movie industry's most sumptuous clubhouse as headquarters for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. The building is reputed to have cost between $4 million and $6 million to construct and furnish. Spielberg says he doesn't know, and will never ask, the price tag, and Sheinberg won't snitch. "It would be like telling how much the birthday present cost," he says.

Playpen and sweatshop, summer camp and botanical gardens, Amblin is where Steven Spielberg dreams for a living. The two-story stucco building, on a far corner of the Universal lot, looks like Walt Disney's Frontierland as it might have been designed by a very hip Hopi. The studiously roughhewn walls and ceilings refuse to form right angles; instead they bend and breathe, going with the architectural flow. Native artifacts are everywhere. A cave painting ornaments one wall in the steam room; in the courtyard a pink marble bust of an Indian madonna with children stands guard over an abandoned plastic tricycle. The staff bustles about, casually garbed in jeans and boots, like cowpokes at home on an impossibly opulent reservation. You are reminded that in more than one Spielberg movie, insensitive white folks get their comeuppance when they build their homes on sacred Indian ground. Amblin means to lift the curse: it is a big happy tepee erected on the real estate of infidel Hollywood.

Inside and out, state-of-nature merges with state-of-the-art. In the brick-lined conference room, a massive oak chest conceals fancy video equipment that glides up pneumatically with the push of a button. Across the path from the front entrance, a giant weeping willow shades a wishing well out of which Bruce, the Jaws shark, pokes his snout. Behind the high-tech kitchen, and over the wooden bridge that crosses a stream fed by a rushing waterfall, is a clear-water pond stocked with fat fish, black and silver and gold Japanese koi. As you walk through the voluptuous gardens, a golden retriever named Brandy trots up to you and, no kidding, smiles. She is the genial cerberus of Amblin, the mascot that welcomes you inside Spielberg's paradise.

Without family, paradise is a house but not a home. So the suburban boy has assembled a professional tribe remarkably like his own in Scottsdale. The roles of his kid sisters are taken by a sorority of doting, efficient junior staff members. And Steven's "parents" are his fellow Amblin bosses, Kathleen Kennedy, 32, and Frank Marshall, 38. They share executive-producer credits on the films he presents; they keep four sharp eyes on a dozen or so film projects; they grease the tracks that connect Steven with the studios and the press; they act as a DEW line to monitor the unguided missiles of his imagination. Notes Kennedy: "Ten times a week Steven will rush into my office and say, 'Kath, I have a great idea.' And sometimes I feel like, 'Oh, not another one.' " In private life, Kennedy and Marshall live together. Brandy is their dog.

Spielberg has gone his original nuclear family one better. In Screenwriter Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies) and the writer-producer-director tandem of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), he has found the younger brothers and bright playmates he never had. Columbus is now writing the third Indiana Jones film, which Spielberg will shoot next summer. Of Back to the Future, says Spielberg: "My main contribution was making Bob Zemeckis aware of his own best work and getting him to do it" after the script had been rejected by just about every studio in town. "I'm not the bank," he cautions. "Sometimes I'm the guy holding the flashlight, trying to show filmmakers where the holes are so they don't fall in." Zemeckis faced a gaping crevasse when he realized that the performance of his star, Eric Stoltz, was too intense for the picture's comic-romantic mood. After five weeks and $4 million spent, Stoltz was fired and Michael J. Fox signed to replace him. Spielberg calls this "the hardest decision I've ever made."

Tough calls come with the territory of moguldom. Spielberg insists that "George Lucas has an empire; I just have a small commando operation." Yet Amblin is producing almost as many feature films this year as Lucas has in a decade. Often Spielberg will wait till the last minute before deciding whether he will direct a film or not. The Goonies, for example, was "a film I didn't want to direct but I did want to see, so I asked Richard Donner to do it. I've always been very zealous about directors' rights. I retain final-cut privilege, but I won't exercise it unless the director has a complete nervous breakdown, tries to burn the set down and is found one morning in the corner eating Ding Dongs."

Still not busy enough, Steven? How about masterminding an anthology series for TV? Amazing Stories won a unique guarantee from NBC: the network agreed to buy 44 shows, or two years' worth instead of the customary six to 22 weeks, and to pay a record-breaking license fee of $800,000 to $1 million an episode. Spielberg explains the series' origin: "I get too many ideas, and I want to act on them all. Amazing Stories is a foster home for ideas that will never grow into adulthood, that aren't strong enough to stretch beyond 23 minutes." Spielberg has hired Eastwood, Scorsese, Peter Hyams, Paul Bartel, Bob Clark and Irvin Kershner to direct segments. (Eastwood says his involvement is the result of "part friendship, part lark.") Spielberg has also anointed four young film school grads for their big-time directorial debuts.

Amazing Stories may not be an instant hit; with the exception of the Walt Disney series, no anthology show has finished in the Nielsen Top 25 since Alfred Hitchcock Presents a quarter-century ago. But it could blaze trails, or at least reopen them. With this show Spielberg is attempting to transform the weekly series from a comfortable habit to an event worth anticipating and savoring. Each Sunday night at 8, a new baby movie, with a spooky story, feature-film production values and, often as not, a distinctive visual style. One of Spielberg's own episodes, an hourlong drama called The Mission, envelops its suspense in a visual style that suggests Rembrandt on Halloween. More important, it finds a new twist for the Spielberg credo: the miraculous power of the artistic imagination. This story of a World War II gunnery ace who, in the author's provocative words, "literally paints himself out of a corner," is a fairy tale for the technocratic 20th century. It should be the first movie that Mom and Dad show to Max Samuel Spielberg.

Fall in with Spielberg and you fall into a Spielberg movie. Such is the testimony of Amy Irving, 31, as she sits in the lavish Coldwater Canyon home they share (they call it "the house that Jaws built"). In 1979 Irving had broken up with the filmmaker after a four-year affair. Then in 1983 she was on location in India and "one night, in front of three friends, I made a wish. I said, 'I wish I'd have a visitor, and I want it to be Steven.' Later that night my assistant came to me and said, 'Steven arrives in the morning.' " Irving then surprised Spielberg, who was in India scouting locations for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, by meeting him at the airport. Says she: "From that moment, I knew. Now we're really in love. And here I am with the Prince of Hollywood. I guess that makes me the Princess."

Turn a page of the storybook and see Steven and Amy walking hand in hand through the rain toward Claude Monet's house in the Paris suburb of Giverny. "Just as we arrived," Irving recalls, "the rain stopped, so we were able to walk around the gardens. When we walked inside, it started pouring again. Then, during lunch, a double rainbow appeared outside our window. It was very magical, and then I threw up. That was the first time I realized I was with child." As a memento of their visit, Spielberg bought a Monet, which hangs on their living room wall. In the den is the original Rosebud sled used in Citizen Kane. As for the discipline of fatherhood, Spielberg will let history be his guide: "My mom spoiled me. I'll spoil the baby. Amy will be strong with Max, and I'll be the pushover." But he promises a change. "Until now Amy and I have looked elsewhere for our 400 cc of real life -- spell that r-e-e-l. I'm great with a movie camera between me and reality. But with the baby, I have an excuse to finally look real life in the eye and not be afraid of what I discover."

Undoubtedly, tens of millions of moviegoers hope the filmmaker stays the precocious little boy he seems to be. Only the Hollywood graybeards and a flank of film critics feel like shouting, "Steven, grow up!" Whichever path he chooses, there are dangers. Walt Disney kept recycling the magic of his animated fables until the gold turned into dross. Charlie Chaplin got serious and lost his audience. Spielberg, who says, "I want people to love my movies, and I'll be a whore to get them into the theaters," means to have it both ways: to mature as an artist while retaining his copyright on adolescent thrills and wonder, to blossom as a director while he diversifies as a mogul.

Scorsese, who has known Spielberg since 1971, detects "a pressure in Steven to top himself. The audience sees his name on a project and expects more and bigger. That's a tough position to be in." And Spielberg, who boasts that "I can dump on me better than anybody else," confesses that "I find my leg stuck in the trap I built. To have directed a movie like Young Sherlock Holmes would have gnawed that leg right off."

He hardly needs to be told that fables about know-nothing adults and feel-it-all children are not the only tales worth spinning; that adults must face such plot twists as pain, exultation and emotional compromise; that there is drama to be found in the grown-up compulsions of power and, dare we say it, sex. Sure, Spielberg knows there is life after high school. "But after E.T.," he says, "people expected a certain kind of film from me, a certain amount of screams and cheers and laughs and thrills. And I was caving in to that. I knew I could give it to them, but I realize it made me a little arrogant about my own style. It was all too easy. The whole titillation I've always felt about the unknown -- of seeing that tree outside my bedroom window and shutting the drapes till morning -- was taken away from me. And I got scared. I don't want to see where I'm going."

Enter The Color Purple, an epistolary novel about incest, sexual brutality, sapphic love and the indomitable will to survive. It did not seem the sort of material Steven Spielberg would touch with a ten-foot wand. Which is precisely why he went for it. "The Color Purple is the biggest challenge of my career," he proclaims. "When I read it I loved it; I cried and cried at the end. But I didn't think I would ever develop it as a project. Finally I said, I've got to do this for me. I want to make something that might not be everybody's favorite but, this year at least, is my favorite. The Color Purple is the kind of character piece that a director like Sidney Lumet could do brilliantly with one hand tied behind his back. But I'm going into it with both eyes wide open and my heart beating at Mach 2."

Perhaps The Color Purple will bring Spielberg the one triumph that has thus far eluded him: an Oscar for Best Director (though Clint Eastwood wonders if the industry may not think Spielberg is "a little too young and too successful. He has done so well, it may be a long time before anyone bestows on him any brassworks for the fireplace"). But even with that statuette, one suspects that Spielberg would still be restless. He would still crave those moments when he can spin amazing stories for himself, his kid sisters and a world of children in the dark. To demand that he revoke his inexhaustible thirst for wonder would be like asking Dickens to be Dreiser, or Peter Pan to settle down and become complacent old Mr. Darling.

But Spielberg has surprised us before: as an auteur prodigy, as the thrillmaster of Duel and Jaws, as the savvy director who could reinvent the movies' innocence. The man is only 37 now, and his toughest audience is himself. You needn't be a child to believe that this movie magician still has astonishments in store.

Reported by Elaine Dutka/New York and Denise Worrell/Los Angeles