Steven Spielberg: The EW Interview, and his origin story
Let’s say you’re a crew worker in Hollywood and Steven Spielberg comes up to you on set and asks to borrow your script for a moment because he locked his in his car.
A.) Say “sure thing” and loan him your copy.
B.) Snatch the script out of his hands and say, “Get your own.”
If you chose B.) today you could reasonably expect those ghosts from the lost Ark of the Covenant to show up and shoot lightning through your chest until your face melts. But back before Spielberg was Spielberg, this was precisely the scenario that played out on his first paid gig — an installment of the anthology show Night Gallery in 1969, starring Joan Crawford. (The program was a sort of updated version of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.)
In the current issue of EW, Spielberg tells stories from throughout his entire filmography, but in this online-only excerpt he dives deep into his early years, when he was just a “pre-teen”-looking kid from Arizona, hustling around Hollywood with a projector in a suitcase and an armload of short films.
Once he got that first job on the NBC TV show, things got really tough.
We start with Amblin’, his 1968 short film – largely a silent movie with folk-guitar music – about a girl and a guy hitchhiking their way through the desert to Pacific Ocean.
Was Amblin’ just a calling card, or was there somewhere it would be shown? There was no Sundance in those days.
As I would often do with my 8mm films, I would bundle the pictures in a briefcase and literally carry my projector over to somebody’s office. It was like I was a very young Willy Loman; boxing up my wares and going from studio office to studio office. Not a lot, but maybe 10 percent of the producers that I tried to get to see my films did see my films.
Was Amblin’ your first try at something that wasn’t just a home movie or student film?
No, Amblin’ was my second 35mm film. My first 35mm short film about a bicycle race starring Tony Bill… I couldn’t raise the rest of the money and it was only half finished when I ran out of money. It remains half finished. I never could raise the funds.
Maybe someday you could get a little money together and go back!
What did it cost to make a short film in those days?
This guy who ran an optical effects house called CineFX, Dennis [Hoffman], was the one that believed in the script I had written and believed in me, and gave me $10,000 to go off and shoot. It was big money in 1968.
How did this lead to you getting your break?
Dennis, who wanted to be a producer, took the film as his own calling card around town to get it shown. It was shown unbeknownst to me to Sid Sheinberg [a Universal television executive, and later head of the studio].
He gave you your first paid job – an installment in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. [A segment called ‘Eyes’ starring Crawford as a rich blind woman who buys the eyes of poor man, played by Happy Days actor Tom Bosley.]
It was my first professional job. I had never been paid in my life to make a movie or a television show, and that was my first professional job.
NEXT: Spielberg sees trouble…
So here you are, young Steve Spielberg from Phoenix, and here’s Joan Crawford. Were you intimidated?
Of course. Who wouldn’t be? Especially that they put a 21-, 22-year-old kid together with a living legend of motion pictures.
And not a softie, either.
No! Not only was she not a softie, but she was, I think, chairman of the board of the Pepsi-Cola company at the time, slumming on my set. The second they cast her it became her set, not mine. And I was very willing to abdicate, because I was just happy to be a working professional for the first time. She treated me like a king. Like Henry King, or like King Vidor.
Did it start out that way?
I found out years later from [Universal mogul] Lew Wasserman that the second she met me, she called Wasserman and said, “You get me a professional director, or I won’t do the show. It’s either him or me.” And Wasserman said — I actually told the story at his memorial service — “Well Joan, if you’re going to make me choose between Steven and you, it’s going to have to be Steven.” And there was a big silence on the end of the phone. And he said, “You know, you don’t have to come back to television. You’ve got a great job right now with Pepsi-Cola. You don’t have to do this, Joan, but we’re gambling on this kid, and we’re going to let him do it.” And then Joan, because Lou set the stage, when I came on the set, she treated me just as she had treated the directors that she had made into stars, and who had made her into a star. I was given such spectacular treatment by her.
I would have expected a wire-hanger story or something.
No, I never saw that side of her, ever. I only saw the fact that she sent me gifts everyday. I sent her flowers every day. And then we kept in touch after the experience was over. So she was very kind to me.
That must have blown your mind.
It blew my mind because I had felt a lot of hostility from the crew, because the average age of the crew was like, 50. Easy Rider had already made a lot of people uneasy, because it was a time where Hollywood thought the hippies were taking over the film business. When I came on the set, and I had long hair and I looked like a preteen. If you look at any of those pictures of me then I look like, really, a child. The crew didn’t like me. I remember at one point I had left my script in the car because I was so nervous, and I went to borrow a script on the set. The sound man was sitting on, in those days they sat on a high sound rig, almost like in a referee chair in a tennis match. I reached up to say,”‘Can I borrow the script?” and I took it down, and he snatched it away from me and he said, “Get your own!” And I was the director! That was like the second or third day of shooting.
NEXT: See the opening of ‘Eyes’ …
You must have been terrified.
I was terrified. I was terrified. I had a lot of people against me. The producer didn’t like me very much, Bill Sackheim, he didn’t like me. He didn’t think I was doing a good job. And I didn’t think I would ever work again, I really didn’t. I thought that was it.
What saved you?
The person who really came to my rescue was Joan Crawford — and Barry Sullivan and Tom Bosley, the three actors on the show. At one point Barry Sullivan [pictured, who played the doctor who does the eye transplant] made a speech to the crew, when I was not on the set, that I only heard about later. He just lectured the crew about how inappropriate their behavior was toward the director.
What would you go back and tell that kid version of yourself today? What would you whisper to him, or what cheat sheet would you slip to that guy?
The only advice I would probably give him is to stop trying to ingratiate yourself. You know, just do the work, focus on the work, don’t focus so much on making yourself popular on the set. Just focus on the work. I was just trying to be everybody’s best friend on that show.
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