The one-night screening of the 140-minute film “Firelight,” telling the story of a team of scientists investigating mysterious lights in the sky, was a family affair. The director’s father rented out the theater, while his mother and sisters sold popcorn and sodas. That 16-year-old director’s name? Steven Spielberg.
You could say that was the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s directing career, which has made him Hollywood’s most commercially successful filmmaker ever. When adjusted for inflation, four of Spielberg’s films (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) are on the list of the 20 most popular films of all time. His movies have grossed a total of $8.1 billion when adjusted for inflation. A two-time Best Director Oscar winner, Spielberg has also received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globes, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America, the Billy Wilder Award from the National Board of Review and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Motion Pictures from the Producers Guild of America.
Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Dec. 18, 1946. His father, Arnold, was an electrical engineer, and his mother, Leah, was a concert pianist. He and his three sisters grew up primarily in Haddonfield, N.J, and Scottsdale, Ariz. “I was a nerd in those days. Outsider,” Spielberg told “60 Minutes” in 2012. Like the kid that played the clarinet in the band and orchestra, which I did.”
Being the only Jewish family in their Scottsdale neighborhood made the Spielbergs a target for anti-Semites. “These people used to chant, ‘The Spielbergs are dirty Jews,’” Leah recalled. “And one night, Steve climbed out of his bedroom windows and peanut buttered their bed room windows, which I thought was marvelous.” His religion was a source of discomfort for the young Spielberg. “I often told people my last name was German, not Jewish. I’m sure my grandparents are rolling over in their graves right now, hearing me say that.” Spielberg found his grandfather calling him by his Hebrew name, Schmuel, and speaking in Yiddish particularly embarrassing.
His parents’ divorce when he was 19 was another source of trauma for Spielberg. Although his mother left his father for one of Arnold’s close friends, Spielberg blamed his father for the divorce. As a result, the absentee father became a common character in his movies. “‘E.T.,’ which certainly defines loneliness from my own perspective, is a lot about how I felt about my mom and dad when they finally got a divorce,” Spielberg said. After years of resentment, Spielberg reconciled with his father at the urging of his wife, actress Kate Capshaw. When Spielberg won the Best Director Oscar for 1998’s World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan,” he thanked his father during his acceptance speech.
A source of comfort during those difficult times was movies – not just watching them, but making them. His passion began when he began playing with his father’s 8mm camera at age 8. Soon he was writing scripts that included special effects and assigning everyone in his family a part. Friends would also participate, much to their mothers’ chagrin. “One mother said, ‘I just don’t like my child always out in the desert and he doesn’t do his homework,’” Leah said. “Now, I think they are very excited that they were doing a Steven Spielberg film.”
His passion for filmmaking continued while studying at California State University, Long Beach, and led him to drop out (he received his degree in 2002, 33 years after leaving the school). After receiving notice for his 1969 short film “Amblin’,” Spielberg began working in television, directing Joan Crawford in the pilot for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” as well as episodes of “Columbo” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” His first feature-length effort, 1971’s “Duel,” was considered one of the greatest made for television movies ever. 1974’s “The Sugarland Express,” Spielberg’s feature film debut, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Spielberg shared Best Screenplay honors with Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.
But it was “Jaws” the following year that would establish Spielberg as a major filmmaker – not that he could have known it during production. The shooting schedule increased from 55 to 155 days, the budget doubled and worst of all, Bruce, the mechanical shark intended to be the center of the story, was malfunctioning. “Steven would get so depressed sometimes because the (mechanical) shark wouldn’t work,” producer David Brown told People magazine. “Of course, in the end that worked to our advantage. We couldn’t use the shark, so we had to rely on people’s imaginations.” Yet this aggravating shoot produced the first movie in history to gross more than $100 million. “Jaws” was also the pioneer for today’s big-budget summer blockbusters. Two years later Spielberg earned his first Best Director Oscar nomination for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Following the massive successes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” and the “Raiders” sequel, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” in the early ‘80s, Spielberg tackled more serious fare with 1985’s “The Color Purple.” The adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel about a group of African-American women during the Great Depression grossed more than $100 million and received 11 Oscar nominations. Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment, also produced a series of extremely successful films during the ‘80s, including “Poltergeist,” “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
1993 was arguably one of the greatest years of Spielberg’s career. After the historic box office success of “Jurassic Park,” Spielberg directed “Schindler’s List,” an adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s best-selling novel about an industrialist and war profiteer who comes to the aid of Polish Jews during World War II. Shot in black and white, “Schindler’s List” grossed $321 million worldwide and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Spielberg.
Former MCA/Universal executive Sid Sheinberg, who gave Spielberg the book, said that “there were many in the Hollywood community who were rooting against” the director. “I think the subconscious reaction is, if a man has been so successful financially and so successful becoming a pop hero, do the movie gods really need to also make him so successful as a creative genius in filmmaking? And people no longer raise that question. I don’t hear anybody wondering today whether Steven can make any kind of picture.”
In the aftermath of his “Schindler’s List” success, Spielberg teamed with former Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen to found the production company Dreamworks SKG. During the ‘90s he was an executive producer of such successful films as “Twister,” “Men in Black,” “Deep Impact” and “The Mask of Zorro.” He continued producing into the 21st century with credits including the J.J. Abrams-directed sci-fi fantasy “Super 8” and “Men in Black III.”
Of course, Spielberg continued directing as well. His films included “A.I.,” “Minority Report,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “War of the Worlds,” “Munich” and the fourth film in the Indiana Jones series, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” In 2012, “Lincoln,” Spielberg’s biopic of the 16th president, was released and earned Spielberg Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations. Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his performance in the title role.