Spielberg: A Life in the Movies

Director's career hits a high-water mark with 'lifetime' award from American Film Institute

'STEVEN SPIELBERG'S head houses the world's largest multiplex theater,'' says Tom Hanks. ''It's open 24 hours a day. For every idea he makes into a movie, there are a thousand more in his inspiration.''

Spielberg is riding the crest of the wave. He is being saluted by the American Film Institute May 27 (to be televised on CBS, 9-11 p.m.). When actor Richard Dreyfuss heard that Spielberg was to receive AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award, he asked, ''What's he going to do the second half of his life?''

Spielberg had similar thoughts. In a recent interview he said: ''At first I thought of going to make-up and having prosthetics applied so I would look more the part. Then I decided I should consider it my mid-lifetime award.''

Spielberg, who is an inspiration to young filmmakers, has had many triumphs, but his career has not been a smooth ride.

''For every motion picture I've ever made,'' Spielberg says, ''there came a time when I had to go to a studio head, even a friend of mine, and sell really hard to get something I believed in accomplished.

''When planning 'Schindler's List,' the studio wanted it filmed in color. I was even more firm, insisting the subject matter, the history, and the feeling of this movie could only be achieved in black and white. There were lots of words exchanged. They felt no one would buy the video cassettes unless they were in color. I pushed hard and won.

''At moments like this, I'd think, 'If I just had my own studio I'd only have myself to blame.' Today, a lot of that has been cut away, and I don't have to sell anymore.''

The day that DreamWorks SKG (the initials stand for the three partners, Spielberg; Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios; and David Geffen, a recording-industry billionaire) was born, Spielberg dropped one mantle and picked up another.

''I had taken a year off after filming 'Jurassic Park' and 'Schindler's List' back to back. I wasn't reading scripts. Then Jeff Katzenberg called. After conversations with Jeff and Dave, I knew I wanted in. I couldn't have made the move without my two friends. Heading our own studio meant following our dreams and helping other young filmmakers achieve theirs.''

Another high-tech billionaire, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, has also jumped onto the bandwagon, pledging $500 million. This gives DreamWorks SKG its single largest investment.

The triumvirate aims to play a role in every phase of show business. They made that perfectly clear when they joined forces with Capital Cities/ABC Television.

''One key to our plans is new talent. I vividly remember giving Bob Zemeckis his first chance to direct. It was the first time I was in the driver's seat and could swing that. This year, Zemeckis won an Oscar for 'Forrest Gump.'

''I don't read scripts because legally I can't accept unsolicited screenplays and story ideas. I do look at a lot of videos and short films that students and independents have made around the world. We've found a lot of talent from that pool. We plan to have talent scouts roaming the world's campuses to find these newcomers.

''We're structuring our business so it will be very beneficial and profitable to newer people. As opposed to the old tradition of waiting until you earn a reputation, then have your agent make a better deal for you, we're hoping to make better deals for people who haven't, in the traditional Hollywood sense, earned their way.''

Spielberg can't help but smile when he is referred to as a ''major mogul.'' His thoughts trail back to his childhood years when he made his first movie trying for a merit badge from the Boy Scouts. He once put his entire family in a film. It was two hours long, cost $500, and ran one night at the local theater in Phoenix. He made a $100 profit. His mother thinks the plot was like a later movie hit of his, ''Close Encounters of the Third Kind.''

His mother, Leah, a former concert pianist, and his three younger sisters were used to having his moviemaking equipment spread around the house. He enjoyed ''playing director,'' for he excelled at it. ''I never was good at math or chemistry or athletics,'' he says. His father, Arnold Spielberg, was in electronics and worked in the early development of computers.

Spielberg came up the hard way. There was a time when Hollywood seemed to delight in overlooking the young upstart, and it bypassed him for a best-director Oscar for ''The Color Purple,'' which introduced Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey to the big screen.

Now he doesn't have to sell or push or press. Numbers don't lie; ''Jurassic Park,'' at $914 million, is the biggest grossing movie of all time.

Ask the moviemaker to give a one-line description of a group of his hits and his answers are revealing: '' 'Jaws': wet and wild! ... 'E.T.': I wish I could go back there again.... 'Indiana Jones': dusty but prosperous.... 'Jurassic Park': prosperous and more prosperous.... 'Schindler's List': the best experience of my life.''

After ''Schindler's List'' was completed, Spielberg explains, ''We formed Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Our goal during the next three years is to get 50,000 oral histories of survivors of the Holocaust on record. Their stories will be put on a database where anyone can learn the truth. I consider this the reason I did 'Schindler's List.' ''

Talking about the huge success of his movies, he smiles, and adds: ''I have a good imagination, but I never fantasized that one day I would be heading a studio. Now, that's a stretch.''

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