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David Geffen: The Mother of All Inventions
November 15, 2012  | By Tom Brinkmoeller  | 1 comment

When a person reaches billionaire status, maybe it becomes easier to deflect the scrutiny of others.

David Geffen, who says he reached that income level nearly 20 years ago, reveals other things that might be judged impolitic in the newest American Masters, one that will show on most PBS stations Tuesday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).

He tells how he avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by telling officials at the induction center he is gay. (Not yet having developed his deflection skills, Geffen says he repeatedly fell back in the line during the process, lest the many former classmates who also were there would learn his secret.) He dodged the draft, not in protest but to keep the entry-level job he valued at the William Morris talent agency. He also very candidly admits during Inventing David Geffen that he lied about college credentials he didn't have to get that mailroom job — and how he showed up very early every morning hoping to intercept the letter from the university in question that would have exposed his lie. He says he found and opened the letter, changed its contents to match his claims and kept the job.

So here's this guy who opened the closet long enough to whisper to a select few that he was in it, who lied to get a job and to keep it carried on the kind of subterfuge the Watergate burglars might have admired. And he's a billionaire, and probably a large percentage of people reading this don't have much of an idea who he is. 

It seems he is fine with relative anonymity. Accomplishing so much hasn't changed his desire to luxuriantly seek a spot in the background. But, as this fascinating and remarkably researched two-hour program reveals, he has accomplished many large things while raising his considerable voice and profile only when necessary.

As a music producer, Geffen positively affected the careers of Laura Nyro, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell (with Geffen, above), Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash and many more. He produced for Broadway (Cats and Dreamgirls are two efforts that carry his stamp); put Tom Cruise in a singular light when he produced Risky Business; dated and fell heavily for Cher, and (some would say) derailed the presidential campaign of former friend Hillary Clinton in 2008 over his disappointment with her husband's decision not to legitimize gays in the military.

One other thing: He's also the "G" in DreamWorks SKG, the mega-production company he co-founded with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Watch the two hours and it's difficult not to think of Geffen as a secret weapon, a new-millennium neutron bomb who can atomize people and leave everything around them standing, leaving not a mark. It's not biased or a slam; he publicly has praised the film, even though watching paints him as someone you'd not want to meet in a dark boardroom.

A Geffen quote "I've always thought that each person invented himself … that we are each a figment of our own imagination. And some people have a greater ability to imagine than others." — leads off the biography and explains the Inventing David Geffen title. The weapon into which he imagined himself appears formidable. About an hour into the program, you wonder whether Mike Wallace was less at risk when he interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeini than the person who decided to do an unflinching portrait of Geffen.

He couldn't have been nicer and less threatening, said Susan Lacy, the award-winning creator and executive producer of American Masters. Many of the profiles the series produces are written and directed by others. Lacy saved this one for herself, writing, directing and producing it over a four-year stretch. She chose him as a subject because of his success in music, film and theater as a force behind the scenes.

Though Lacy had met Geffen once before, when she interviewed him for the Joni Mitchell profile she directed, she wasn't sure he would agree to raising his profile. 

"I sent him a letter and he asked me to lunch," Lacy said in a recent phone interview. "He was quite receptive."

It turned out Geffen is a fan of American Masters, and especially liked the Leonard Bernstein program she also produced. 

It took four years to complete, Lacy said, not only because she would start and stop action as she handled the wider duties of steering the series, but she also didn't want to make the film without interviewing everyone she felt could help tell the story. Elton John and Cher — neither an easy interview to tie down — are two of the 47 people she filmed. That didn't include the four formal interviews and numerous phone consultations she had with Geffen. 

During an interview with David Crosby, the singer calls Geffen the shark he, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash brought on to protect them from the other predators in the "shark pool" that was rock music then. An unmistakable message sent during the program: Geffen made big things happen and changed big men's minds. 

Example: Director Paul Brickman shot an ending for Risky Business that wasn't positive enough for Geffen. Brickman lost a battle he believed in and a new ending was shot. Rare exception: Geffen viewed a pre-release version of a The Outlaw Josey Wales while running the Warner Bros. movie business. He thinks it should be put together in a different way and tells that to director Clint Eastwood. Eastwood tells him to go ahead and do so and to call him when he's done — at a rival studio, because Eastwood will walk. The film was not re-edited.

But, said Lacy, "To my great surprise, he was absolutely hands off" when it came to her work about him. And when the production was just a week away from its final edit, she invited Geffen to a screening, admitting she was "fairly nervous about showing it to him." The nervousness was not alleviated much when Geffen accepted the invitation and told her he was bringing super-director Mike Nichols along as a guest. 

With such assembled power in the viewing room, it could have turned into a visit by the Spanish Inquisition. 

"He loved it, actually," Lacy said. "I was never really worried. He knew up front this wasn't going to be a valentine. We make portraits. I don't think he was worried we were going for the jugular here."

The film was shown in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Geffen took that praise public after the viewing, telling the audience he didn't remember half of what the film detailed, but that he was impressed with it.

During one interview, Geffen told Lacy how he was initially rejected by the reputed king of Hollywood shrinks with the explanation, "I'm too old and you're too crazy." That type of transparency about his life in a business built on and supported by facades is a rare thing. Anyone who's interested in learning why some music and movies get made while others don't should not miss this very instructional film.

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