Entertainment mogul David Geffen was pleased that the prestigious PBS documentary series American Masters wanted to feature him as a subject — until executive producer Susan Lacy told him he had to be interviewed on camera. Geffen likes to talk, but apparently not about himself.
"He said, 'You didn't have Leonard Bernstein, and you made a great film about him!'" Lacy recalls. "I said, 'Yes, but I had a thousand hours of Leonard Bernstein on film, and he wasn't around anymore. I can't do this film without interviews from you!'"
Lacy was persistent, a characteristic Geffen understands. His determination led him out of Brooklyn, where he grew up the son of poor immigrants, and into the life of a self-made show-business impresario and billionaire. He ultimately agreed to sit for Lacy's film, Inventing David Geffen (airing Tuesday, Nov. 20 on PBS; check local listings at tvguide.com), chronicling his five-decade journey through every segment of the entertainment industry.
His climb from the William Morris Agency mail room (he lied on his résumé to get the job and once altered a letter to save his position) to talent manager, record-label founder, movie and Broadway producer and Hollywood studio co-chief is "a real American story," says Lacy. "He had grit and complete, unflinching belief in himself."
Lacy also draws on an all-star coterie of Geffen's friends (Lorne Michaels, Tom Hanks), business partners (Steven Spielberg) and lovers (Cher) to tell the story. Once known for having a volcanic temper ("If you're his enemy, you might as well kill yourself," says one associate), Geffen today appears to be more mellow — even vulnerable. After his breakup with Cher, he saw a therapist every day for three years. On the night John Lennon was shot, Geffen was with Yoko Ono when she was told her husband had died. He also reflects on how the AIDS epidemic affected him as a gay man and why fighting it became his philanthropic mission.
Geffen thrived during the rollicking 1970s in rock and pop music, when he commanded the star-making machinery that generated such enduring acts as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and the Eagles. He was especially adept at starting companies, selling them for millions, then starting new ones. His success as a Hollywood power broker gave him a direct line to the White House.
His accomplishments came at a time when the music and movie industries were flush with cash, which Geffen now sees as a bygone era. But Lacy says there are always new Geffens coming up in America. "If he were starting out today, he'd be [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg," says Lacy. "He would have conquered a different world."