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David Geffen says he doesn't dwell on his accomplishments

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Manager. Agent. Record executive. Movie producer. Broadway promoter. Political mastermind. Philanthropist.

If David Geffen is to believed, you can't be any of these things -- or, more particularly, all of these things -- unless you are first an inventor. And if he's right, no one can argue with the fact that he's responsible for a rather impressive invention.

TV PREVIEW

Inventing David Geffen

  • Tuesday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m.
  • PBS/American Masters

"I've always thought that each person invented himself," Geffen says in the opening moments of the aptly titled PBS/American Masters profile Inventing David Geffen. "For whatever reason, through whatever circumstance, through whatever he has gone through -- we are each a figment of our own imagination, and some people have a greater ability to imagine than others."

As illustrated in this fascinating trip through recent pop-culture history, the job of inventing David Geffen -- of creating, reworking, re-imagining and perfecting the most powerful show-business force of a generation -- has been a lifetime in the making.

The nondescript child of immigrant parents and the product of a hardscrabble Brooklyn upbringing, Geffen didn't know what he wanted to become in life, but he was certain he wanted to do it somewhere other than Brooklyn.

Having grown up fascinated by movies and Hollywood culture, he left New York the day after he graduated high school and headed for California. He tried his hand at a number of jobs, including appearing as an extra in a movie (the 1961 drama The Explosive Generation, which starred a young William Shatner), and considered his prospects to be limited because he had -- as he admits in the film -- no education, no gifts and no talent.

Until, that is, he received a piece of advice from a Hollywood casting director whom he'd befriended.

"She said, 'You should become an agent,'" Geffen recalls. "I said, 'What does an agent have to know?' and she said, 'Nothing. You can be an agent and know absolutely nothing.' So I thought, 'That's the job for me.'"

Watch Inventing David Geffen: Focus Focus Focus on PBS. See more from American Masters.

Geffen moved back to New York City and took a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency (famously having lied about his educational background on the application), and quickly learned about showbiz politics by reading the memos he delivered back and forth between agents.

But when he tried to make the leap into talent management, he was rebuffed; having been blocked from moving into the movie side of the business, he took a mentor's advice and started searching for musical acts to represent.

When he signed the Youngbloods, and later singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, Geffen's journey of self-invention took its first major step. He began to understand the art of making deals, and the science of show-business confrontation.

In signing Nyro, Geffen became her agent and a partner in her record company; in short order, he quit his job at William Morris and started his own talent agency, with the promising Nyro as his only client.

Of course, more followed, as Geffen joined forces with another young upstart agent, Elliott Roberts -- Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, the Eagles -- and Geffen's reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator who stood up for his artists grew.

"We knew we were in a shark pool in the music business," Crosby says, explaining his band's reason for signing with Geffen, "and we decided we needed our own shark."

During the 1970s, Geffen became one of the most powerful figures in the music industry; during the '80s, he expanded his empire to include movies and Broadway shows; in the '90s, already a billionaire, Geffen partnered with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg to create a movie studio, Dreamworks SKG.

What's particularly interesting about Inventing David Geffen is the manner in which entertainers interviewed for the film view the man who has been, for many, both a mentor and a rival.

"Three words," says Tom Hanks, "Constantly, ruthlessly honest."

Adds Warren Beatty: "Very giftedly non-diplomatic."

Glen Frey of the Eagles, a band Geffen pushed the singer/songwriter to create, offers this: "Nothing and no one was going to stop him."

Media mogul David Geffen is modest about his talents in new documentary.

Enlarge Image

Media mogul David Geffen is modest about his talents in new documentary. (PBS PHOTO)

When he made a rare media-interview appearance last summer during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles (having flown in from his yacht's mooring location in Sardinia for the occasion), Geffen was quite philosophical about his successes and failures.

"Well, I'm proud of all of the things I've done," he said. "I think that it was fun to do. I look back on it, particularly in seeing this film, and I think, 'Wow, you did all of that.' I don't tend to think about the past. I think about what I'm doing now. I really don't reflect on my career, or I don't like to talk about myself. I avoid it as much as possible. And when I saw the film, I thought, 'Wow.' I was impressed."

During the interview, Geffen -- who insists he has never owned a cellphone, used an ATM or sent a text -- had a bit of fun with the inevitable questions lobbed his way about being a pop-culture touchstone. It has long been rumoured he was the target -- or, at least, one of the inspirations -- of Carly Simon's You're So Vain, and it has always been known he was the subject of Joni Mitchell's Free Man in Paris.

"No, that's simply not true," he said about the Simon/Vain suggestion. "Not to say I'm not vain; I'm just not her vain."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Watch Trailer: Inventing David Geffen on PBS. See more from American Masters.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 C9

History

Updated on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 12:36 PM CST: embeds video, adds fact box

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