Who Is David Geffen? American Masters Explores the Answer

“American Masters” series creator Susan Lacy and David Geffen.

The big question is “Who is David Geffen?” The entertainment mover and shaker was an agent and manager who became a mogul in the record industry. He’s a founding member of DreamWorks SKG, and has produced great films and Broadway shows. And he has a theater named after him in Westwood, which was a result of his well-known philanthropy. We know all of that about him, yet Geffen is still an enigma.

Well now, the notoriously camera-shy billionaire is the subject of the two-hour documentary American Masters, Inventing David Geffen, premiering Nov. 20 on PBS. Produced by two-time Emmy-winning filmmaker Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of American Masters, it is an unflinching portrait of the working class boy from Brooklyn. It chronicles his unorthodox rise to the status of Hollywood power broker. The highs and the lows in Geffen’s personal and professional life are explored.

Although he avoids the media, and prefers to hang out on his boat in Sardinia, Geffen said Lacy didn’t have a tough time convincing him to do the documentary. “She called me up and said she wanted to do the film. And I said to her, ‘I don’t think I fit into the [American Masters] category.’ She thought I did, and I was flattered. I watch American Masters. I think the show is fantastic. I thought the films on Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and so many of these are incredibly compelling and inspiring for people. They certainly were for me,” Geffen said at a PBS press conference with Lacy this summer.

With her unprecedented access, Lacy got Geffen to open up about his childhood, his fallings out with the recording artists he represented, his whirlwind romance with Cher, struggles with cancer and being gay. Among those interviewed for the show were Cher, Steven Spielberg, Elton John, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Clive Davis, Irving Azoff, Steve Martin, and many others.

Geffen started out in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency in 1964, and he demonstrated a talent for mastering “the art of the deal.” He launched the careers of many top recording stars, and his own record label and motion picture production company became tremendously successful. Yet he said, “I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it [talent] in others.”

Has he been motivated by his successes or by his failures? Geffen said, “I always think that failure is a great motivator for future successes. There is no success without failure.” He reminded that DreamWorks was not an immediate success. “It takes time to build an infra-structure, to assemble the people. Development has to grow, nurture itself. It’s a hard thing to start a company from scratch.”

Lacy said one of the things she learned about Geffen that surprised her was that David “could put $2 billion together in a week” which was the start-up for DreamWorks. Geffen explained that because “the business model has changed” he couldn’t do that in today’s market. He’s not involved with DreamWorks anymore, but still has shares in the company.

Talking about the entertainment industry, Geffen believes 20 years in the future “it will be a vibrant industry in very different ways than we experience it today. People are going to want to sing, and people are always going to want to watch movies. How they watch them, and how it’s delivered to their homes, or whether it’s delivered to theaters, I think, is going to change dramatically. But I don’t think the future of the entertainment business is going to be less important 20 years from now. I think there will be industries that will be far more profitable.”

During the interview with Geffen we asked about his accomplishments and what makes him proud. He replied, “I’m proud of all of the things I’ve done. I think that it was fun to do. Particularly seeing this film, I look back and think ‘Wow, I did all that.’ I really don’t tend to think about the past or reflect on my career. I don’t like to talk about myself. And when I saw the film, I thought, ‘Wow.’ I was impressed.” Anyone who sees the American Masters Inventing David Geffen will be equally impressed.