Spielberg's origin story (and who pushed him around): The EW Interview

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So here you are, young Steve Spielberg from Phoenix, and here’s Joan Crawford. Were you intimidated?

Of course. Who wouldn’t be? Especially that they put a 21-, 22-year-old kid together with a living legend of motion pictures.

And not a softie, either.

No! Not only was she not a softie, but she was, I think, chairman of the board of the Pepsi-Cola company at the time, slumming on my set. The second they cast her it became her set, not mine. And I was very willing to abdicate, because I was just happy to be a working professional for the first time. She treated me like a king. Like Henry King, or like King Vidor.

Did it start out that way?

I found out years later from [Universal mogul] Lew Wasserman that the second she met me, she called Wasserman and said, “You get me a professional director, or I won’t do the show. It’s either him or me.” And Wasserman said — I actually told the story at his memorial service — “Well Joan, if you’re going to make me choose between Steven and you, it’s going to have to be Steven.” And there was a big silence on the end of the phone. And he said, “You know, you don’t have to come back to television. You’ve got a great job right now with Pepsi-Cola. You don’t have to do this, Joan, but we’re gambling on this kid, and we’re going to let him do it.” And then Joan, because Lou set the stage, when I came on the set, she treated me just as she had treated the directors that she had made into stars, and who had made her into a star. I was given such spectacular treatment by her.

I would have expected a wire-hanger story or something.

No, I never saw that side of her, ever. I only saw the fact that she sent me gifts everyday. I sent her flowers every day. And then we kept in touch after the experience was over. So she was very kind to me.

That must have blown your mind.

It blew my mind because I had felt a lot of hostility from the crew, because the average age of the crew was like, 50. Easy Rider had already made a lot of people uneasy, because it was a time where Hollywood thought the hippies were taking over the film business. When I came on the set, and I had long hair and I looked like a preteen. If you look at any of those pictures of me then I look like, really, a child. The crew didn’t like me. I remember at one point I had left my script in the car because I was so nervous, and I went to borrow a script on the set. The sound man was sitting on, in those days they sat on a high sound rig, almost like in a referee chair in a tennis match. I reached up to say,”‘Can I borrow the script?” and I took it down, and he snatched it away from me and he said, “Get your own!” And I was the director! That was like the second or third day of shooting.

NEXT: See the opening of ‘Eyes’ …

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