Hollywood Flashback: Young Barack Obama First Charmed the Entertainment Industry in 2004

Courtesy of Photofest
Barack Obama (left) on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien' in 2006

Says Norman Lear, who hosted the then-43-year-old U.S. Senate candidate at a "come meet the man" reception more than a decade ago: "He walked into my house with the same personality he had as he walks out of the White House."

In 2004, as far as Hollywood was concerned, Barack Obama — who delivered his farewell speech as president in Chicago on Jan. 10 — came out of nowhere. But Norman Lear, who first hosted the then-43-year-old U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois at a "come meet the man" reception, says that didn't matter. "We all come out of nowhere," says the 94-year-old writer-producer.

The evening at Lear's home would be Obama's introduction to the prosperous West L.A. political scene. "What struck me was he was smart as hell, sharp as hell — but more than just politically intelligent. And that made him a leader," recalls Lear. "Over the years I've introduced a lot of people in the same room who didn't feel as much like a leader, someone you'd wish to follow."

The night was an early milestone in Obama's relationship with the industry. "It stood out from the dime-a-dozen candidate forums," says political adviser Lara Bergthold. "His wasn't that normal, blown-dry candidate charisma. He was the real deal."

Another early highlight was his appearance on NBC's Late Night With Conan O'Brien on May 12, 2006. Asked if he was thinking of running for president, then-Sen. Obama parried by telling O'Brien: "I was thinking of you as my running mate."

Oprah Winfrey endorsed him later that year, before his campaign announcement, but an even more important moment came in February 2007, when DreamWorks studio founders Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen supported an Obama fundraiser that brought in $1.3 million. After the nomination, Hollywood came through with a record-setting $11 million, raised at a September 2008 event where Barbra Streisand sang. Obama was elected two months later.

Says Lear: "He walked into my house with the same personality he had as he walks out of the White House."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.