Steven Spielberg and Sidney Sheinberg

58 FEA Steven Spielberg & Sidney Sheinberg
Art Streiber

Steven Spielberg and Sid Sheinberg | Photographed by Art Streiber on Dec. 6 at Amblin on the Universal Studios lot

For four decades, Steven Spielberg, 64, has reigned as the king of Hollywood. As a director, producer, philanthropist and general mensch, he has no peer. But if there is one man to whom he defers, it’s Sidney Sheinberg, 75, the former MCA/Universal executive who first recognized the young filmmaker’s talent. Spielberg still remembers the words Sheinberg offered him along with his first job: “Hopefully you’re going to have a lot of success in your career. And a lot of people will stick with you in success; I’ll stick with you in failure,” the older man — though, at the time, Sheinberg was only in is 30s — promised his new discovery. “I never forgot that,” Spielberg says. “It became almost an anthem to me.”

Their long-standing friendship — they still meet for lunch — began in 1968, when Sheinberg was president of Universal TV. Film librarian Chuck Silver showed him a quirky road movie made by a college student living nearby on Regal Place (in a building owned, in a nice Hollywood touch, by actress Yvette Mimieux). “That’s the first time I saw Amblin’,” Sheinberg says of the short that became Spielberg’s calling card — and that would become the name of his first production company. “I thought it was special because I’d been seeing a lot stuff that was very technical; you know, all white and like Tron,” Sheinberg says. “But this was a human story.” A meeting was arranged, and, as Spielberg recalls, he “was plucked out of Long Beach State and given a chance to sign a seven-year contract and direct TV.” “At $300 a week,” Sheinberg interjects. Spielberg’s first gig was a pilot episode of Night Gallery, starring Joan Crawford. Journeyman work followed on shows like Marcus Welby, M.D., which led to three made-for-TV movies, including the menacing Duel. By 1973, MCA chairman Lew Wasserman had made Sheinberg his right hand as president and COO, Spielberg was ready to graduate to features, and the stage was set for one of the most successful studio head/director partnerships of all time. During Sheinberg’s tenure, Universal released Spielberg’s Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Jurassic Park. Together they transformed Universal from a second-string studio, dependent on its TV productions, into a major player. When 1975’s Jaws ran over budget, Sheinberg had Spielberg’s back — what skeptics dismissed as an overpriced B-movie became a horror classic that defined the new summer-blockbuster genre. (The $471 million it collected worldwide would be more than $1.9 billion today.)

Spielberg looks back on his earliest days finding his way around the Universal lot with a mix of fondness and angst. Sheinberg, he says, had “such a traumatic influence on me. The career hit me like a brick wall.” The first crews he encountered (“guys in vests and hats who had worked with Clark Gable, King Vidor and John Ford”) tested the new kid. “I’d gone from making these 16mm amateur shorts, had long hair, and I’m a late-’60s college dropout,” Spielberg says. “And they saw a change in the paradigm of Hollywood.” Sheinberg, who now produces through the Bubble Factory and is active with Human Rights Watch, might have been watching out for him, but he watched from a distance. As Sheinberg says: “I had the benefit of being guided by Lew Wasserman. I think part of being a mentor is you have to have confidence in the people you’re guiding and mentoring.”