PBS American Masters: ‘Inventing David Geffen’

I’m not sure we want to know this, but maybe it doesn’t matter. It started with a lie. In PBS “American Masters” episode “Inventing David Geffen,” we learn that Geffen’s career started with a lie.

Geffen never graduated from college, but he had a real drive to become a somebody. Born in Brooklyn, Geffen ended up at Santa Monica College, but didn’t stay long. He briefly attended Brooklyn College and the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet to work at the famed William Morris Agency, he need to have a college degree. He lied on his application and then found the college letter that indicated he hadn’t received a degree and changed the wording to confirm his deception. And that was just to keep the job he had in the mail room. At WMA, he met Elliot Roberts who would eventually become his partner.

Geffen was soon on the move from there, representing musicians such as Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Geffen had an ear for music but he didn’t stop there. He went on to found Asylum Records, Geffen Records and then Geffen Pictures. He co-founded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Along the way, he was behind the production of the 1983 movie “Risky Business” and the 1999 “American Beauty.”

The interviews include: Irving Azoff, Jackson Browne, Cher, David Crosby, Clive Davis, Barry Diller, Maureen Dowd, Rahm Emanuel, Nora Ephron, Tom Hanks, Don Henley, Arianna Huffington, Jimmy Iovine, Elton John, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Calvin Klein, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Mike Nichols, Yoko Ono, Frank Rich, Steven Spielberg, Jann Wenner, and Neil Young.  But most of all, it’s the wonder boy grown old, Geffen himself.

Geffen is frank about his homosexuality, his successes and failures and other mistakes.  Director Susan Lacy does an admirable job of mixing current-day interviews with photos and videos from the past and painting a picture of each era and each venture the Geffen jumped into. According to Geffen, “I’ve always though that each person invented himself…that we are each a figment of our own imagination. And some people have a greater imagination. And some people have a greater ability to imagine than others.”

His climb to fortune may have started with a lie and we should thus take some of what is said with a grain of salt. If you’re thinking of following that path, remember that in the Internet age, checking up on individuals can be easier and consider the recent fall of Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson (as well as Kenneth E. Lonchar, Robert Irvine, George O’Leary, John Davy, Sandra Baldwin, Laura Callahan and Ronald Zarrella).

For Geffen, he took risks at the right time and with was willing to work hard to make up for what he didn’t have and, for the most part, he trusted the right people.

No matter how it began, it’s a fascinating story. “Inventing David Geffen” premieres on PBS tonight, Nov. 20, 2012 but will be available on-demand on the PBS website thereafter.

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