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‘Spielberg’: The 9 Most Surprising Things You’ll Learn About the Filmmaker in HBO’s Documentary

A pet monkey, fear, and driving Liam Neeson nuts: It's all in Susan Lacy's "Spielberg."

Steven Spielberg, from the new HBO Documentary

Steven Spielberg, from the new HBO Documentary

HBO

For “Spielberg,” an HBO documentary about the highest-grossing director in film history, director and producer Susan Lacy (“American Masters”) conducted 30-plus hours of interviews with Steven Spielberg. She also spoke to more than 80 of his family members, friends, and collaborators, among them Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Zemeckis, J.J. Abrams, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Oprah Winfrey, Cate Blanchett, Drew Barrymore, and late “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” screenwriter Melissa Mathison.

All of that makes for a long movie — it clocks at nearly two-and-a-half hours — but the documentary has its rewards. Here’s the highlights of Lacy’s look at the 70-year-old icon.

There was a pet monkey

“My mom was Peter Pan,” said Spielberg. “She was a sibling, not a parent.” Prior to Leah Adler’s death in February at 97, the longtime restaurateur told Lacy about the time she came across a monkey for sale in a Phoenix pet store, depressed from being taken away from its mother. Adler packed the monkey cage into the back of her Jeep and drove home to her four children. They were surprised, albeit “freaked out and so scared.” Presumably, the monkey was returned. “When I hear the stories about the things I’ve done, I think, That was crazy,” said Adler. Her ex-husband and Spielberg’s father, Arnold Spielberg, was less harsh: “I liked the monkey.”

“Lawrence of Arabia,” on repeat

The week of Spielberg’s 16th birthday, future Best Picture winner “Lawrence of Arabia” came out in theaters. Spielberg responded by nearly abandoning his cinematic ambitions, believing he would never make such a masterpiece. Instead, he made a study of David Lean’s 228-minute Bedouin epic, seeing it four times in theaters and still finding time today for an annual viewing. According to The Independent, he later rankled Lean with a litany of script notes on the British director’s final undertaking, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel “Nostromo,” which Spielberg planned to produce. (Spielberg eventually left the project, which was never made — Lean died weeks before the scheduled start of principal photography.)

"Lawrence Of Arabia"

“Lawrence Of Arabia”

Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It was Spielberg who alienated his father

When Spielberg was 19, he went through what he described as the worst ordeal of his life: his parents’ divorce. Things started to fall apart around the time the Spielbergs moved from Phoenix to Northern California, and Spielberg responded to seeing his father cry for the first time by repeatedly shouting “Crybaby!”, a moment he revisited in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” However, to protect his fragile soon-to-be ex, Arnold pretended like the break-up was his idea; in truth, Leah fell in love with one of his best friends, Bernie Adler. The children cast Arnold out of their lives, and Spieberg’s estrangement lasted 15 years. As a result, the absent-father motif weaves through many of his films, including “E.T,.” “Hook,” and the earlier Indiana Jones chapters. “I was hurt by it, but quietly hurt,” Arnold Spielberg said. Father and son did reconcile, and Spielberg calls “Saving Private Ryan” a tribute to Arnold, who flew  missions in India and Burma during World War II.

Scorsese witnessed the moment Spielberg’s life changed

Spielberg, who tripled the film’s budget and shoot while making “Jaws,” assumed the film would be his downfall. However, on the night “Jaws” opened in 1975, he spent the evening driving around Los Angeles with Martin Scorsese and future New York Times critic Janet Maslin, looking at the long lines wrapped around the theaters showing his film. Maslin and Scorsese each commented that they remember the moment Spielberg that realized he made a massive hit and his career would never be the same.

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