Eye on the Oscars: Governors Awards - Humanitarian Award: Jeffrey Katzenberg

Jeffrey Katzenberg is famous for his energy, his relentless work ethic and for demanding the same level of commitment in those around him.

He has brought the same drive to his work for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, and residents on the fund’s Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, Calif., have reason to be grateful for it.

Less than four years ago the fund’s hospital and long-term care facility were losing a reported $10 million a year and the fund announced plans to phase them out. Today there is new management in place, the fund is back on a sound financial footing and the hospital and home are to stay open.

“We’ve all heard the stories of Jeffrey being in at the office at 6:30 in the morning, and no stone unturned,” says Academy prexy Hawk Koch. “That’s how Jeffrey is at the fund.” In addition to sweat equity, Katzenberg has raised some $200 million for the fund, and last month he and his DreamWorks partners, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, each donated $30 million to the Fund as part of a $350 million fundraising campaign.

“He took us through a very rough time through the last few years, and almost singlehandedly turned that around,” says Koch.

He also serves on the boards of California Institute of the Arts, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Geffen Playhouse, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

So the Academy Board of Governors recognized Katzenberg’s work for the Fund and his other philanthropic endeavors with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, making him only the 34th Hersholt honoree.

Says Koch: “Jeffrey reminds us what the word humanitarian actually means: Having concern for people and doing something about it.”

For his part, Katzenberg says giving back is something he simply has to do. “I feel like I have had so much good luck and so much good fortune, I feel as though if I didn’t share it I’d be struck by lightning, and deservedly so.”

Indeed, Katzenberg’s commitment to giving and philanthropy runs deep, going back to his childhood in New York in the ’50s and ’60s.

Though he came from what he calls “a privileged household,” Katzenberg says his father set an early example. “He really believed in supporting others,” says Katzenberg. “At the earliest ages, I always had these strong memories of him just being generous.”

Another early influence was New York mayor John Lindsay. Katzenberg went to work for Lindsay at age 15 and stayed on to work in Lindsay’s office after high school.

“The purpose of good government is to help people in need, and that’s something John Lindsay was famous for,” says Katzenberg. “He had a great idealistic sense of what government can and should be. He very much supported (the) underprivileged, and had a great heart and great compassion for the needs of people. He was always out walking the streets of New York, being in the toughest places at the toughest times, being there for the people.”

Later, as his career took him to Hollywood, Katzenberg found more mentors and examples: Spielberg and Geffen; Kirk Douglas; and Lew and Edie Wasserman. It was the Wassermans who asked him to go work with the Motion Picture

“Their commitment and their support of the Fund and the Home and everything around it is legend,” says Katzenberg. “And honestly it was very easy to see why they loved it so much and why it was so valuable and important. So I was in from the go. They sold hard, but it was not a hard sale.”

At the start of the great recession, Katzenberg saw that the combination of bad times, escalating medical costs and longer life expectancies was stressing the fund badly. “Every great government is facing it, ours is, and every great medical institution in the field is facing it,” he says. “So it was a very very tough time for us. None of us were prepared to see this ship sink on our watch, and that made for very hard decisions.”

The turnaround seems complete, and while Katzenberg is getting an Oscar, he hails the Fund’s CEO, Bob Beitcher: “He’s done an outstanding job of righting the ship and ensuring that this thing is going to be around for the next generations.”

Eye on the Oscars: Governors Awards
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Jeffrey Katzenberg | Honorary Oscar: George Stevens Jr. | Honorary Oscar: Hal Needham | Honorary Oscar: D.A. Pennebaker

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more