The career of Steven Spielberg “has been almost as exhaustively media-documented as D.W. Griffith’s,” Variety once wrote. In 2015, that would be a pretty obvious statement, but this observation was made on Oct. 29, 1974, when his resume consisted of a half-dozen TV episodes, three TV movies and one feature film.
Forty-one years later, Spielberg’s latest, “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks, opens Friday, already garnering good reviews and Oscar buzz. It’s just the latest confirmation that the media was right to be fascinated with him all those decades ago; even from the beginning, it was clear that the kid had something special.
His first mention in Variety was on Dec. 12, 1968, when Universal signed him and actress Pamela McMyler to exclusive contracts, based upon their work in his short film “Amblin,” which had caught the eye of MCA’s Sidney J. Sheinberg.
One of his first assignments was to direct a segment in the Rod Serling pilot “Night Gallery.” In a Feb. 6, 1969, column, Army Archerd spoke with Joan Crawford, who was starring in that seg. She worked 19 hours the first day; when she was reminded that the director was only 22, Crawford deadpanned to Archerd, “They told me when I signed to do this that he was 23!”
Universal changed his terms in December 1970, signing him for a five-year exclusive producing contract, and six-year non-exclusive directing contract.
While directing various TV episodes, he flirted with several projects for his big screen debut, including an adaptation of Donald Barthelme’s novel “Snow White”; a love story called “Winkler”; and “Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies,” which was eventually filmed by others but with Spielberg retaining a story credit.
The TV movie “Duel” debuted Nov. 13, 1971, and marked another milestone. Critic Tony Scott began his Variety review with the sentences, “Film buffs rightfully will be studying and referring to ‘Duel’ for some time. The finest so far of the ABC Movies of the Week, the film belongs on the classic shelf reserved for top suspensers.” Scott also had high praise for writer Richard Matheson and star Dennis Weaver.
Spielberg’s big screen bow came with “The Sugarland Express,” which put him in heady company: It played at the May 1974 Cannes Film Festival, alongside Fellini’s “Amarcord,” Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” and films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Robert Bresson, Ken Russell and Alain Resnais. Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” won the Palme d’Or, while “Sugarland’s” Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins won best script from story they created with Spielberg.
“Sugarland” didn’t do well at the box office, but producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown signed Spielberg for the 1975 “Jaws,” and the rest is movie history. And within a very short time, people were writing about Spielberg a lot more than D.W. Griffith.