The Academy Awards, March 26, 1958. There was a hush in the auditorium as Gary Cooper struggled with the envelope. Cooper paused, broke into one of his shy, charismatic smiles and announced: "Sam Spiegel for The Bridge on the River Kwai." A loud round of applause broke out in the RKO Pantages Theatre, while certain heads turned toward the film producer.
Once again, three years after gaining his first Oscar as the producer of On the Waterfront, Spiegel had won for best picture. A further five years on, he would repeat his Academy Award experience with Lawrence of Arabia. All three triumphs were financed by Columbia, and led to Spiegel becoming the studio's uncrowned prince. "Uncrowned because it would have been too expensive if he was crowned," said the producer Charles Schneer.
Spiegel had a face that stood out in a crowd. "In profile, he looked like a Roman emperor," said director Fred Zinnemann. His black hair was oiled and swept back behind large ears, showing a high forehead and a forceful, prominent nose. The eyebrows, more arched to the right than the left, indicated a mixture of wisdom and humor, while a sparse line of eyelashes, curled and pushed back to his heavy lids, betrayed a certain old-world vanity and charm. Yet his dark brown eyes, which usually twinkled, were still that night.
He knew better than to make an awkward rush for the stage. Like a portly eagle preparing for flight, Spiegel murmured something to his beautiful, much younger wife, and rose sedately. Immaculately dressed, with a white handkerchief in his tuxedo pocket, Spiegel's physique was hardly breathtaking; the fifty-seven-year-old stood at five foot nine, weighed over two hundred pounds, and was rotund with short, skinny legs, yet he was noted for his "nutty elegance."
As he walked to the stage, while the orchestra played the picture's "Colonel Bogey" theme music, a friend in the crowd caught him unaware, and he smiled. He nervously licked his top lip. Spiegel was tense, but the moment Cooper presented him with the gilded statue, his face creased into its familiar dimples and smile. His joy -- like a schoolboy being awarded the most important sports day prize -- was overwhelming.
"The soundstages of Hollywood have been extended in recent years to the farthest corners of the world," Spiegel began. "No land is inviolate to the glare of our camera. Yet it is fitting and proper that people the world over are waiting for a decision which only you in this community are able to render..."
As his resonant voice continued, he pronounced every syllable, giving authority and pace to his words. The tradition in those days was that of one-line speeches during the awards ceremony, but, as always, Spiegel -- a rogue elephant -- set his own tone. Also, typically, the Eastern European producer was awash in intrigue, which that night concerned the authorship of his film's screenplay.
Pierre Boulle, who had written The Bridge over the River Kwai, the novel on which the picture had been based, was credited, and earlier in the ceremony, when the film won for best screenplay, Kim Novak collected Boulle's award. Breathy and mermaidlike in a tight sequined dress, the actress said that her boss, the late Harry Cohn, was "very proud" of the film.
In fact, the legendary studio head had not been. The picture was to put Columbia back in the black, but when first hearing of the project, Cohn had picked up the telephone and shouted, "How can you idiots in the New York office give a crook like Sam Spiegel two million dollars and let him go to some place like Ceylon?"
Nevertheless, the burning question in many people's minds that night was, "How the hell could a Frenchman write this script?" A month before the Oscars, gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper had bandied about the names of two blacklisted writers -- Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Was it just a coincidence that the theme music from High Noon was played at Cooper's entrance? High Noon happened to be the film that had earned the actor's last Oscar, but it was also Foreman's last credited film for Hollywood before becoming a victim of the McCarthy era. Or was it a nod from producer Jerry Wald, responsible for that evening's entertainment, to show that he was in the know about the film's dubious credit?
Backstage, speculation soared. When asked about the authorship of the screenplay, David Lean, who had directed the film, said: "That's the $64,000 question." He admitted that an American writer had worked on the screenplay, but he declined to mention his name "because none of his material was used." However, Spiegel was more of a hard-nosed businessman about the affair and continued to lie through his teeth, insisting to all the newspapers that "neither Michael Wilson nor anyone else worked on our version." Boulle had been credited, he said, "because it was taken directly from his contribution -- the book."
His behavior may seem shocking, and has become one of the many black marks held against Spiegel by many, but he had his reasons for being careful. Columbia Studios, which had backed The Bridge on the River Kwai financially, refused to have anything to do with a blacklisted writer. They were nervous about the picture from the outset, thinking it was too "male-orientated" to do business. There had even been talk about whether or not it was to have an Oscar campaign. Clearly, any mention of Foreman or Wilson would have threatened the film's release.
Spiegel was well tuned to the ways of Hollywood. He personally loathed the town, dismissing it as "a factory in the sun," but he had spent twelve years living there, and he knew the studio system. It had taken time for Spiegel to prove himself professionally. He was a late, late bloomer, at least twenty years behind his fellow émigrés, who included Anatole Litvak, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder. According to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, he was the "perfect example of the producer who walked in without a penny and made himself into something...and made increasingly better films as he became wealthier."
Material success had come to Spiegel in his mid-fifties, by which time he had a reputation for being a hardened wheeler-dealer. In his opinion, there were no rules for his profession. "It's really a negative that makes you a success," he remarked. His maverick attitude allowed him to manage his one-time partner John Huston, as well as work with equally demanding but gifted directors such as Julien Duvivier, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Arthur Penn. Not all their films were successes, but the best were to make up the pride of the Spiegel legacy: The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Lawrence of Arabia.
There was also Spiegel's Academy Award track record -- he remains the only sole producer to win the best picture Oscar three times and, incredibly, he did it within a space of eight years. (It took the producer Saul Zaentz three decades to win his three best picture Academy Awards and he shared his first.) Spiegel is also the first to have had two films -- On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia -- in the top ten of the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films. In today's motion picture industry, it's impossible to think of Spiegel's equivalent. As Kevin Brownlow, the distinguished film historian, director, and editor, points out, "Nowadays, several producers are credited for the job that Spiegel did on his own. If you look at posters, you will often see six or seven."
Spiegel was driven. "You must feel that unless you make this picture you won't be able to sleep," he advised. There was also the producer's refusal to compromise. "Once you make...the slightest concession to demands by those lacking your devotion, you lose the purity of what you intended." Spiegel described each film as a love affair. "And if a love affair is going to work, there must be no consideration for the past or the future." It explained why emotions around his productions were so volatile. The feelings of directors and writers toward their producer swung like a pendulum from admiration to fury.
Like the best Dickensian characters, Spiegel was extreme. Although he could be accused of sharklike behavior and an appalling ruthlessness, he was also recognized for his exquisite manners and his eine kleine aufmerksamkeit, a German expression meaning the little gesture or courtesy. Honoring a financial agreement remained a problem, to such a point that Billy Wilder used to say that Spiegel was "a modern day Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and steals from the poor." Yet, there was always a certain panache to him, like being in the presence of a nobleman and a gangster.
"Why did I love Sam so much?" asked director Mike Nichols, who attempted to work with him on two pictures. "I suppose in the end it was his intelligence plus this gift of making you happy that he should have the advantage."
There was also the producer's courage. "Nothing fazed him," said Kazan. "When he went to Africa with John Huston, he was this fat Jewish fella who didn't have a gun....He had a lot of guts."
It was Spiegel's choice of subject matter that made an impression on Mankiewicz -- "conflicts between human beings, not between...supernatural forces, and Sam felt that very keenly." The director questioned whether the producer was a perfectionist, but recognized that he "was insistent on getting the best possible work out of people."
Occasionally, Spiegel's demonlike pursuit for quality pushed his employees over the edge, like Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront, who when asked why he was shaving at five in the morning, replied, "to kill Sam Spiegel."
There was also the stubbornness. David Geffen recalled the producer as having "his feet in concrete" when he wanted something. As a result, his methods could be staggeringly manipulative. During the making of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean had had to contend with Spiegel's fake heart attacks. Afterward, there was even a new expression in the film community: to Spiegel -- meaning to soothe, cajole, or con another; a talking-out-of, a sleight-of-mouth operation. Both Barry Diller and Mike Nichols recalled his "Jewish mother tactics," while it was Spiegel's quick wit that struck Harold Pinter. The producer was complaining about the American audience not being able to understand a certain line in Betrayal, the film of Pinter's play. "Fuck the Middle West!" cried the exasperated playwright. "Do you want to fuck the whole of the Middle West?" Spiegel shot back.
Sometimes, the tales concerning the producer were exaggerated, or just plain apocryphal, while he rarely corrected what he heard, because, as the last of the great showmen, he recognized the power of myth.
By the end of his life, Spiegel's pictures had collected thirty-five Oscars, he had personally made millions and acquired a priceless art collection, as well as having entertained some of the most glamorous people of the last century, including Gianni and Marella Agnelli, King Farouk, Greta Garbo, Sir James Goldsmith, Jackie Onassis, and Babe Paley. Yet who really knew Sam Spiegel and why did Arthur Miller call him "The Great Gatsby"?
The producer's personal life was deeply divided. The compartmentalizing was "obsessive." "His left-hand friends never knew what his right-hand friends were doing, or even who they were," said Kathleen Parrish, the wife of director Robert Parrish. "You never knew everything about Sam ever. You just knew little fragments that he wanted you to know."
Lord Weidenfeld, who published the autobiographies of many celebrities, once approached the producer about writing his memoirs, but Spiegel dismissed the idea as "maledictory." He refused to be a prisoner of his past. Let others dwell on their memories; the producer preferred to look forward, and hopefully upward. "He always struck me as a man with no native tongue who came from a cloudy place in the Balkans," said the writer James Goldman. Indeed, when asked about his birthplace by Annette Hohenlohe, an Austrian aristocrat, Spiegel replied, "I can't remember."
Of course, the film producer had a few stories that harked back to a different era, the set pieces he liked to bring out: his escape on the last train from Berlin when Hitler came to power, his escape from Vienna with Otto Preminger. The first was true, while the second was a bit exaggerated, though both stories gave credence to Spiegel's much repeated remark, "But for the grace of God, I would have been a lamp shade."
I heard all the differing versions of the escape stories, but I was personally more intrigued by the tales behind S. P. Eagle -- Spiegel's professional nom de plume during the 1940s and 1950s. Whenever I tried to pinpoint him on the name change, the already hard-of-hearing eighty-year-old became very deaf indeed. Sam, or "Mr. Spieeegel," which was how Garbo pronounced his name, was my first employer. As a result, I have always felt a little blessed, since I thought he was fantastic -- for all his faults.
I worked as a company assistant on Betrayal, his last film. It was at the beginning of the 1980s and he had lost his clout as a film producer, yet the mystery, the magic, and the mischief still remained. (But when had they ever left?) Sam, whose presence filled a room as soon as he entered it. Sam, with his rich mittel-European accent, curly eyelashes, and padded step, was the embodiment of his Dream Merchant lifestyle -- the Mason blue Phantom Six Rolls-Royce with his chauffeur, Ken, at the wheel; his boat, Malahne, with her teak floors and Panama flag; Mas d'Horizon, his villa in the South of France, with the lingering al fresco lunches; the Park Avenue penthouse apartment; his table at the Connaught...There was also Sam in his Dover Street office, with Francis Bacon's painting -- Pope no. 3 -- screaming behind his broad shoulders. Politically correct? He would have been appalled by the expression. "Sam had a gift for living -- good food and very young girls," said the agent Robert Lantz. "But he was never embarrassing. He had great style and dignity."
Over lunch, Sam would tell me stories -- though never about himself -- tales such as the one when a Dutch aristocrat sought his advice about her elfinlike daughter Audrey. Naturally, it was Miss Hepburn. "She was wearing a silly black costume with little white feathers on her behind, but it was obvious that she was going to have a career. And I told her mother to let her continue." During such lunches, he was always respectful and never laid a hand on me.
Apparently, this was not the way he treated everyone, but my experience of being with Sam felt like sinking into the softest alpaca blanket -- pleasure and protection. Armies of Young Turks could have tried the fortress's walls and all he had to do was turn his majestic head in their direction, cock an eyebrow, and the invaders would wither away. Sam used to tell people that he was my godfather; I was happy to back up the lie. Warren Beatty said that he "marked the end of an era." True, but how about another era, several hundred years ago! Was Sam a colorful pirate on the Seven Seas? A sultan with his harem? Indeed, David Lean's Indian wife believed Sam had been a maharajah in a previous life, whereas Geoffrey M. Shurlock, from the Motion Picture Association of America, was reminded of the Roman emperor Vespasian, the founder of the Flavian Dynasty.
Nevertheless, when I stayed on Malahne, I was an ingrate. His boat was magnificent, the daiquiris arrived with lightning speed, the rich and the famous were everywhere on board, but having Sam as our "all controlling host" made my cousin and me feel restless and prisonerlike. We, on the other hand, drove him mad with our new discovery -- Hollywood fruit-flavored gum. As we chewed, he fumed. "You look like cows in a field," he said with disdain. However, when Sophia Loren came on board, she too was chewing and then blew a bubble. Neither of us could wait. The next day, we were chewing so hard that our jaws were aching. Again Sam compared us to cows. "Well, Sophia Loren chews and she also blows bubbles," I replied -- I had practiced the line all day long. "Yes, but you are little girls trying to be big girls, while she is a big girl trying to be a little one." The chewing stopped, as did the idea of outdoing Mr. Spieeegel.
The film producer was quick as a flash even in his later years. It was hard not to agree with Elia Kazan, who believed that were Spiegel "dropped, stark naked and without funds, into the heart of a capital city, by the next morning he'd be fashionably dressed and living at ease in a grand luxe hotel."
An extraordinary survivor, Spiegel faced adversity head-on during the first fifty-three years of his life, whether it meant fighting off anti-Semitic Polish hooligans, setting up camp in Palestine, fleeing from the Nazis and the Third Reich, or avoiding the United States immigration authorities, as well as any type of money collector. As a result, he had little time for such autobiographical details as being born in Galicia to a family of highly educated middle-class Jews who were Orthodox, but culturally well assimilated. He was Sam Spiegel -- without any attachments or ties -- who could adapt to any situation. "Baby, know your customer," he used to say, and baby, he meant it!
It was as if he had vowed to himself that by hook or by crook, he would discipline his emotions and be in control of his own destiny. He also became a perfect example of how living well is the best revenge. But what were his true origins and why was he so keen on hiding them?
"I think he popped out of his mother's womb full grown," said Betty Spiegel, his third wife. "He never talked about his childhood or his father."
Copyright © 2003 by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni