New Geffen bio dishes up some tantrums

The spat-happy mogul threatened Michael Ovitz and Cher.

Published March 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At the best of times, music and movie titan David Geffen is probably not a man of peaceful, easy feelings. But the publication of Tom King's biography, "The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood," has incensed this pioneer of the California rock scene and the "G" of DreamWorks SKG. Reportedly, Geffen regrets that he granted access to King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, and has been referring to King as "Kitty Kelley" when bad-mouthing the bio.

The Random House title, which hit the stands Tuesday, depicts Geffen as an intensely shrewd but sharp-elbowed hothead who can be as vindictive toward colleagues as he is generous to the Democratic National Committee and charities. King concentrates more on Geffen's business relationships than on his sexual ones -- but that doesn't make the book any less dishy.

Replete with screaming matches and lawsuits, "The Operator" contains some remarkable tantrums, including one in which Geffen's arch-nemesis, power agent Michael Ovitz, invited him in 1996 to repair their 15-year feud, which dated back to the filming of the 1982 cinematic flop "Personal Best."

Before going to the summit, Ovitz consulted a mutual friend, Barry Diller, for advice on how to deal with Geffen. "If you've tried everything else, tell him if he keeps spreading rumors that you'll hit him!" Diller said, exasperated at what he considered an adolescent feud between his two friends.

When he met with Ovitz, Geffen exploded, listing his every grudge. Ovitz tried to be diplomatic, but then lost his legendary cool. "David, if you keep saying bad things about me, I am going to beat you up!" he threatened. Diller eventually admitted to Geffen that he had suggested the more pugilisitc approach to Ovitz. "He wants you to stop," Diller later said to Geffen. "You won't stop. What else is he going to say?"

Geffen also bared his fangs at a 1994 meeting with his DreamWorks partners, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, former MCA executive Sid Sheinberg and Edgar Bronfman Jr., the Seagram CEO who had recently bought MCA and changed its name to Universal Studios. The DreamWorks trio met the other two men at Katzenberg's home to discuss a distribution deal, and Geffen quickly grew frustrated with Bronfman, who had refused a proposal. "I have one job in the world now and that's to make him happy," Geffen said to Bronfman, pointing to Spielberg. The situation swiftly deteriorated.

"David, stop screaming," Sid Sheinberg said calmly.

"I'm not screaming!" Geffen yelled.

"You're screaming, David," Sheinberg said.

Finally, Steven Spielberg piped up. "David, you know what would make me happy?" he asked.

"What?" Geffen asked angrily.

"Stop screaming," Spielberg said.

King's book does show a relatively softer side to the Hollywood power broker. At one point, Geffen confronts an early love interest, Cher, who, post-Sonny Bono, was beginning a flirtation with her future husband, musician Gregg Allman. According to King, Geffen was struggling with his sexual identity yet wanted to marry Cher; she rebuffed him. One night, the two had a run-in outside a club where Allman had performed. A spurned Geffen demanded that Cher return the gifts he had given her. "They were presents and they're mine," Cher explained, to which Geffen replied, "I'll sue you!"

King also reports that later in life, Geffen felt isolated and lonely, and wanted a family. New-age guru Marianne Williamson offered to bear his child, but the two couldn't agree on terms. King also clears up the rumor that floated around in the mid-'90s that Geffen had married actor Keanu Reeves in a secret ceremony. At the time, Geffen was dating Todd Mulzet, who bore a slight resemblance to the "Speed" star.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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