David Geffen is an entertainment industry triple threat, with a legendary talent for spotting musical acts (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Eagles, Jackson Browne), producing Broadway shows (Cats, Dreamgirls), and developing movies (as a co-founder of Dreamworks Studios). And his true-life Horatio Alger story – born to poor parents in Brooklyn, he left for Los Angeles the day he graduated high school, lied his way into showbiz, and became a billionaire before he turned 50 – contains enough insider tales to fill the two-hour American Masters documentary Inventing David Geffen, which played at TIFF over the weekend.
But there were a few stories that didn’t make it into the final cut, which Geffen was happy to retail during an onstage Q&A with TIFF’s documentary programming chief Thom Powers and the creator of the American Masters series, and the film’s director, Susan Lacy.
In the early 1980s, he recalled, the fledgling Geffen Film Company was developing a low-budget comedy about a preppy high-school-grad-turned-pimp. But when Geffen was shown the casting for Risky Business – the lead was set to be Kevin Anderson (Sleeping With the Enemy), with Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally as the hooker with a heart of gold – he exercised a veto.
“I said to [the director Paul Brickman]: “Nuh-uh. You’re gonna have to cast somebody in that role that I would want to [expletive].” Instead, Geffen suggested a 19-year-old actor he’d seen in the 1981 military drama Taps by the name of Tom Cruise.
Powers jumped in: “Did you ever get to - Oh, never mind.”
“Contrary to popular belief, he’s as straight as you could possibly be,” Geffen replied with a tiny smile.
But Geffen is not just good at choosing promising actors, he’s also proved adept at betting on the right political horse. As the documentary recounts, for many years he was close friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton, but broke with them in 2007 when he became one of the first big donors to throw his support behind Barack Obama.
Lacy, the doc’s director, asked Geffen what he thought of President Obama’s speech at the Democratic Party’s convention last week.
“Well, it’s hard to follow Bill Clinton,” he said, to chuckles from the audience. “I had a birthday party at my house for Mike Nichols, and Eric Idle gave the funniest toast. People were falling on the floor – literally, it was that funny. And Tom Hanks was supposed to follow him. He taps me on the shoulder, he says: ‘I’m not going on next.’ It’s hard to follow that kind of thing.”