A close encounter with Steven Spielberg’s dad

For Arnold Spielberg\'s birthday in the late 1950s, his wife, Leah, gave him a Brownie movie camera. He had little chance to enjoy the present because it was immediately appropriated by his 13-year-old son, Steven.
June 13, 2012

For Arnold Spielberg’s birthday in the late 1950s, his wife, Leah, gave him a Brownie movie camera. He had little chance to enjoy the present because it was immediately appropriated by his 13-year-old son, Steven.

Young Steven Spielberg repaid the gift a year or so later, when the already nascent director cast his father, dressed in his old army fatigues, as a jeep driver chasing German Gen. Erwin Rommel across the Arizona … er … North African desert.

The other actors in “Escape to Nowhere” were Steven’s high-school classmates portraying battle-worn soldiers in the opposing armies.

Arnold Spielberg recently spent two hours with a reporter in his home high up in the Pacific Palisades, a few blocks from the ocean, reminiscing about his part in bringing up a son and three younger daughters.

At 95, Arnold, a pioneer of the computer age, displayed an astonishing recall of dates, names, jobs and incidents in a full life, which he continues as one of the directors of a startup company designing unmanned land vehicles.

The interview took place about a week after the extended Spielberg clan had gathered at a Beverly Hills hotel to fete the family patriarch as he accepted the inaugural Inspiration Award of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

With an eye on the upcoming Father’s Day, Arnold shared some thoughts on his influence in raising four successful children—Steven; screenwriter Anne Spielberg Opatoshu; businesswoman Sue Spielberg Pasternak; and Nancy Spielberg Katz, a fundraiser and executive producer of documentary films.

“Leah and I had an open house, in the sense that we gave all our children a lot of freedom to do their own things and develop their imaginations,” he said.

With the freedom came some “sensible” restrictions, such as “not tearing up the house; not making a mess.” The strictures worked with the three girls, but not with the son: “Steven was his own person, and it was impossible to tie him down with rules,” the father admitted.

When the four Spielberg siblings stood on the stage with their father at the Shoah Institute event, they recalled various anecdotes from their childhoods.

Arnold and Leah Spielberg with their son, Steven. Photo courtesy of Arnold Spielberg

The young Steven had a terrible time falling asleep and no remedy seemed to help until his father put together an oscilloscope, with wave patterns and a green dot. “I just followed the dot and was fast asleep in seconds,” Steven remembered.

The girls spoke of their dad’s help with their math homework, and they recalled how he invented the character of Joanie Frothy Flakes, named for a frothy drink, who became the heroine of nightly bedtime stories.

Arnold, who became a crack rifleman while growing up in Kentucky, taught his only son the manly art of shooting at bottles, and Steven is still an expert skeet shooter, his father avowed.

More crucial to the son’s future career was the transformation of the family living room into a movie theater, with a white bed sheet doubling as its screen.

The screenings largely featured teenage Steven Spielberg productions, with the sisters working as candy hawkers.

Steven wanted to keep all the proceeds from the enterprise to buy more film, but, at the insistence of his father, he donated the ticket revenue to an organization aiding handicapped children. Profits from candy sales were Steven’s to keep.

Between engagements, the filmmaker made money whitewashing the trunks of orange trees to protect them from the sun, at 50 cents per tree.

Arnold’s own parents, Shmuel and Rebecca, the first generation of the family in America, both were born in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 1900s. They met and married in Cincinnati, where Arnold Meyer Spielberg was born.

In the best Jewish immigrant tradition, Shmuel started making a living with a pushcart and later became a jobber for wholesale and retail dry goods. Arnold described religious observance in his boyhood home as “Conservative to moderately Orthodox,” with his father attending shul every morning.

The economic fortunes of the Spielberg family went up and down. “In 1929, we had an especially good year, and we bought all new furniture,” Arnold remembered.

Then the Depression hit, and Shmuel, who had been a strict Shabbat observer, started going to work on Saturdays. With three children in the family, “My father had no choice,” Arnold said. “My mother somehow managed to put food on the table every day.”

Arnold’s parents hoped he would become a businessman, and, at 17, he went to work as a stock boy in a cousin’s department store in Kentucky.

But his heart was always in electric—and, later, electronic—gadgetry. At 9, he scrounged parts from garbage cans and put together the family’s first crystal set. His choice of radio stations was limited to the only one in Cincinnati—but it was a beginning.

At 15, Arnold became a ham radio operator, building his own transmitter, a skill that proved fortuitous when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1942, one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and joined the Signal Corps.

Four months later, he went overseas to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, transferred to the Air Corps and trained as a radio-gunner for a B-25 bomber squadron.

But his skills on the ground—including the design of new airplane antennas—were so outstanding that he was promoted to squadron communications chief, though he flew two missions as a volunteer replacement radio operator/gunner. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his work in improving the capabilities and efficiency of communications.

Just before entering the service, Arnold went on a single date with Leah Posner, a friend’s kid sister, and the two corresponded throughout the war.

Back in the States, Leah, a talented concert pianist, married Arnold in January 1945, and their four children were born over the next 10 years. As the kids became older, all attended Hebrew school, and, later, Sue and Nancy participated in a year-long kibbutz work program in Israel.

As Steven’s filmmaking skills developed, Arnold served as his consultant, especially in the son’s first full-fledged production, “Firelight,” a 140-minute sound film.

“The story was a forerunner to Steven’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ with aliens landing on Earth, and I built the special effects,” Arnold said. “But while Steven would ask for my advice, the ideas were always his own.”

With Arnold’s own growing prominence in the computer and systems engineering fields and national companies competing for his services, the family led a fairly peripatetic life.

Over the years, Arnold worked for such companies as RCA, General Electric, IBM and Scientific Data Systems in such places as Cincinnati, Phoenix, Detroit, Orange County, San Jose and other locations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He officially retired at 75 but continues as a consultant to the Shoah Institute and as a director of the startup Land Drone Co.

From left: Siblings Sue, Nancy, Anne and Steven with their father, Arnold Spielberg, at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute luncheon, where the elder Spielberg received the inaugural Inspiration Award. Photo by Kim Fox

The apparently harmonious family life was sundered in 1965, when Leah and Arnold decided to divorce. “The kids were very sad for a long time,” Arnold said, “but they knew that I would always be there for them.”

After the breakup, Steven moved with his father to Saratoga in the Bay Area; the two younger girls, Sue and Nancy, stayed with their mother in Phoenix; and Anne struck out on her own.

It was in Saratoga, during his last year in high school, that Steven was the target of vicious anti-Semitic physical abuse by classmates, though the father said that his son never told him about the constant harassment. By contrast, Arnold himself has encountered hardly any anti-Semitism throughout his life, he said, whether in school, in the service or during his professional career.

The relationship between father and son has had its ups and downs. Steven was fascinated by his dad’s World War II stories and later credited them with inspiring his “Saving Private Ryan” war movie.

But during Steven’s teen years, the two came to a parting, at least temporarily, according to Arnold.

Steven was working on his short film “Amblin’,” which later became his introductory card to Universal Studios, and commandeered the father’s living room to store and edit his footage.

Arnold, at the time recently divorced, was beginning to see other women and objected to Steven barging into the living room for his editing chores when the father was entertaining a date. There was a heated argument, and Steven moved out and relocated to Long Beach, where he was attending the local state university.

Arnold subsequently had a brief second marriage and is now married to Bernice, his third wife.

Counting the progeny of his four children and those of his subsequent two wives, Arnold says he has around 20 grandchildren and is on good terms with all of them.

Two wall hangings in Arnold’s home office catch the eye. One large photograph shows the gates of Auschwitz with a squadron of Israeli fighter planes flying overhead, autographed by the commander of the Israeli air force.

The second is a United States patent issued to Arnold M. Spielberg for an electronic library system.

The latter invention and skill underlies the Shoah Institute’s cataloging of some 52,000 interviews and 105,000 hours of visual history, a system conceived by Arnold and put into practice by Sam Gustman, the institute’s chief technology officer.

Arnold is credited with a number of breakthroughs during his professional career, among them early guidance systems and computer circuit designs, and the development of the first business computer, called the Bizmac.

He cites as his greatest contribution the first computer-controlled “point of sale” cash register.

Although Arnold remains very much his own man, being the father of Steven Spielberg draws “more attention than I deserve,” he observed.

He recalled traveling with his wife Bernice in France and stopping at a small hotel in the Provence region.

When he signed his name in the guest ledger, the owner called in his entire staff and proudly introduced “le papa de Steven.”

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