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The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood [Hardcover]

Thomas R. King
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 7 2000

Complex, contentious, and blessed with the perfect-pitch ability to find the next big talent, David Geffen has shaped American popular culture for the last three decades. His dazzling career has included the roles of power agent, record-industry mogul, Broadway producer, and billionaire Hollywood studio founder. From the beginning, though, Geffen's many accomplishments have been shadowed by the ruthless single-mindedness with which he has pursued fame, power, and money. In The Operator, Tom King--the first writer to have been granted full access to Geffen and his circle of intimates--captures the real David Geffen and tells a great American story about success and the bargains made for it.

The extent of Geffen's accomplishments is extraordinary. As a manager in the 1960s, he made the deal for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to appear at Woodstock. He discovered 1970s superstars Jackson Browne and the Eagles and masterminded Bob Dylan's famed 1974 tour; Joni Mitchell, Geffen's roommate for a time, memorialized him in her song "Free Man in Paris." He produced Risky Business, the movie that made Tom Cruise a star, and was the moneyman behind Cats, the longest-running musical in Broadway history. One of the most brilliant dealmakers ever to work in Hollywood, he became a billionaire shortly after selling Geffen Records in 1990, and he made movie history when he founded, with friends Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks SKG, the first new Hollywood studio in fifty-five years. And Geffen's influence has extended far beyond show business and into the worlds of Wall Street, art, real estate, and politics.

Geffen's personal journey is as compelling as his business machinations. Although he knew from an early age that he was gay, he hid his true sexual urges and for years attempted to lead a heterosexual life. In the mid-1970s, he dated--and almost married--Cher. Not until 1992, when being honored for his extraordinary financial contributions to the fight against AIDS, did he open the closet door. His coming-out was national news.

Beneath this phenomenal life story has always been a ferocious drive to succeed, a blind ambition that has left onlookers astounded. Geffen learned from his earliest days in the William Morris mailroom that he could cheat and lie his way to the top, and he has ever after lived unconstrained by traditional notions of right and wrong. Geffen has demonstrated time and again that he is willing to sabotage any relationship, business or personal, to get what he wants.

At his best, David Geffen is a fiercely devoted friend and a bountifully generous man, both privately and publicly. At his worst, he is a vindictive bully who lashes out at loved ones and colleagues with irrational screaming fits that leave his victims shaking and sweating. And though he has periodically attempted to better himself through psychotherapy and self-help programs like est and Lifespring, he seems always able to find new enemies to rage against.

For years, David Geffen has managed his own life story and rewritten history. But in The Operator, Tom King has set the record straight. Written with Geffen's cooperation--though not his authorization--The Operator is an explosive, illusion-shattering story that details the mogul's indisputable contributions to entertainment history while also baring the man behind the legend.

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DreamWorks cofounder David Geffen, as portrayed by Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King, is in various ways a saint, a visionary, and an absolute maniac. In his saintly mode, Geffen both raises and gives record-breaking sums of money to AIDS foundations, advises and supports the President and progressive causes, and races to visit old friends stricken with grief or illness (even the washed-up agent Sue Mengers, whose friendship could do him no earthly good).

As a visionary in the music, movie, and Broadway theater industries, Geffen orchestrates the sale of his record companies, which made him a billionaire, and brings you Laura Nyro; Cats; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Tom Cruise; the Eagles; Nirvana; Bob Dylan; John Lennon; Guns N' Roses; Saving Private Ryan; and Joni Mitchell (who immortalized his deepest yearnings in her tune "Free Man in Paris").

But the most impressive and detailed portion of King's landmark biography is Geffen's performance as an entertainment entrepreneur, and in this capacity he is apparently a visionary and a maniac at the same time. Not only does he discover all manner of talents and works of art and hire the best hit-sniffers in the business, he also masters the fine Hollywood art of the Machiavellian tantrum. Geffen allegedly softens up his prey in a business deal by offering up disarming gossip about his own life--his traumatic courtship of Cher, or Marlo Thomas, perhaps, or the male prostitute he is said to have boasted about being in bed with the night John Lennon was shot. At some point, minutes or decades into an apparent friendship, Geffen is shown betraying anyone, even best friends and mentors, in his relentless quest for winning a deal. King's book provides a ringside seat; it's fascinating to watch Tinseltown's titans slug it out in championship bouts, maneuvering, lying, reuniting, and seizing power like crazed Renaissance princes.

In one memorable encounter, Geffen protests that Sid Sheinberg of MCA is displeasing his DreamWorks colleague, Steven Spielberg. "David, stop screaming," says Sheinberg. "I'm not screaming!" Geffen screams. "David, you know what would make me happy?" says Speilberg. "Stop screaming." It turns out that Geffen doesn't even know the details of the deal in question. But nobody knows how to strike a deal--with mind and maniacal heart--like David Geffen. --Tim Appelo

From Library Journal

It's easy to see why David Geffen hates this book. King, who has written about the entertainment business for the Wall Street Journal for nearly ten years, portrays Geffen as a mixed-up, tantrum-prone, greed-driven, Machiavellian huckster. King clearly got a good deal of access to friends and past associates as well as Geffen himself before the mogul decided to withdraw authorization from the project. And Geffen apparently has plenty of enemies willing to tell tales of infantile and brutish behavior. King carefully orders these to reveal the chronology of Geffen's rise and subsequent manipulations; and plentiful personal anecdotes will satisfy readers looking for cocktail-party small talk. It may all even be true; but truth is not the only measure of biography. King's journalistic training is his biggest problem. His unnuanced, just-the-facts style does not sustain interest through more than 500 pages of narrative, and his insistence on resolving inconsistencies and explaining behavior with formulaic psychology results in a cardboard cutout of his subject. Most surprisingly from a WSJ reporter, Geffen's skills as a deal-maker are left relatively unexplored beyond retellings of who were the players and who got what out of the deal. There will be demand for the book, and King's early access means it will be the most fully researched source on Geffen for years to come, but most libraries can make do with a single copy of this workmanlike effort.
---Eric Bryant, "Library Journal"
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Paperback
Long before he flung open the closet door back in 1992 and declared his homosexuality, David Geffen made news. Big news. Really big news. His is the life --- from college drop-out to mailroom clerk to founder of record labels and a movie company --- that makes a biography such as the one Tom King has written so lengthy ... and often lumbering. King had access to Geffen and hundreds of people in and outside of Geffen's circle of power. This is Superman as Supermogul: Saving pal Calvin Klein from bankruptcy (it was Geffen's idea to out Marky Mark in that series of memorable underwear ads), paying for experimental surgery for dying pal Dawn Steel, wooing (and almost marrying) galpals Cher (whom King says was Geffen's "first fully-functional heterosexual relationship") and Marlo Thomas to finally settling boy with assorted boytoys, unselfishly donating some of his $3 billion to fight AIDS. So many details, so little substance. This is a meticulously researched, though ultimately superficial, look at the bravo and bullying, the temper and talent that have made David Geffen the builder, buyer and seller of the New Hollywood.
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4.0 out of 5 stars What Makes David Run? Sept. 3 2002
Format:Paperback
This excellent biography well researched and beautifully written has but one flaw: the subject. David Geffen is so contradictory, no matter how much information about him is amassed; we are still baffled. In keeping with the rest of his personality, I understand this book was "partially" authorized. That is, when Mr. King began the project, DG was forthcoming and enthusiastic, only to totally reverse himself later on and be bitterly opposed to the undertaking.
David Geffen is a poster boy for ADD. He is frenetically active, but with a remarkably short attention span. He disliked school because it wasted his time. He can be a caring friend or an implacable enemy. He can be embarrassing intimate with almost complete strangers, yet distant as a north star toward his own family. He has lived a gay promiscuous life, yet fell hard for Cher and wanted to marry her. Easy going Cher recognized him as a "controller" and walked away. He shows great generosity personally and publicly; yet hasn't a qualm about financially ruining friend and foe alike for a perceived slight, and sometimes just for the hell of it.
No matter how much you thank your lucky stars that you never, ever have to do business with David Geffen, you cannot help but be awestruck at his genius as a businessman, visualizer and strategist. He is beyond compare, and in spite of Mr. King's admirable dissecting of various business deals, it is impossible to follow Geffen's leap of ideas and creativity to make things happen.
In spite of David Geffen's striving for the most money, the best deal, and the top of the financial ladder, I would not call him a materialistic man. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't feel an emotional bond to his beautiful artwork and homes. Name him a good price and he will sell it to you--as is.
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4.0 out of 5 stars solid information, yet slightly biased viewpoint June 11 2001
Format:Hardcover
I burned through the nearly 600 pages of The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood in a couple of weeks. The book is a very quick read. It easily holds the interest of anyone who enjoys books outlining business deals and relationships...especially in the entertainment sector. Not only does it introduce readers to all of the big power players in Hollywood, but also provides much insight as to how one man interacted with the participants of this business, in order to make his own fortune.
I found the book to be great, in terms of providing a detailed history of Geffen's business dealings. It gave just the right amount of personal information as well in order to convey the human side of Geffen.
What was bothersome about the book was its overly negative attitude towards Geffen. It was painfully obvious that the writer was not an enormous David Geffen fan by 50 pages into the book. By the end, such negativity became cumbersome. It begs the reader to ask: `If Geffen was such a terrible guy, why did people continue to deal with him time after time after time?' I would say that that was the only negative aspect of the book.
Other than that, if you are interested in David Geffen, or just the business of entertainment, then I would highly recommend this one.
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Format:Hardcover
The book is a good read, mainly if you are a fan of gossip. The book by Tom King seems like his research was based on unintelligent gossips, more than a well-thought-out dive into the life of a very successful businessman. It's hard to analyze intelligent, successful people, just for the simple fact that they think so differently. Geffen is an exceptionally talented human being, with a very keen sense of business management. And like any super-smart person, in order to be very successful, one has to be ruthless sometimes. But, after reading the book, the reader is left with the feeling that Geffen is mostly ruthless and doesn't really have a good bone in his body. The portrayal into the life of a Hollywood superstar should have been more in-depth, more well-researched, and more intelligent. For people who don't know Geffen, I had expected to have a glimpse into the life of a magnate, who he is, and how he became what he is. But sadly, I didn't have a clue before, and I don't have one now. The book is not so bad to read, only as a biography....
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book
This book is almost impossible to put down. Geffen's life has been truly extraoridinary and it provides an excellent story. Read more
Published on June 15 2003 by H. B. Vess
4.0 out of 5 stars very interesting Book
I think Tom King did a Good Job here bringing out the Many Sides of David Geffen.you name it in Hollywood&Geffen has done it&done it with alot of Success. Read more
Published on April 24 2002 by mistermaxxx08
4.0 out of 5 stars What a Hard Life
My friends and I sometimes have conversations debating if you have to be a manipulative, take no prisoners, hard charging bully to make it to the top in the business world. Read more
Published on April 19 2002 by John G. Hilliard
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful insight into Media Guru!
I knew very little about David Geffen before I read this book. I only knew of Geffen Records prior to reading this book. Read more
Published on Sept. 21 2001 by John F. Kerry
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful!
Tom King presents an in-depth portrait of Hollywood powerhouse David Geffen, one of the three founders of DreamWorks SKG, the first new Hollywood studio in 55 years. Read more
Published on Aug. 15 2001 by Rolf Dobelli
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read
Great inside story about David Geffen with loads of references to other Hollywood players as well. Although the book focuses on Geffen, I feel I have a better understanding of the... Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2001 by marketingandmediareviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read!
If you are considering the entertainment business, as a path to riches then you must own a copy of Tom King's well-written book. Read more
Published on Aug. 2 2001 by A. Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars The Operator : David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New
Great book. Real interesting read. If you are interested in Hollywood and the personalities behind Hollywood this is the 1 book you cannont miss. Read more
Published on July 5 2001 by Bhavin V Merchant
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes Machiavelli Look Like Snow White!
I found this to be a fascinating, can't-put-it-down read. It's journalistic writing at its best. Tom King tells the story of David Geffen's life so far with many details and lots... Read more
Published on Dec 13 2000
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