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David Geffen unplugged

  @FortuneMagazine July 25, 2013: 7:26 AM ET
GEF12 david geffen

Geffen in Beverly Hills

(Fortune)

David Geffen may be the most versatile American entrepreneur of the last three decades other than Steve Jobs, though Jobs himself sometimes called him for counsel.

Peerless in his ability to merge artistic and financial instincts, Geffen has been an agent, a manager, a record-industry mogul, a movie and Broadway producer, and a co-founder of a film studio. Many individuals, at different times, have been called "the most powerful man in Hollywood" -- Geffen was for a generation. He's been a confidant of high-ranking Democrats, as well as a philanthropist for medicine, the arts, and AIDS research. He was a millionaire before he was 30 and a billionaire by 50. He's amassed a fortune of more than $6 billion, the largest part of which is a nonpareil collection of postwar American paintings. He's given $300 million to the UCLA medical school. His friends range from Silicon Valley (Larry Ellison and Larry Page) and entertainment (Steven Spielberg and Barry Diller) to journalism (Maureen Dowd) and fashion (Calvin Klein). In the music business, where he first made his name, his clients have included John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Donna Summer, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana.

Born into a working-class family in Brooklyn, he dropped out of college and was driftless until he discovered the world of agency -- an entertainment niche that relied not on specialized knowledge but guile and relationships. Geffen combined those skills with an eye for talent, be it the voice of Jackson Browne or the onscreen charisma of Tom Cruise. His corporate creations have included Asylum Records in 1971 (which he later sold to Warner Communications); Geffen Records in 1980 (which he sold to MCA for $550 million); and DreamWorks SKG (of which he's the "G") in 1994.

Now 70 and retired, Geffen rarely gives interviews. But in a series of conversations with Fortune's David A. Kaplan, he reflected on a life in entrepreneurship -- what he called "an incredible ride." In his splendid apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan -- and with a view of his Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein treasures inside -- Geffen talked about fortuity and fame, allies and adversaries, as well as Apple, Hillary, yachts, and what it's like to have a celebrated song written about you. Edited excerpts:

Q: You started becoming David Geffen 50 years ago.

Geffen: My first job in the entertainment business was at 19 -- as an usher for CBS in Hollywood. All of a sudden I see The Judy Garland Show being taped there. And I thought, "Wow! Show business, this is good."

Did you have an itch to be in show biz?

I was a dumb kid from Brooklyn, but I was fascinated with it. I had read books about it when I was a kid, like the biography of Louis B. Mayer Hollywood Rajah.

You were in L.A., but then returned to New York?

I moved to L.A. the day I graduated high school. I just wanted to get away from Brooklyn and my parents. But I was fired at CBS the day J.F.K. was killed. Somebody said something nasty about him, and I got into a fight. I was broke.

How did you wind up in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency?

I was a receptionist at Richelieu Productions and asked a casting director how to get more involved in the entertainment business. She said, "Do you have any talent?" I said, "Absolutely not." She said, "Have you got any gifts whatsoever?" I said, "I'm giftless." She said, "Maybe you should become an agent." I said, "What do you have to know?" And she said, "You don't have to know anything!"

So?

I got an interview at the Ashley-Famous Agency and filled out the application honestly. And Al Ashley says to me, "You should've lied! Who would hire you with this résumé?" He didn't. So I looked in the Yellow Pages under "Theatrical Agencies" and the biggest ad was for William Morris. I said I graduated from UCLA. They hired me immediately.

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