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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,244

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This is the grave of Sam Spiegel.

Born in 1901 in Jaroslaw, Poland (though it was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Spiegel grew up in a wealthy Jewish household. His father was a tobacco wholesaler and did well, allowing Spiegel to attend the University of Vienna, while his brother Shalom became a well known scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry. However, before moving forward here, it’s worth noting that Spiegel was a habitual liar and a con man and while he liked to say he graduated from Vienna, a lot of people don’t believe it.

Spiegel was a Zionist and went to Palestine in the 1920s as part of the Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist secular organization seeking to settle eastern European Jews there. He only stayed a relatively short amount of time before coming to the United States in 1927. The important thing to understand here is that Spiegel had the money to get around the restrictions of the Immigration Act of 1924 that effectively ended mass migration from eastern Europeans and from Jews generally into the United States. He was only in Hollywood for a little while at this time. He was interested in the movies and moved to Berlin to work as an adapter of Universal films into German and French productions, which I find somewhat interesting given that since they were silents, they could just change the title cards. Maybe it made sense to produce the films from scratch in the local context, I don’t know. In any case, when he remade All Quiet on the Western Front and showed it in Berlin, Nazis bombed the cinema.

Anyway, Spiegel got the hell out of Germany in 1933 and worked as an independent movie producer in other parts of Europe. In 1938, he left Europe entirely, first going to Mexico and then coming to the United States. It took him awhile to really succeed in the film industry. In fact, he was a con man, grifter, and sharper, specializing in forged checks. What better to prepare you for Hollywood than that? He certainly used these skills, such as they are, when he was famous too. In fact, Otto Preminger once said of Spiegel, “Don’t turn your back on him, you’re hair will be stolen.”

He first covered up his Jewish background by using the name S.P. Eagle. As such, though it’s not as if he was really hiding it from anyone in Hollywood, he producers films such as The Stranger in 1946, one of Orson Welles’ finest works and The African Queen. When he produced On the Waterfront, he started using his real name, figuring he was a big enough deal that he could do so. And let’s face it, production credits that just kept rolling in–Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Suddenly, Last Summer, I mean this is perhaps the best producer in Hollywood history, or at least he is in the conversation. He hated Hollywood and the glitz and cheapness. He also liked money. So there you go. But this is partly why he only worked on very specific projects, often with a European or global emphasis. He not only wanted to sell these films globally, he wanted to be associated with High Culture while still living in Hollywood. So Lean made sure that Bridge on the River Kwai would be shot in Sri Lanka and not some Hollywood back lot or that Lawrence of Arabia would be shot in nations such as Jordan and Morocco. He also was always on the lookout for foreign talent and discovered Omar Sharif in Egypt. He returned the favor by sleeping with Spiegel’s wife. Not that Spiegel had anything to complain about on this front…….

Spiegel was the worst possible producer in one very important way–he forced actresses to fuck him for parts on the literal casting couch. This is especially true on The Chase. I don’t know if that includes Jane Fonda or not, it may have been more the minor actresses but Angie Dickinson was in that movie too. Moreover, when Elia Kazan tried to rape Carol Drinkwater in order for a part, Spiegel backed his friend and worked to destroy her career. Most of the time, Spiegel was known to get all the many, many, many women he wanted through his charm–or so it was stated at the time. But did he use power too? Oh yes. And as he aged, he liked them real young. When Theresa Russell, who was all of 16 years old, refused to fuck him in 1976 in a casting session for The Last Tycoon, Spiegel went ahead and threw her in the movie but then privately threatened that he would destroy her career, although she did have a pretty solid career. Side note: Pete Townshend wrote “Athena” for The Who after he tried to have sex with her and she refused him too.

Spiegel was also the kind of guy who lost all interest in a woman once he had sex with her. So even acquiescing to his advances was no guarantee of getting a part. In short, Sam Spiegel was a creep of the worst sort, a model for Harvey Weinstein. I am sure Weinstein, who knows his Hollywood history, was well aware of this and saw Spiegel as a model.

Spiegel won three Academy Awards–for On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. He was the king of the Old World Charm, something that appeals to a lot of people for whatever reason. He was brilliant, urbane, and charitable. He always remained a strong Zionist and donated a lot of money to Israel. He was friends with Golda Meir. There’s a street named after him in Jerusalem. He was also a sketchy financial operator and a lot of money just disappeared in projects he was involved with. Oh yeah, and there’s there the sexual exploitation that he loved. In the end, it’s no wonder that people in the 70s such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and so many others thought they could get away with whatever they wanted–they were learning from the master.

The last film Spiegel produced was Betrayal, in 1983 and starring Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley. He died in 1985, at the age of 84.

Sam Spiegel is buried in Beth Olom Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Academy Award winning producers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arnold Kopelson is in Hollywood and Arthur Freed is in Culver City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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