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Meet the Real Jeffrey Katzenberg

The studio chief is honored for his commitment to Jewish causes

by Tom Tugend

May 6, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Some may have missed it, but April 28 was Jeffrey Katzenberg Day in California.

Gov. Gray Davis read the proclamation at a festive American Jewish Committee dinner, though warning the 600 guests that they had only three more hours till midnight to celebrate Katzenberg Day.

For the AJC, which bestowed its Sherrill C. Corwin Human Relations Award on the evening's honoree, it was a chance to laud a lesser known side of Hollywood's leading workaholic, who's now partnered with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen as the ruling DreamWorks triumvirate.

"Jeffrey is a man of commitment, vision, passion and leadership," said AJC President Bruce Ramer. He cited Katzenberg's active involvement in the Motion Picture and Television Fund, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Also notable has been the studio chief's leadership in providing access and training to underrepresented minorities in the entertainment industry.

Among his numerous charities, "Jewish philanthropies are at the top of my list," he told The Jewish Journal recently.

The expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo was one tragedy close to everybody's sensibility, and Ramer, who had just returned from visiting refugee camps there, announced that Geffen had contributed $100,000 to the AJC's $1 million Kosovo relief fund.

Another tragedy, especially pertinent to an audience largely identified with the movies and television, was the Colorado school massacre. Katzenberg indirectly responded to widespread criticism of these media, by saying, "Hollywood gets blamed for so much, but no industry gives back as much as we do."

A third current topic, Katzenberg's $250 million suit against Disney chairman Michael Eisner, came in for some ribbing from actor Warren Beatty.

Announcing that he would donate to AJC a $10,000 bet he supposedly won from Katzenberg, Beatty suggested that the evening's honoree contribute any gains from "the little dispute" to the same cause.

In his response, Katzenberg played off his own image among co-workers, when he acknowledged that no one had ever linked the word "patience" to his working habits.

Indeed, among his colleagues and staff, Katzenberg is generally known as a workaholic and phoneaholic, who focuses on his goals with relentless persistence and concentration. Tales abound with 18-hour days, 150 daily phone calls, the 500 phone numbers he keeps in his head, the weekends spent poring over scripts, the three assistants who work in shifts from dawn to till late at night, and his addiction to Diet Coke.

Alluding to Katzenberg's intense schedule, Beatty recalled that when Katzenberg took charge of the Disney Studios, he told the assembled staff and employees, "If you can't come to work on Saturday, don't bother showing up on Sunday."

Among other stories surrounding Katzenberg, one has it that he traded his Porsche for an automatic-shift model so that he could have his hands free for phoning.

He has been said to schedule two breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners daily to meet with writers, agents and directors. A standing joke is that he and his wife, Marilyn, a Bronx-born former kindergarten teacher, had twins 16 years ago because it was more efficient than having one child at a time.

Katzenberg downplays such descriptions. "I am neither as interesting nor as driven as the mythology has it," he said. Told that one journalist described him as practicing a "Judeo-Calvinistic work ethic," Katzenberg shrugged and said, "I am not even sure what that means."

Standing 5-foot-7, Katzenberg, now 48, keeps his weight at 128 pounds through strenuous morning workouts (while reading scripts) and an annual rafting trip on the Colorado River -- invitations to which are among the most sought-after in town.

Among fellow Hollywood moguls, Barry Diller, his former boss at Paramount, said, "Jeffrey is as good an executive as exists in the entertainment industry. He's willful; he's committed to succeed. Pound for pound, he's the best there is."

Also a committed Jew, Katzenberg draws a line between his personal beliefs and his work. Talking to The Journal a few months ago, shortly before the release of "The Prince of Egypt," his animated feature on the life of Moses, he said, "I am an entertainer and storyteller.

"There are certainly other parts of my background that helped me tell the story of Moses. And, to a degree, my heritage and faith may have contributed to my instant acceptance of the idea [of making the movie]. But how each of us embrace the faith aspect of his life is a very personal matter. I don't want people's reaction to this movie to be influenced by my personal faith."

Katzenberg grew up on Park Avenue in New York, the son of a prosperous stockbroker. The boy was hardly a conformist. According to various profiles, he early on began to abhor "rigid institutionalized situations."

While not a good student at the exclusive Fieldston School, he showed an all-America entrepreneurial streak by selling lemonade and shoveling snow.

At 14, he managed to get himself kicked out of a boring summer camp by organizing a poker game. With time on his hands, he enlisted as a volunteer in John Lindsay's first campaign for mayor of New York and stayed with him for seven years.

A senior associate of Lindsay's remembers young Jeffrey as a tenacious pit bull, who "couldn't satisfy his intense desire to know every scheme, leadership trick, management technique and strategy."

When his contemporaries were smoking dope or protesting the Vietnam War, Katzenberg climbed to a responsible position in the Lindsay administration. Through the job, "I learned things about growing up, the fragility of people, and what it is to have, and not have, things," he said.

Bowing to his parents' wishes, he enrolled at New York University, but soon dropped out. Shortly afterward, he joined the entertainment industry, first in a short-lived stint as talent agent, then as personal assistant to top executives at United Artists and Paramount.

At the latter studio, according to one chronicler, Katzenberg distinguished himself by "his restless ambition, long working hours, and his ability to focus his steel-trap mind on one project, then move on with the same intensity to the next."

In 1984, he became chairman of Walt Disney Studios and played the key role in transforming Disney from a moribund to a dominant position in the movie industry.

Five years ago, after his famous falling out with Eisner, Katzenberg left Disney and became co-founder of DreamWorks.

At DreamWorks, with its "three strong, creative and ambitious principals, we said at the beginning that each one of us would be there for the other," Katzenberg said. He administers the studio and is in charge of the animation feature film division, while Spielberg heads the live action film division, and Geffen the music and record division.

However, the jurisdictions are not rigid, with Spielberg, for instance, in charge of animation production for television, and Katzenberg in charge of TV live action programs.

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