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COMPANY TOWN : Spielberg's Legal Dispute Adds a Year to His Life

October 27, 1995|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steven Spielberg once directed a problem-plagued movie called "1941." Now he has a new problem: 1946.

That's the year Hollywood's top director was born, although one would never know it from the volumes of material written about him over the years or even from his own driver's license.

A long-simmering dispute with his partner in a gourmet doughnut business has brought to light this week an embarrassing revelation about the Oscar-winning director: He's been fudging his age.

According to Spielberg's birth certificate filed in Hamilton County, Ohio, the director was born on Dec. 18, 1946, at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati.

But in numerous media profiles and biographical listings such as "Who's Who" and "Film Encyclopedia," Spielberg is listed as having been born in 1947. In December, 1987, it was widely reported that he was celebrating his 40th birthday, with the New York Times publishing a lengthy story titled "Spielberg at 40: The Man and the Child" in January, 1988, to mark the event. Spielberg had actually just turned 41 at the time.

But it isn't just the press that gets it wrong. According to Department of Motor Vehicle records in Sacramento, Spielberg's birth date on his driver's license is listed as December 18, 1947, off by one year. His birth date is also listed incorrectly on his voter registration.

Fudging your age is relatively common in the youth-obsessed entertainment business, and altering it by a single year isn't much by Hollywood standards. Back in 1987, the Wall Street Journal found several different ages listed for producer Aaron Spelling.

But it is surprising to come from Spielberg, a revered filmmaker whose reputation for integrity is virtually unsurpassed in Hollywood.

The question is why.

Spielberg attorney Marshall Grossman and Spielberg spokesman Marvin Levy both acknowledged Thursday that the director was born in 1946, and that any references to 1947 are incorrect. But they both refused to explain why Spielberg never corrected it, or why he lists it incorrectly in documents such as his driver's license.

"I'm sure there's an answer," Grossman said. "Maybe he didn't care what people said about his age. He cares about one thing: making films."

But in a lawsuit filed Thursday, Denis Hoffman, Spielberg's partner in Designer Donuts, a Hollywood doughnut business, alleges that the age issue is highly relevant to him. He alleges that in 1977 he scrapped a potentially lucrative contract with Spielberg because he was falsely led to believe that Spielberg was a minor when the filmmaker signed the contract in 1968.

Hoffman financed Spielberg's first film, the 24-minute "Amblin," a critically acclaimed movie that launched the director's career. As part of that deal, Spielberg agreed to direct a movie for Hoffman at any point up to 10 years after the 1968 agreement was signed.

In 1977, with Spielberg's career in high gear thanks to such films as "Jaws," Hoffman settled any claims with Spielberg for $30,000, and in doing so gave up any right to get a Spielberg-directed movie. Hoffman says he gave up his claim because he and his lawyer were told by a Spielberg lawyer that the contract was void because Spielberg was a minor in 1968.

"Why else would Denis Hoffman give up one of the most valuable pieces of paper in Hollywood for thirty grand?" asked Hoffman's lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell.

Had Spielberg been born in 1947--instead of 1946--he would have been a minor because the age of majority in California was 21 until 1971. In reality, Spielberg was an adult in 1968 because he had turned 21 in December of 1967. Hoffman is suing for $33 million, the amount he estimates he could have made had Spielberg directed a movie for him.

Spielberg earlier this week sued Hoffman, alleging "financial harassment" over the years. Indeed, Spielberg says he's helped Hoffman over the years, including financing his doughnut business, of which Spielberg owns 20%.

Spielberg lawyer Grossman, who says the doughnut maker's story is "full of holes," contends that there is no mention of the age issue in any document related to the 1977 settlement.

"If age was such a big deal then, wouldn't a careful and prudent lawyer have insisted upon a written representation or done the minimum amount of investigation necessary to satisfy himself on that issue?" Grossman asked.

Grossman also said that at least some accounts have properly reported the filmmaker's age.

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