Steven Allan Spielberg was born on 18th December 1946 to parents Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler. He started making films at an early age, putting together a number of amateur movies before leaving school. His 26-minute film Amblin’ (1968) acted as a calling card, and it wasn’t long before he moved into television. It was here that he got his big break in the shape of ABC Movie of the Week, Duel (1971), which proved so successful it was granted a theatrical release in Europe. His US theatrical debut came in 1974 with The Sugarland Express and the rest, as they say, is history.
Spielberg is born to Arnold and Leah in Cincinatti, Ohio. His father is a computer scientist and his mother a concert pianist and later restaurateur.
Arnold gets a new job and the family is forced to move to Haddon Township, New Jersey.
The family moves again, this time to Phoenix, Arizona. The sparse landscape has a significant influence on Spielberg, who goes on to say: “I was raised in the desert, so I had an affinity for Lawrence’s love of the desert [in Lawrence of Arabia, one of his favourite films]. I understood his obsession with how clean the desert was. That’s what I always thought: that the desert was cleaner than the city and the neighbourhoods. Nature just swept all the debris out of the desert and kept it pristine.”
Spielberg becomes a Boy Scout and wins his photography merit badge by making a short 8mm film called The Last Gunfight.
Spielberg makes his second and third short war movies: Fighter Squad and Escape to Nowhere.
Inspired by a childhood episode in which his father took him to see a meteor shower in the middle of the night, Spielberg makes his first full-length film. Called Firelight, it’s a $500 science fiction epic about an alien invasion. Shown in Spielberg’s local cinema, it makes a small profit and goes on to inspire Close Encounters of the Third Kind 14 years later.
The Spielbergs move again, this time heading to Saratoga, California.
Spielberg makes a short called Slipstream, which focuses on bike racers. He estimates that he can film it for $5,000, but runs out of money. The project introduces him to cinematographer Allan Daviau, who he goes on to work with on Amblin, E.T., The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.
1968 – Amblin’
Spielberg writes and directs his first professional short film. Made for $15,000 and running for 26 minutes, it’s a calling card for the budding director’s career and would go on to lend its name to the production company he sets up with future collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
1969 – Night Gallery
Spielberg gets his first job in television when he directs a segment of the telefilm pilot for Night Gallery, a series produced by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling. The segment, called Eyes, focuses on a rich blind woman who connives her way into regaining sight. Hollywood legend Joan Crawford stars in the lead role, and despite her initial horror at being directed by the 21-year-old Spielberg, she eventually comes round. “It was immediately obvious to me, and probably everyone else,” she went on to say, “that here was a young genius.
1971 – Duel
Further stints on TV follow as Spielberg directs episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Columbo and The Name of the Game, but his big break comes with ABC Movie of the Week, Duel, which screens in November 1971. The film, which tells the story of a suburban husband who’s pursued by a murderous truck driver, is praised by TV critics and goes on to gain a theatrical release in Europe.
1972 – Something Evil and Savage
Spielberg’s ascent to cinema isn’t instant. Contractual obligations mean he stays in TV for a little while longer, making horror film Something Evil and the pilot for the Martin Landau show Savage.
1974 – The Sugarland Express
Hollywood finally beckons as Spielberg releases The Sugarland Express. Telling the real-life story of a married couple whose criminal past separates them from their child, it’s critically praised but struggles at the box office. Hoping for a mainstream hit, Spielberg is disappointed.
1975 – Jaws
Spielberg signs on to direct an adaptation of Peter Benchley’s successful novel about shark attacks in a beach town, and doesn’t look back. Despite a troubled production, Jaws is a huge hit, ushering in the blockbuster era and giving Spielberg carte blanche to make whatever project he wishes.
1977 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Going back to his childhood, Spielberg essentially remakes Firelight with a Hollywood budget. An epic science fiction spectacle with an intimate familial heart, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is another significant hit that firmly establishes Spielberg as a teller of grand Hollywood tales.
To escape the hype around the film, Spielberg holidays in Hawaii with his friend George Lucas, who’s also seeking solace from a mega-hit: Star Wars. The men talk about their films, what they want to do next, and Spielberg’s frustration at being denied the chance to direct a James Bond film. Lucas tells his friend that he has a better idea…
1979 – 1941
What goes up must come down. Teaming with future collaborators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Spielberg directs wartime farce 1941, but the production goes wildly overbudget and overschedule. The chaos off-screen shows on it. A loud, obnoxious film, 1941 fails to garner consistent laughs and while it performs well at the box office, it’s a bomb with critics.
1980 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition
Spielberg returns to Close Encounters and amends some errors he believes existed in the original. Controversially, he also shoots new footage from inside the Mothership, a decision made at the insistence of Columbia and which Spielberg would later regret.
1981 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indiana Jones is the product of Spielberg and Lucas’s trip to Hawaii and the adventurous archaeologist debuts with this rip-roaring adventure. A throwback to the serials of the 1930s, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a relentless rollercoaster that thrills audiences. For Spielberg, however, it’s a learning curve. After 1941, he looks to Lucas, who acts as producer, to rein in his excesses, ensuring that the film is delivered on-time and to a modest $20 million budget.
Spielberg and producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall set up Amblin Entertainment, and together they go on to make classic films such as Gremlins and Back to the Future.
1982 – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
During filming of Raiders in Tunisia, Spielberg is frustrated. He wants to make a smaller film and confides in writer Melissa Mathison, who is dating star Harrison Ford. The pair start throwing ideas around, and formulate a story that grows into E.T., the tale of an alien who strikes up a friendship with a lonely human boy. The film initially struggles to find a studio, with many dismissing it as childish, but it goes on to become one of the biggest, most beloved movies of all time.
1983 – Twilight Zone: The Movie
Spielberg pays homage to one of his childhood loves – TV anthology series The Twilight Zone – by directing a segment of this cinematic portmanteau alongside George Miller, Joe Dante and John Landis. Spielberg originally wanted to remake a classic episode called ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’, in which paranoia sends a quiet neighbourhood into chaos, but eventually lands on a gentler story about old age called ‘Kick The Can’.
Production of the film is hit by tragedy when stuntman Vic Morrow and two child actors (Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, both of whom were hired illegally) are killed on the set of Landis’s segment. A court case follows, but no charges are brought.
1984 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Indiana Jones series goes dark for the second instalment as Indy faces an underground death cult in India. Spielberg is initially buoyant about the film, but controversy surrounding its insensitive depiction of race and gender sours him. He goes on to say that Temple of Doom “contains not an ounce of my personal feeling.”
1985- The Color Purple
Spielberg takes on the first of a number of dramatic films by adapting Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’. There’s initial resistance to the decision, with many suggesting Spielberg has no place directing a novel about women of colour, but it goes on to win critical plaudits and garner 11 Oscar nominations (though not a Best Director nod for Spielberg).
Spielberg’s first son Max is born and he and first wife Amy Irving marry.
The Color Purple leaves the 1986 Oscars empty-handed, despite its overwhelming number of nominations. However, Spielberg is awarded the honourary Irving G. Thalberg Award, and uses the opportunity to highlight the value of writers and literature in society.
1987 – Empire of the Sun
Undeterred, Spielberg makes another literary adaptation in the shape of J.G. Ballard’s Second World War book Empire of the Sun. The film opens to a muted critical and commercial reception.
Spielberg’s future wife Kate Capshaw adopts son Theo. Spielberg goes on to adopt him too when he and Capshaw marry.
1989 – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Always
For the first time, Spielberg releases two films in the same year. Last Crusade is a rip-roaring adventure that seems to bring the Indy series to a close, while Always is an introspective remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe. Tonally inconsistent, the film struggles to gain critical or commercial respect.
Spielberg and Amy Irving divorce.
Spielberg’s new relationship with Temple of Doom leading lady Kate Capshaw goes from strength to strength and she gives birth to their first child Sasha in May.
1991 – Hook
Spielberg had considered making an adaptation of Peter Pan in the 80s, but the birth of Max pushed the idea down his list of priorities. He returns to the concept with Hook, but the film struggles to articulate its themes and is lost beneath overwrought production design. While it’s a hit at the box office, Hook fails to shine with critics.
Spielberg and Capshaw’s second child, Sawyer, is born.
1993 – Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List
In what is one of his most significant years, Spielberg makes two very different films. The dinosaur blockbuster Jurassic Park hits in the summer, while the black-and-white Holocaust drama Schindler’s List arrives at the end of the year. Both find success, with many critics expressing their shock at Spielberg’s ability to take on the weighty subject matter of the latter.
Schindler’s List wins seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Spielberg goes on to set up the Shoah Foundation in an effort to memorialise the Holocaust and those who suffered and died in it.
Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen establish DreamWorks.
Spielberg is given the AFI Life Achievement Award
Spielberg and Capshaw welcome two new arrivals, Mikaela and Destry.
1997 – The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad
After a four-year break, Spielberg returns to directing with another double-header. The Lost World: Jurassic Park picks up where the first film left off, but darkens the tone, while Amistad focuses on a mutiny on a slave ship and the legal case that followed. Neither finds much favour with critics, but The Lost World at least strikes box office gold.
1998 – Saving Private Ryan
Spielberg continues to explore his love of history. Saving Private Ryan redefines Hollywood’s depiction of war thanks to its bloody and brutal opening sequence, which shows the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day. The film picks up critical plaudits and is praised by veterans for its unflinching depiction of conflict.
A third cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is released. This one knits together the 1977 and 1980 versions, but removes the scenes inside the Mothership, which Spielberg feels were a mistake.
Saving Private Ryan wins five Academy Awards, but is denied Best Picture by Shakespeare in Love. Spielberg dedicates his Best Director award to his father, whom he had recently reunited with.
Spielberg directs the 18-minute short The American Journey, which is shown in the Naional Mall in Washington as part of America’s Millennium celebrations.
Spielberg is awarded an honourary degree by Brown University and given the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.
2001 – A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Following the death of close friend Stanley Kubrick, Spielberg releases A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which the 2001: A Space Odyssey director had previously intended to helm. The film is a chilly science fiction that Kubrick eventually passed on to Spielberg, feeling he was more suited to the material. Critics baulk at a perceived clash of tones – Kubrick’s cynicism and Spielberg’s sentimentality – but the film goes on to gain significant respect.
Spielberg makes his biggest impact on television with the release of Band of Brothers. Produced in conjunction with HBO and Tom Hanks, and based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers continues where Saving Private Ryan left off by presenting conflict in a new way and goes on to win numerous awards.
Spielberg resigns from the Boy Scouts of America’s National Advisory Board because of the organisation’s stance against homosexuality.
He is made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
2002 – Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can
In another in his line of double-headers, Spielberg releases the dark science fiction of Minority Report and candy-coloured caper Catch Me If You Can. His first collaboration with Tom Cruise, Minority Report is described by Spielberg as “a gourmet popcorn” movie and gets the warmer critical reception, though Catch Me If You Can is embraced as well thanks to its Saul Bass-esque title sequence, jazzy John Williams score and mature subtext.
Spielberg celebrates the 20th anniversary of E.T. by releasing a new version of the film. Digital effects are used to enhance E.T.’s appearance and remove guns from the film’s finale. Spielberg goes on to express regret over his decision, vowing never to retrospectively change his work again.
2004 – The Terminal
Spielberg returns to comedy for the first time since Hook with this charming rom-com about an immigrant stuck in an airport following a coup in his native country. Critics are surprised at Spielberg’s decision to make such a lightweight offering and quickly dismiss the film, overlooking its underlying critique of post-9/11 America.
Spielberg is awarded France’s Légion d’honneur by president Jacques Chirac.
2005 – War of the Worlds and Munich
Spielberg deals with the spectre of 9/11 more directly with a duo of films about terrorism. War of the Worlds is a spectacular blockbuster that strikes a chillingly dark tone, while Munich deals with the aftermath of the terror attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Together, the films arguably represent the most desolate work of Spielberg’s career.
Spielberg is honoured at the Kennedy Centre and given the Gold Hugo Lifetime Achievement Award at the Summer Gala of the Chicago International Film Festival.
2008 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The fourth Indiana Jones film is released to a muted reception. Critics complain of a languid plot, while fans online mock a sequence in which Indy escapes from a nuclear blast in a fridge.
Spielberg pulls out of his advisory role for the 2008 Summer Olympics in China because of the Chinese government’s unwillingness to get involved in the war in Darfur. “Sudan’s government bears the bulk of the responsibility for these on-going crimes,” he says in a statement, “but the international community, and particularly China, should be doing more.”
Spielberg and Capshaw donate $100,000 to the ‘No on Proposition 8’ campaign, which opposes the Proposition 8 amendment intended to outlaw same-sex marriage.
Spielberg is awarded the Hugh Downs Award for Communication Excellence by Arizona State University. “It is a great honor for me to receive this award, for many reasons,” Spielberg said. “First, it comes from Hugh Downs whose work as a communicator I have long admired and respected. Second, because the award recognized the significance of human communication, which is something we need more than ever in today’s world. And third, because the root of this award springs from Arizona, which has meant so much in my own early life.”
Spielberg is made an honourary Doctor of Humane Letters by Boston University and given the Philadelphia Liberty Medel. Former President Bill Clinton presents him with the latter award.
Spielberg once again teams up with Tom Hanks and HBO for TV mini-series The Pacific. It takes a similar approach to Band of Brothers, but throws the attention upon the conflict with Japan, which Spielberg’s father Arnold was involved in.
Spielberg and George Lucas donate some of their Norman Rockwell collections to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for an exhibition titled Telling Stories.
2011 – The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse
Spielberg returns to directing after a three-year break. The Adventures of Tintin finally helps him achieve two dreams: directing an animated film and helming a big-screen adaptation of Herge’s Tintin series. Reaction is muted, with many critics finding fault in the film’s motion-capture animation technology. Meanwhile, War Horse allows Spielberg to indulge his love for the works of John Ford and Victor Fleming as he adds epic scope to this story of a boy and his horse caught up in World War One.
2012 – Lincoln
Spielberg finally releases his long-gestating biopic about Abraham Lincoln. Written by Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, the film is hailed as a dialogue-driven masterpiece that shows a side of Spielberg many critics didn’t feel existed.
Lincoln is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, but wins only two: for Best Production Design and Best Actor (for Daniel Day-Lewis). It marks the first time a Spielberg film has won an acting Oscar.
Spielberg is named President of the Jury for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. He and his team award LGBTQIA film Blue is the Warmest Colour the Palm d’Or.
2015 – Bridge of Spies
Spielberg tackles the Cold War in this film about an American lawyer who defends a known Soviet spy. Compared to the work of Frank Capra, Bridge of Spies is seen as somewhat lesser Spielberg, but critics still review it positively thanks to its masterful craft and smart screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.
2016 – The BFG
Three great children’s storytellers combine as Spielberg films Melissa Mathison’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. A gentle and poetic effort, the film is largely ignored by critics who see it as slow and uninspired. Audiences react poorly as well, and the movie is Spielberg’s first significant box office disappointment since Empire of the Sun.
Mark Rylance becomes the second actor to win an Academy Award in a Spielberg film for his portrayal of Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies. He picks up Best Supporting Actor.