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Geffen, David 1943–

David Geffen

Principal, DreamWorks SKG

Nationality: American.

Born: February 21, 1943, in New York City, New York.

Education: Attended University of Texas, Austin, and Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Family: Son of Abraham Geffen and Batya Volovskaya.

Career: CBS Studios, 1961, usher; William Morris Agency, 19641966, mailroom employee; 19661969, agent; Tuna Fish Records, 19691970, CEO; Asylum Records, 1970, principal; Geffen Records, 19801994, chairman and CEO; DreamWorks SKG, 1994, principal.

Address: DreamWorks SKG, 1000 Flower Street, Glendale, California 91201;

A seminal figure in the entertainment industry, David Geffen was a billionaire who never graduated from college. Having worked primarily as a talent agent and music producer, Geffen had a precise eye for spotting talent and helped develop such stars as the Eagles, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana. Joni Mitchell based her song "Free Man in Paris" on Geffen. It is almost impossible to overstate Geffen's contribution to popular music. Not one to rest on his laurels, along with his powerful peers Stephen Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Geffen also launched the most ambitious challenge to the Hollywood studio system in some time. His life epitomized the classic ragsto-riches story. He used his brilliant drive to rise from humble beginnings, vowing to make it at all costs. A complex and often contradictory character, he was openly gay, open about his battles with depression, and seemed to use philanthropy to offset a predatory business nature.


Geffen's mother fled Russia around 1917 after the Russian Revolution and never again saw her family except for a sister who, years later, told her that most of their family had perished.

The news gave her a nervous breakdown and the Ukrainian immigrant was institutionalized for about six months. Geffen told Playboy magazine: "I was six, and the whole episode was confusing and terrifying for me. My mom went from having her own business to being in a hospital. It was embarrassing because all my friends thought she was crazy" (September 1994).

The Geffen family suffered financially, and although it had enough money for the essentials, Geffen recalls wearing illfitting clothes. His father, an eccentric career dilettante who could not keep a job, contributed almost nothing and his mother picked up the slack, fearing that her family would have to live on welfare. Throughout his childhood, Geffen worked with his mother in the family's corset-and-brassiere business in Brooklyn. Geffen credited his mother for forging his work ethic: "My mother taught me to love my work. I learned everything about business from her. I watched her work. She enabled me to work" (Playboy, September 1994). While his father, who died when Geffen was 18, did little to help the family financially, he clearly inspired his son to seek a life beyond mere survival: "Dad was an intellectual. [Mom] made the money and he read a lot. He wasn't successful or ambitious. He spoke lots of languages" (New York Times, May 2, 1993).


Geffen barely passed high school and dropped out of college, yearning for a job in the entertainment business. At 18 he worked as an usher at CBS Studios. He next landed a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency by falsely claiming that he had graduated from UCLA, because a college degree was required for the job. Leaving nothing to chance, he stole a letter from UCLA that arrived in the mailroom one morning, steamed it open, and forged a note on the university stationery to create the appearance that he graduated.

While Geffen's starting salary was $55 a week working in the mailroom, within five years he had become an agent and made $2 million in 1969. With initial clients such as the Association and Joni Mitchell, he went on to represent many of the stars that would define a generation of music, including Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Janis Joplin; James Taylor; and Bob Dylan. But Geffen did not just manage existing music acts, he helped to create new ones. And in the process he amassed a personal fortune. At age 26 he sold his first music label, Tuna Fish Records, to CBS for $4.5 million. In 1970 he formed Asylum Records, which quickly became one of the most successful record labels in the industry, featuring artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther, and the Eagles (the top-selling band for several years). Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications in 1972 for $7 million.

In 1973 he opened the famous Roxy nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. In 1974 he scored a coup by luring Bob Dylan away from Columbia Records, giving Dylan his first number one album (Planet Waves ) and masterminding his first concert tour since 1965. Geffen quit the entertainment business in 1975 upon learning that he had cancer. Shockingly, in 1980 he learned that the cancer diagnosis had been wronga turn of events that set him back on the path to making music. When Geffen Records was founded in 1980, Warner Bros. Records provided 100 percent of the funding for the label's operations, while Geffen retained 50 percent of the profits. Geffen Records, which produced artists such as Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Aerosmith, quickly earned a reputation as one of the most successful independent labels in the United States. Geffen sold the label in 1990 to MCAa deal that ultimately earned him an estimated $1 billion in cash and stock and an employment contract that ran until 1995.


Geffen acknowledged that he had a torrid romance with Cher, which began while she was still involved with Sonny Bono and working on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and he later dated the actress Marlo Thomas. By 1980, however, he had come to terms with his homosexuality, and in the early 1990s he publicly announced that he was gay at an AIDS benefit. Said one of Geffen's closest friends, designer Calvin Klein: "He just seems so relieved. He felt he could be a role model. Gay men are not necessarily thought of as the shrewdest businessmen in the world. He felt he should do this publicly as well as for himself and he's really much happier" (Guardian, June 5, 1993).

David Geffen ultimately became one of the most important forces in the gay rights movement, accepting numerous accolades and honorariums and becoming a loud voice in the fight against AIDS. When President Clinton was forming a policy regarding gays in the military, Geffen advocated against a ban. He lobbied Washington and took out full-page ads in newspapers.


A billionaire many times over, Geffen acknowledged that his two biggest personal expenses were his $26 million Gulfstream jet, custom stocked with potato knishes, and a $47.5 million estate in Beverly Hills that once was the residence of the Hollywood mogul Jack Warner. Ironically, Jack Warner's Warner Communications had enriched Geffen earlier in his career by buying his Asylum Records. Geffen was long fascinated by the house, and when he spotted the gates to the estate open one day, he drove in just to catch a glimpse. Years later Jack Warner's widow died, and a developer tried to subdivide the property, but Geffen reacted immediately. "All of a sudden I got protective about it. So I bought it, with everything in it, instantly. I just bought it with all the furniture, all the scripts, all the Oscars, everything. I mean, this is the home of one of the men who created the town and the industry. I was to tally enthralled by the world that this guy had created (Guardian, June 5, 1993).


Throughout his career Geffen stayed focused on music while consistently demonstrating a willingness to venture into other artistic enterprises. His track record of movie and theater hits is formidable. As a movie producer Geffen financed such films as Risky Business, Beetlejuice, The Last Boy Scout, Defending Your Life, After Hours, Lost in America, Little Shop of Horrors, and Personal Best. The plays he helped produce included Cats, Dreamgirls, Miss Saigon, and M. Butterfly, which was also made into a Geffen film.


David Geffen demonstrated that he could place his personal values above turning a profit, and he did not hesitate to end business relationships that he deemed inappropriate. During a controversy over the violence that rap music seemed to condone, if not endorse, Geffen stopped distributing Def American Records. He said: "It was consistently putting out records I found offensive. I'm not interested in making records about violence against women, and some horrible other images. It was a choice I had to make" (Playboy, September 1994).


In 1994 Geffen and partners Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg created what they envisioned as a multimedia force for the new millennium. They called themselves the "Dream Team" and their company DreamWorks SKG. Each of the partners, whose last names provided the company name, invested $33 million. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen provided $500 million in seed money, and Microsoft also invested around $30 million to develop video games. Geffen would lead the music division, Spielberg would oversee the movie sector, and Katzenberg would run the animation division. DreamWorks arranged a $100 million programming deal with ABC, a 10-year HBO licensing agreement worth an estimated $1 billion, and cofounded a $50 million animation studio with Silicon Graphics. DreamWorks announced plans in 1995 to build the first new film studio since the 1930s, just outside Los Angeles in Playa Vista.


Geffen reentered the music industry in 1996 and resumed his relationship with Geffen Records when SKG and its two new imprintsDreamWorks Records and SKGformed a joint venture with the record label Geffen founded 15 years earlier. Under terms of his 1995 partnership with MCA, Geffen Records and parent company MCA would share the profits and cachet that came with being associated with David Geffen and the venerable SKG team, and SKG's new imprints would gain distribution. MCA saw Geffen as a magnet for top artists and music-industry executives. Said a top music business lawyer: "I'm sure managers of superstar acts with expiring recording pacts have already called David. And any label executive in town would kill to have a job there" (Daily Variety, June 14, 1995).


Early on, DreamWorks produced a string of TV, musical, and film flops and ultimately canceled its film-studio plans. In 1996 the company announced its partnership with SEGA and MCA (now Universal Studios) to develop SEGA GameWorks (video-arcade supercenters featuring SEGA titles and games designed by Spielberg). But while Dreamworks initially fell short of expectations, momentum began to change in 1998. That year the company released the disaster film Deep Impact, Spielberg's Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan, and its first two animated films, Antz and The Prince of Egypt, both of which were successful. DreamWorks finished 1998 with the highest average gross per film of all the major studios. Later hits included American Beauty, which won an Oscar for best picture of 1999; Gladiator, which won an Oscar for best picture in 2000 and grossed $187 million; Shrek, which grossed more than $265 million at the box office in 2001; and A Beautiful Mind, a coproduction with Universal Pictures that won Dreamworks its third consecutive Oscar for best picture and grossed more than $140 million.

But Dreamworks continued to have troubles. A Web venture failed, and although the company routinely produced network pilots, as of 2004 the only TV hit to have emerged from DreamWorks was ABC's Spin City. In music, the industry where Geffen usually worked magic, hits were few and far between. In 2000 DreamWorks had only one album, Papa Roche's Infest, among Soundscan's top 50.


In 2000 a biography that Geffen authorized, The Operator, was published. Geffen handpicked his biographer, Tom King, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, but midway through the writing process Geffen stopped cooperating, although he did allow the book to be published. The book tends to portray Geffen as a bully who was willing to sacrifice friends to achieve his enormous wealth.

According to the biography, Geffen's feuds with other entertainment executives, including former Disney executive Michael Ovitz, were legendary. Said Howard Rosenman, a movie producer and friend: "David will do anything for you if you're his friend. But if you're his enemy, well, you might as well kill yourself" (Guardian, June 5, 1993). Some of Geffen's lore is likely the result of the petty jealousies that arise with such a dominant executive. Known to be immensely intelligent, despite never having graduated from college, Geffen was a multi-millionaire in the music business at age 25. He had a sharp memory and seldom took notes during business meetings.


Geffen and DreamWorks continued betting its future on animation. The studio began issuing collectible fish figurines representing characters in the 2004 film Shark Tale played by Robert DeNiro, Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, and others. Additionally, DeNiro agreed to screen excerpts from Shark Tale at his burgeoning Tribeca Film Festival. DreamWorks also started a Web site,, that featured games, free tickets, newsletters, and information about upcoming films, such as Shrek 2. Geffen claimed that the goal of DreamWork's animation efforts was not to make money, but rather to build a substantial library of popular culture. Said Geffen: "Steven Spielberg and I have tremendous amounts of money. You can't spend or even use most of it; it's just on some financial statement, and other people are playing with it. So I'm not in this because I need or want to make another billion; that would have no value. It's all in the doing, all in the journey" (Time, March 27, 1995).


Geffen was well known for his philanthropy. He was particularly passionate about gay rights and fighting AIDS, which he said must be everyone's fight: "HIV infection and AIDS is growingbut so too is public apathy. We have already lost too many friends and colleagues. I hope my gifts will encourage more people to come forward and give generously. In the face of so much death, we must do all we can to support life (Daily Variety, August 10, 1995).

Before he helped create DreamWorks, Geffen gave all of his profit from movies and Broadway shows to charities. He also gave two $5 million donations to the arts. He was notably proud that his foundation gave sizable gifts annually to many worthy causes that touched him personally, including AIDS and assistance to Ethiopian and Soviet Jews settling in Israel. Geffen was known to personally answer letters from men with AIDS or families of AIDS patients, some of them even including $10,000 checks. In 2002 he donated $200 million to UCLA's medical school, the largest single gift ever to a U.S. medical school or to the University of California. Geffen gave the university complete freedom in deciding how to spend the money. In a press release he said: "I have great respect and affection for UCLA, and my hope is that with this gift, UCLA's doctors and researchers will be better equipped to unravel medicine's mysteriesand deliver the cures for tomorrow" (Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2002).

See also entry on DreamWorks SKG in International Directory of Company Histories.

sources for further information

Corliss, Richard, "Hey, Let's Put on a Show! Start Our Own Multimedia Company! Get Investors to Give Us $2 Billion! Prove the Naysayers Wrong! An Inside Look at the Dreamworks SagaAct 1," Time, March 27, 1995, p. 54.

Ornstein, Charles, and Stuart Silverstein, "Record Donation to UCLA," Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2002.

Sandler, Adam, "Gotham AIDS Orgs Get $4 Mil from David Geffen," Daily Variety, August 10, 1995.

, "MCA's Dream Comes True; Geffen Reunited with Labels," Daily Variety, June 14, 1995.

Sheff, David, "Interview: David Geffen," Playboy September 1994, p. 51.

Weinraub, Bernard, "David Geffen, Still Hungry," New York Times, May 2, 1993.

, "Portrait: The Geffen Game," Guardian (London), June 5, 1993.

Timothy Halpern

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Geffen, David

David Geffen

Record company executive

Just a Poor Brooklyn Boy

From Agent to Executive

Hiatus and Triumphant Return


Recording executive David Geffen is a phenomenon even by Hollywoods inflated standards. The wealthiest man in the entertainment industry, Geffen has displayed an uncanny assessment of musical talent and sharp business maneuvers. Though his list of money-making projects includes comedy films and real estate, Geffen remains best known for his work in the music industry. He has proven pivotal in the careers of a diverse group of artists, from folk artists to album-oriented rock acts to modern metal groups.

Geffen became a precocious Wunderkind in the late 1960s, when he earned his first million dollars at the age of 25. He became successful because he could identify, advise, and guide potential superstar musicians. In later years he has retained his hold on an industry that caters to young people by delegating the responsibility for signing new talent to a small group of younger subordinates. Vanity Fair contributor Annie Leibovitz suggested that the difference between Geffen and traditional recording industry executives is that Geffen understands the artistic as well as the financial aspects of the business. He really is friends with the talent that made him his fortune, Leibovitz wrote. He can talk music and movies and theater with creative artists, and he understands their process.

Just a Poor Brooklyn Boy

Geffen has fondly called himself just a boy from Brooklyn who wishes he were six feet tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, as quoted in Vanity Fair. Fantasizing was certainly important to the son of Russian immigrants who grew up in a three-room apartment. Geffen was born on February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York. His father, a pattern maker, was often unemployed; his mother, Batya, supported the family by making corsets and brassieres and selling them from her home. Batya was so successful that she was eventually able to buy a building big enough for her store and several other tenants as well. My mother in her own tiny, little way was entrepreneurial, Geffen stated in the New York Times Magazine. Everything that Ive ever applied in my life I learned hanging around her store. I grew up learning my mothers ideas about integrity and business and negotiating. It never occurred to me Id be anything but a businessman.

Another world lured Geffen, however. He haunted the Brooklyn movie theaters, drawing inspiration from the lavish lifestyles of the stars, especially studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. In a Forbes profile, Geffen said: I looked at these moguls and the world they created and figured it would be a fun way to make a living.

For the Record

Born February 21, 1943, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Abraham (a pattern maker) and Batya (a corset manufacturer; maiden name, Volovskaya) Geffen. Education: Attended University of Texas at Austin and Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Record company executive and film and theater producer. Mailroom worker and talent agent with William Morris Agency, New York City, 1964-68; talent agent, Ashley Famous Agency, 1968; executive vice-president and talent agent, Creative Management Associates, 1969. Founder, with Laura Nyro, and president of the music publishing company Tuna Fish; president of Asylum Records and Geffen-Roberts, Inc., 1970-71; sold company to Warner Communications, 1971, but retained position; merged Asylum with Elektra label, 1973; vice-president of Warner Brothers Pictures (film subsidiary), 1975; founded Geffen Records, 1980; sold company to MCA, 1990, but retained position. Producer of films, including Risky Business, 1983, and plays, including Cats, 1982.

Awards: Produced more than 50 gold albums and 31 certified platinum albums, beginning in 1970.

Addresses: Office Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

His ambitions notwithstanding, Geffen was an indifferent student who graduated from Brooklyns New Utrecht High School in 1960 in the bottom ten percent of his class. The same day he earned his diploma, Geffen ventured west where he hoped to enter the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was denied admission on the basis of poor grades, but was able to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin; he lasted only a semester before flunking out. He returned home to New York for an equally short stint at Brooklyn College.

Early jobs as an usher at the CBS television studios and as a receptionist for a television production company also ended disastrouslyGeffen was fired both times. In 1964 he landed a job in the mail room at the William Morris Agency. In order to be considered for the position he had to lie about his college background. He told personnel at William Morris that he had graduated from UCLA. When he discovered that the agency planned to contact UCLA to corroborate his story, the resourceful Geffen kept watch in the mailroom for four months, until he was able to retrieve the colleges reply. He steamed the letter open, took it to a printer, had the letterhead forged, and created his own academic credentials. Geffen told a New York Times reporter: It was either give William Morris what they wanted or give up my dreams. I just dont believe in taking no for an answer.

From Agent to Executive

Taking advice from the head of the William Morris music office, Geffen began scouting talent among his own age groupespecially musicians. He proved to have a good ear, and the agency promoted him to junior agent after 18 months. In 1968 Geffen moved to the less staid Ashley Famous Agency, where he worked with such powerhouse groups as the Doors and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Leibovitz noted that Geffen quickly became a Talent Scout Extraordinaire with the best instincts about people.

Those instincts blossomed in the early 1970s, when Geffen and partner Elliot Roberts formed a record label, Asylum Records, supported by their own management company. They produced records with such artists as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt, all of whom enjoyed great success with the label. In 1971 Geffen sold Asylum to Warner Communications for $7 million but kept his position as director of the company. Two years later, Warner asked him to head the struggling Elektra subsidiary. Geffen dropped two-thirds of Elektras artists and signed new talent. Soon both Asylum and Elektra were thriving.

Hiatus and Triumphant Return

A brief and less-than-successful stint as vice-chair of Warner Brothers Pictures convinced Geffen that he was not suited for the standard bureaucracy of Hollywood filmmaking. His career came to an abrupt halt in 1976 when he was misdiagnosed with bladder cancer. Convinced he was fatally ill, he left the business for the less taxing work of teaching at Yale University and UCLA. Four years passed before doctors in New York City reversed the prognosis on his illness. Relieved, Geffen resumed working in the recording industry.

Geffen subsequently founded Geffen Records, an independent label promoted and distributed by Warner Communications. Artists on the starting roster at the companys founding in 1980 included Donna Summer, Elton John, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. An album by the latter couple, Double Fantasy, went triple platinum and won a Grammy Award for album of the year. Geffen was back in the game.

Always keen to good business, Geffen made a decision. At the age of thirty-three I stopped signing acts, he disclosed in Vanity Fair. I dont hold myself out to be a talent scout any longer. Im too old. Despite Geffens personal doubts, younger Geffen employees with somewhat radical tastes helped their leader stay at the forefront in pop music, signing acts like Guns N Roses, Whitesnake, and Aerosmith. In the meantime, Geffen branched into musical theater, producing some major Broadway hits, including Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, Dreamgirls, and M. Butterfly. Cats, which opened on Broadway in 1982, is still running.

By March of 1990 Geffen was responsible for 50 gold and 31 platinum albums. In a surprise move, he sold his label to MCA, Inc., for 10 million shares of stock. The decision proved momentous. Eight months later, MCA was sold to a Japanese company, Matsushita, for $6.1 billion. Geffen reaped a $170 million profit on the deal.

Vanity Fairs Leibovitz called David Geffen the man who can fix things, who can smooth things over. The man who can get people placed and replaced. The man whose phone call has the effect of a corporation. An equally fitting tribute comes from the lyrics of Joni Mitchells hit A Free Man in Paris, written about Geffen. According to Mitchells song, the tempestuous Geffen spends his days stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song.


Esquire, February 1975; November 1982.

Forbes, April 14, 1980; December 24, 1990.

GQ, March 1991.

Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1991; March 3, 1992.

Newsweek, November 20, 1972.

New York, May 17, 1982; January 24, 1983.

New York Times, October 3, 1982; October 31, 1982.

New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1985.

Rolling Stone, May 15, 1980; January 22, 1981; March 5, 1981.

Time, February 25, 1974.

Vanity Fair, March 1991.

Washington Post, May 6, 1982.

Anne Janette Johnson

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