Extraordinary family is remembered by Steven Spielberg's sister (2023)

Sitting in a darkened cinema, tears ran down Nancy Spielberg's cheeks as she watched her film director brother Steven's latest film, The Fabelmans, which hits cinemas in the UK this weekend.

On screen, her beloved late mother, Leah, and father, Arnold, were brought back to life in the most meticulous way.

Everything from the brooches on her mother's collar to the precise expression on her father's face had been accurately recreated.

However, in the same granular detail, it also reveals the painful breakup of her parents' marriage after her mother fell in love with her father's best friend.

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in a scene from The Fabelmans


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While the legendary Hollywood director often cites his childhood as a powerful influence on his films, surely this is the kind of harrowing family secret most would rather keep hidden?

"People ask if I'm embarrassed that all of this is being exposed, and my brother's first concern was certainly, 'How are the girls going to take this?' Nancy tells me, referring to herself and her sisters Anne and Sue.

'Steve wouldn't have gone any further if we weren't comfortable. We're the kind of family that's open and I don't think that casts a dark shadow. In a way I think it honors our parents.

“Many people have similarly difficult stories. I've had so many people come to me to tell me about their own parents' divorces and they found the film cathartic.' Nancy speaks from the New York home she shares with husband Shimon Katz, a businessman.

(Video) Growing Up Spielberg

Nancy Spielberg revealed this week her work on the film required her to dig deep into the family's memories

US audiences have been able to see the film since November, and The Fabelmans was nominated for five awards at this month's Golden Globes. Nancy was thrilled when Steven won Best Director and the film she was advising on won Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Her role was certainly not an honorary role. As Nancy revealed this week, her work on the film required her to dig deep into the family's memories -- an emotional experience for any child, least of all one with such a harrowing event as the Spielbergs' divorce in their storyline -- and to make sure that they were accurately depicted on the screen.

Watching the film, Nancy said this week, resulted in "hot tears rolling down my now 66-year-old cheeks like it was yesterday. We could almost smell [Mom's] perfume coming back to us - fresh and present, unlike the scents that fade from the clothes I've been keeping in a sealed box since she left us five years ago and trying on her to include their presence.

“Working on the film as a consultant on set design, wardrobe, food design, piano pieces and even script lines was like reliving every phase of our lives growing up. Nobody but us siblings knows that the paintings on the walls in the film are the paintings that hung in our house growing up, painted by our mother.

“No one but us realizes that the wallpaper in the kitchen in Phoenix in 1957 was the wallpaper in our kitchen, or that the books on the bookshelves were our books and the piano pieces were their favorites.

"How strange it was to feel the fear, anger and helplessness of a child facing divorce and yet have the wisdom of today to process it, forgive and understand that the heart has to do what the heart has to do.”

Given these extraordinary sentiments, it's perhaps easy to see why Spielberg himself says that after decades of hesitating to share the complex story of his parents' split, and now both dead, he finally realized this was a movie , which he was badly needed to make.

Gabriel LaBelle, Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger attend the UK Premiere of 'The Fabelmans' at the Curzon Mayfair

As Hollywood's most successful film director, Spielberg's hits are incomparable blockbusters - Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, E.T. – and in particular often show emotionally distant fathers.

Spielberg's alter ego in The Fabelmans is Sammy Fabelman, played by teenager Gabriel La Belle, an aspiring filmmaker who explains the roots of his film career but also struggles with his parents' split.

Sammy is the eldest child and only son - with three younger sisters - to Burt, played by Paul Dano, and Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams; both thinly disguised versions of Arnold and Leah.

While making the film, Spielberg, 76, said he often jokingly asked himself, "Is that just $40 million therapy?"

Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, from left, Michelle Williams and Gabriel LaBelle

(Video) Steven Spielberg on "The Fabelmans": A happy beginning

Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1946 and his family moved to New Jersey and then Arizona because of Arnold's work as one of the early computer engineers.

In the early 1960s he helped develop the GE235 computer for General Electric, which was later credited by Bill Gates as the inspiration for Microsoft Windows technology.

While Arnold was serious and a workaholic, his concert pianist, Leah, was volatile and free-spirited. "Our mother was Technicolor and our father was black and white," Nancy recalls today.

"She was dynamic, artistic and musical, while Dad was Mr. Pragmatist and always had a slide rule in his pocket.

"If you said something like 'Tell me about stars,' my mother would start off with a wonderful fairy tale, while my father would tell you they were gas balls and give you all the science behind them. In the film you see that Burt was hypnotized, charmed and entertained by Mitzi. For my parents, it was an attraction of opposites. Dad was my mother's stability.'

It was a happy childhood. Nancy recalls lying under her mother's piano, watching her feet as they pounded the pedals, and feeling the music vibrate through her body.

Nancy, the youngest of the four Spielberg siblings, says she was nine and Steven was 19 when her parents told her they were getting divorced. "I remember falling on the floor and crying hysterically. I was so angry and scared and hurt and my first thought was, 'I'm running away from home. I'm not going to live with either of them.” At the time, we thought it was my father's idea, and father made us think so. He always protected my mother.

“I was very impressed when Burt picks up an image of Mitzi and Uncle Bennie (the character who plays Bernie Adler, her mother's love and her father's best friend) in the film and you can see the pain pouring down his face. That was just like Dad.'

Spielberg said the film helped bring his mother and father back. “It has also brought me closer to my sisters than I ever thought possible. It was worth making the film for that.”

Her father and Steven moved to Los Angeles, where Arnold rose steadily in the burgeoning computer business.

"Steve just wanted to do movies, so he went to LA with our dad. But as the youngest, my sisters and I stayed with our mother.'

Her older siblings knew of the reasons for the divorce, but on the way back to Arizona, Nancy learned of the existence of Bernie, whom the children had only known as a family friend for years. "We were on the train and Mom said, 'I'm in love with Bernie.'

'I was angry. I walked to the other end of the train where there was a dining car and stayed there for hours. I just stared out the window. I knew there would be a change in sleeping arrangements.'

Part of her confusion, she says, was that Bernie, a bachelor who had never married for as long as she could remember, was part of the family.

'He took us for rides in the desert. He bought us our first Barbie dolls. He would come to our house even when my parents were still married, pick up my sister Sue, put her on the fridge and go outside. She screamed and laughed because she couldn't come down.

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"Bernie has been there since my earliest memories."

In The Fabelmans, Sammy uncovers his mother's relationship with Uncle Bernie by seeing his home films holding hands in the background as he edits them.

This mirrored real life, according to Nancy, who says her mother and her father's best friend behaved decently until they confessed their feelings to the family.

"There was no hanky panky, nothing but holding hands or a hug because Bernie had very high morals," she says.

Spielberg has previously spoken out about being estranged from his father for many years, blaming him for the divorce

Thankfully, Nancy says she's fallen in love with Bernie.

“When we girls moved back to mom, they started dating. It was an old-fashioned date where they sat outside in the car and made out.

"To say goodnight, my sister Sue and I went to the car and cleared our throats so we could end the hug.

"As soon as they got together, they were madly in love and stayed so."

Her mother and Bernie later married and were together for 28 years until his death in 1995. Her father had a brief second marriage before marrying third wife Bernice Colner in 1997 until her death in 2016.

"After his death, my mom, dad, and stepmom Berniece started hanging out together. The three of you went to concerts until my stepmother died.«

Extraordinarily, she reveals, "mom and dad got back together after the deaths of their respective spouses." It set the stage for a happier life later: She recalls a family trip in 2016 when her father and mother, Nancy and her sisters, and her famous film director brother drove past the old family home in Arizona.

"Steve is really shy about these things but we knocked on the door and Steve asked if we could come in and the woman who lived there said yes.

"So we went in, walked through the rooms and kept saying, 'Do you remember when we did this and that?' We had such a wonderful, nostalgic time.'

Spielberg has previously spoken out about being estranged from his father for many years, blaming him for the divorce.

"They got tangled up a lot because, at least in the beginning, my dad used to tell him to get a real job," says Nancy.

"So yeah Steve and my dad had a rough time but boy did my brother make it up to him? They became inseparable. Dad was on every set. My brother gave Dad scripts to read and asked him to help him decide which films to do.

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"Thanks to Steve, Dad has traveled all over the world and had the most wonderful life."

Leah died in 2019 at the age of 97, while Arnold lived for a year and died at the proud age of 103.

Before her death, both parents encouraged their son to tell their unusual story. "Steven didn't want to do it as long as our parents were alive. Dad was hurt by it - why would he want to rub it in his face? But now is the right time.”

He was thrilled to have his sisters' support in the production of the film. “He wanted us to speak to the wardrobe department and set design. We [had] kept my mom's apartment in LA, and I pulled out the books that Steve had written in when he was a little kid learning to write his name. They were placed on the set. I pulled out Mom's cookbooks and her pictures."

Before her death, both parents encouraged their son to tell their unusual story

Spielberg's sisters were particularly helpful with their mother's wardrobe. "Because he was a boy, Steve didn't remember anything useful about what my mom wore, but we did remember the ladybug pins on her Peter Pan collar and all of her favorite styles."

For Nancy, what was particularly exciting was seeing a recreation of the New Jersey family home where the Spielbergs lived in the 1950s.

"I was the youngest and didn't remember this house, but I was allowed to walk through it, sit on the couch in the living room and imagine my whole family there."

Nancy, herself a successful film producer whose next production is Closed Circuit, a powerful account of a 2016 terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, has now seen her brother's film several times.

"Michelle [Williams] really got my mother's manners — the way she put her hand on her cheek, the way she looked at us or came in to hug us and call us Dolly, which is what she used to call everyone," she says .

It is noteworthy that the Spielberg children survived the emotional trauma relatively unscathed.

"We still had both parents and were never stuck in the middle, used as pawns.

"Our divorce wasn't an ugly divorce — there were no villains — but it was a painful divorce because there was still so much love invested and love hurts.

"My father was more elegant about it than Bernie because Bernie felt guilty about it. My father could be stoic.

But Mom always said "guilt is a wasted emotion" and taught us not to dwell on things and move forward with a positive attitude."

Spielberg said the film helped bring his mother and father back. “It has also brought me closer to my sisters than I ever thought possible. It was worth making the film for that.”

"Steve gave us the great gift of seeing our parents again. It was an emotional roller coaster, but comforting in many ways,” agrees Nancy.

(Video) Spielberg’s Story: The Life And Career Of Steven Spielberg (Full Documentary)

"With the Fabelmans, I can always go back and visit them."


Did Spielberg's mom marry Benny? ›

At age 16, he learned that his mother was in love with a close family friend, whom Spielberg regarded as an uncle. Spielberg's mother and his father Arnold would eventually divorce; Leah married that family friend, Bernie Adler, in 1967.

How much of The Fabelmans is autobiographical? ›

The story uses fictional characters but is all drawn as clear parallels between Spielberg and his own family. The Fabelmans is a great Spielberg movie, and also one of his most personal.

Does Steven Spielberg have a sister? ›

Steven Spielberg

Did Spielberg ever meet John Ford? ›

Listen to Steven Spielberg recount his childhood meeting with his lifelong hero John Ford. It's one of the best stories of any kind you'll ever hear, and if you love Ford, you'll cherish this story.

How much of The Fabelmans is based on Spielberg's life? ›

In answering the question, "Is The Fabelmans based on a true story?" we learned that this scene is taken directly from Steven Spielberg's life. Like in the movie, he met director John Ford at age 15. Steven was in Los Angeles visiting his second cousins, one of whom had a contact in the TV business.

Is Fabelmans based on Spielberg's life? ›

Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans true story is based on his own childhood and introduction to filmmaking in post-war America.


1. The Fabelmans - Steven Spielberg & John Williams Featurette
(Universal Pictures)
2. A Tribute to Director Steven Spielberg | From the DGA Archive
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3. The Fabelmans | Official Trailer [HD]
(Universal Pictures)
4. Steven Spielberg's Speech on last shooting day of The Fabelmans #shorts
(Outstanding Screenplays)
5. Seth Rogen made Steven Spielberg CRY UNCONTROLLABLY on set of The Fabelmans #shorts
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6. The Making of E.T. with Steven Spielberg
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