Former concert pianist Leah Adler raised her son, Steven Spielberg, and his three sisters in Scottsdale, Ariz., lending her enthusiasm (and his father's camera) to his first productions. Today, at 65, she lives with her second husband, Bernie, in Los Angeles, where she runs her kosher restaurant, The Milky Way.
Q: Your son once cited Walt Disney as his "parental conscience." What part of him do you think reflects your influence? A: I gave him freedom. Steven and I happen to be very much alike. Our nervous systems, everything. You know how dogs have puppies and they're marked? Well, I marked my kids without even trying. I'm not interested in guiding anybody; I don't know how. I do know how to live, though. And everything Steven wanted to do, he did. We lived very spur of the moment; there was no structure. He has an amazing talent--this cannot be denied--but he also had the freedom to express it. Q: In what form did this freedom manifest itself? A: He was a terrible student in school. But I never thought, "What's going to become of him?" Maybe if it had crossed my mind, I'd have gotten worried. He didn't go to school. I used to always fake sick; so did he. I was so scared; why, I don't know. I wasn't afraid of my parents, my teachers; it was like there was a big, unknown world. I raised my kids exactly how my parents raised me. You're hungry? Have something. We had dinner at the table, but you didn't have to eat if you didn't want to. It sounds permissive, but it's really not. I'm a disciplinarian like you wouldn't believe. I can't stand bratty kids. Q: Are certain scenes in "Poltergeist" reminiscent of pranks your son played on his sisters? A: It's all true. He terrified everybody, but they loved it. I mean, baby sitters would not come into the house. They'd say, "We'll take care of the girls if you take him with you." Once I bought (Steven's sister) Nancy a doll for Hanukkah, and one night while I was out, he cut off the doll's head and served it to her on a big platter with a bed of lettuce and garnished with parsley and tomatoes. At this point Nancy didn't even freak out. Q: In which of his films do you see yourself most? A: "E.T." was very familiar to me. All scenes that take place in kitchens with the mother and the kids around the table are lifted straight out of our past. When my daughters and I go to any of Steve's films, there's always a moment where we all look at each other and go, "Oh, my God. . . ." Q: You will soon be featured in "Vanessa in the Garden," an episode of your son's "Amazing Stories," directed by Clint Eastwood. A: I have a cameo spot. It takes place in the 1890s and they didn't know what to do with my short hair, so I wear a huge hat that looks like maybe my hair is piled up underneath. I play a patron of the arts; that's all I know about the show. I don't talk. If I did have a line I probably would have flubbed it. Q: But you did, in fact, star in many an early Spielberg film. A: Oh, yeah. But that was stuff that was only seen by the rest of the Spielbergs. My car was a 1950 jeep, and Steve was too young to drive. So we'd go out into the desert, and I'd wear a fatigue outfit and a pith helmet with camouflage that we'd buy at the Yellow Front. You know, I've been many places and owned many things in my life, and the only thing I regret is selling that jeep. I still cry when I see "MASH."
Q: Did you enjoy your recent guest spot on "The Tonight Show"? A: I was good! I happen to love Joan Rivers. I like feisty, go-for-the-throat people. They asked me in advance if there were any questions that were taboo and I said no, knowing exactly what was coming. The first thing she went for, of course, was about (Steven's infant son) Max, about the fact that Steve and Amy (Irving) weren't then married, and what did I think about it? But after Joan pushed the question a few times, I found my mouth saying, "Hey, wait a minute. I'm a mother, not a judge." The house came down. Q: Do aspiring actors audition for you? A: No. But I do return scripts daily. The mailman now knows that everything is sent back. Some people who've auditioned for Steve's films will come in very sweetly to meet me. You know, if you want something very badly you'll try anything. If I were an aspiring something, I would not leave a stone unturned. I would do exactly what they do: I'd go for the mother. Steve and I are very, very close. But one of the reasons why we are is because I've never acted as a liaison. With me, the answer is, "No way. Never." People can't get to him through me. Q: What inspired you to open a kosher dairy restaurant? A: Most ladies in this business have a little dream somewhere along the line. Not this kid. I never even thought of it. But, you know, I think I can sell just about anything. Anything --even dirty socks. And if they were Steve's, I bet I'd get a fortune for them.