So here's Steven Spielberg, the man who defined blockbuster, the man with three Oscars, not to mention Emmys, Golden Globes and lifetime achievement awards. He's even got five honorary doctorates, the last one on Monday from Yale.
But during the fall semester of 2001, Spielberg wrote a term paper for his Natural Science 492 class at Cal State Long Beach, fulfilling a general education requirement to earn the one credential missing from his astonishing resume: Bachelor of arts, with an option in film/video production.
"He turned in his term paper just like everyone else," said professor Donald J. Riesh. "It was longer than most, well-written and no grammatical errors."
Today, 34 years after he dropped out, Spielberg plans to wear a $40 cap and gown his staff rented from the campus bookstore, sit among some 500 graduates of the College of Arts, and when his name is called, walk across the stage to receive his diploma.
"I wanted to accomplish this for many years as a thank-you to my parents for giving me the opportunity for an education and a career," Spielberg said in a statement. "And as a personal note for my own family--and young people everywhere--about the importance of achieving their college education goals."
When he flips his mortarboard tassel from right to left, the little film school at Cal State Long Beach will never be the same.
"People have told me, 'Oh, I didn't know Cal State Long Beach has a film program.' And now people in Paris and Tokyo are hearing about us," said Sharyn Blumenthal, director of the Film and Electronic Arts Department. "We were already climbing, and this is going to put us on the map. This raises the credibility of our degree."
Finally, when Blumenthal chats with folks from the American Film Institute, when she's promoting student films at festivals, she, too, will have a name to throw around, just as USC has George Lucas and UCLA, Francis Ford Coppola. And finally, one of the top three executives at DreamWorks SKG has a college degree. Neither David Geffen nor Jeffrey Katzenberg has one.
Not since Steve Martin put a fake arrow through his head during the 1989 commencement speech has Cal State Long Beach gotten so much media attention, said President Robert C. Maxson. Savvy enough to see a public relations bonanza at hand, Maxson wove in his favorite university facts during interviews this week, which included CBS News and the BBC.
"Did you know that there are 350 valedictorians on full scholarships attending Cal State Long Beach? .... Did you know that other celebrities came here? Karen and Richard Carpenter .... Do you know that there were 41,000 applicants for 7,000 freshman slots?"
But the most asked question at Cal State Long Beach this week is: Did Spielberg really earn his degree?
Yes, he wrote term papers. Yes, he had to take a few general education courses. No, he never sat in a classroom and took notes, completing all the requirements through independent studies.
And yes, he passed out of FEA 309, the advanced filmmaking class.
"Yeah, he got credit" for "Schindler's List," which not only earned Spielberg Academy Awards for best director and best film, but also satisfied his most important film school requirement.
"I think that counts as an advanced, 12-minute, polished film," Blumenthal said.
Assistant film school professor Rory Kelley, who never met with Spielberg, wrote a brief critique of two films--"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Jaws"--to determine whether this returning student had a firm grasp of lighting, sound, editing and script management. He did.
Federal privacy laws guarding student records, not a confidentiality contract with Spielberg, prohibited Kelley and others from revealing his grade or details of his work.
But let's just say that Kelley described Spielberg as the "star student" of his teaching career. "It would have been ridiculous to ask him to come back and make another film."
It took Spielberg about two semesters to complete the requirements, but talks over how to accommodate his special needs began about 18 months ago, when Spielberg first contacted the film school.
"The only reason that he gave is that he wanted to do it for his children," Maxson said. "It's obvious his motive is not financial or career-driven."
Spielberg, 55, first enrolled at Cal State Long Beach in 1965, but dropped out three years later, just shy of his degree. The following year, his 22-minute "Amblin"--about a young man and a young woman who meet in the desert and decide to travel together, becoming friends and lovers--was shown at the Atlanta Film Festival. That led to a contract with a Hollywood studio.
For his return to college, Spielberg was allowed to register under a pseudonym to protect his privacy. Only a handful of administrators and professors handling his courses knew who the man behind the false name really was.
One of them was Riesh, a zoologist and expert in ocean pollution off the Southern California coast. Riesh supervises upper-division science-related interns, who receive 3 units for working in the field and submitting a one-page resume.
"Let's see," he said. "I had two students at the Long Beach Aquarium, one with the Army Corps of Engineers, one at Vector Control and one at Amblin ... Entertainment, you know."
Over the course of the semester, Riesh met at least once in Spielberg's office, and the two talked biology for hours.
"We discussed quite a bit about the demise of dinosaurs--'Jurassic Park' stuff," Riesh said. "He told me about all the books he had read, and how he had watched hundreds of hours of footage of running elephants and giraffes to make the film."
They talked about astronomy--"E.T."--and marine biology--"Jaws"--and Riesh said he advised his student to continue to show respect for the environment in future films.
"He was very courteous, very humble," Riesh said. "He had his leg up on his desk when I came in, but explained that he had been riding his son's scooter and fell."
Students in Natural Science 492 are typically required to write a term paper about their on-the-job experiences, which Spielberg did. Their final grade also includes a supervisor's evaluation for dependability and the student's ability to follow instructions.
Because Spielberg does not have a boss, Riesh said, "I did talk to colleagues about his working relationships," but declined to name names. "And his office staff was certainly friendly."
Riesh also made another exception for Spielberg, allowing his resume to run longer than one page.
Upon completing his courses, Spielberg's degree check, like all students', was processed anonymously through administration. Spielberg's, along with about 6,000 others, received the seal of approval for the Class of 2002.
About a month ago, right before the big screening of student films, Blumenthal went public with their surprise graduate.
"We thought it was a joke," said student Tamara Roberts, 28, director of the 12-minute "Silent Awakening," about the relationship between a doctor and a patient. "Every time we would talk about graduation, we would say, 'Oh yeah, we're going to walk with Steven Spielberg,' and everyone would laugh, 'Yeah, right.'"
Then the official university press release went out.
The student store took a reservation for his cap and gown. "We just finished steaming it out. I think it's going to be delivered to him," a clerk said.
Maxson, only half-joking, suggested that perhaps Spielberg will donate the gown to the school, "so we hang it up like a football jersey."
The Daily 49er newspaper editorialized about student concerns over the media onslaught, warning administration that the hoopla "is doing nothing more than taking quite a bit away from every other senior that is graduating."
Not to worry. The media will be corralled, the photographers confined to a special two-level platform.
Film school graduates, meanwhile, have been told to behave themselves.
"We were pretty much told not to flood him with scripts, treat him like a regular student," said student Chaska Corvacho, 22. "He's actually going to be sitting with us. It's so great. You know, we're the only people in the world who can say we graduated with Steven Spielberg."