The True Story Behind That Amazing The Fabelmans Cameo

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans waits until the very end to deliver one of the great movie cameos—and there’s a ring of truth to it!

Steven Spielberg with camera in John Ford Western Valley in The Fabelmans
Photo: Universal Pictures

This article contains The Fabelmans spoilers.

Do you want to meet the greatest film director who ever lived? That would be a loaded question in any context, but it has extra weight in Steven Spielberg’s new release, The Fabelmans. With the film being a semi-autobiographical portrait of the legendary filmmaker’s own adolescent years, the picture feels in many ways like a rare window into meeting the real Spielberg—or at least the Spielberg as imagined in the director’s own head.

While the film has a thin layer of artistic license (the main character is named Sammy Fabelman instead of Steven Spielberg, after all), anyone can see it’s a rumination by an auteur of a certain age in his early halcyon days. And for many audience members, Spielberg is the greatest film director who ever lived. Jaws, E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park—to name but a few—are considered touchstones for most children and adults to this day. We’ve grown up with these movies. But Spielberg? He grew up idolizing other masters, and in a genuinely giddy sequence, Spielberg highlights this fact with one of the instantly great cameos in cinema history.

During the final minutes of The Fabelmans, college-age Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) comes face-to-face with one of his idols, the irrepressible and cantankerous John Ford. And for film lovers who squint, you might recognize behind the eyepatch and gnashed cigar the faint visage of another all-time great film director, David Lynch! That’s right, the director of The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive is playing the guy who made The Searchers in a Steven Spielberg movie. Now there’s an unlikely triumvirate!

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The scene occurs after Sammy’s dropped out of college to pursue a career in the film industry. He gets his start by being hired as the “assistant to an assistant to an assistant” of Hogan’s Heroes co-creator Bernard Fein (who himself constitutes a kind of cameo for Felicity star Greg Grunberg). Old Bernie is the one who calls Ford “the greatest director” of all-time and takes Sam across the hall.

What follows is a bemusing sequence in which Ford’s secretary tells Sam he’ll have to wait potentially all day for Jack—and then suggests he lose the tie so he might last five minutes instead of one in the room with the old-timer. When Lynch-as-Ford finally bulldozes into the scene, he’s visibly inebriated, curt, and aggressive, sizing Sam up and forcing the lad to recognize where “the horizon” is on every Western-themed painting in his office.

It’s an amazing sequence… and it’s mostly true to what happened when Spielberg met Ford, as per the Beard himself.

In a story Spielberg has told more than once—including in the below interview segment where he chatted with a director of yet another generation, Iron Man’s Jon Favreau—there was a time when young Steven met Ford and was challenged to spot the horizon in several paintings. Although in real-life, Spielberg was even younger than the 18-year-old Sammy Fabelman; he met Ford when he was just age 15, getting this unlikely encounter because one of Spielberg’s cousins happened to be a friend of a friend of the Hogan’s Heroes co-creator.

This puts the encounter somewhere around 1962, which means it was probably just after Ford’s latest and final masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), had come out. That film, which we witness Sammy attend in The Fabelmans, revealed Ford’s more reflective and skeptical vision for the Old West that had come about in his old age.

Ford of course became one of the most acclaimed Western filmmakers of all-time well before that in his nearly 50-year career. But many of his early Westerns were romantic fantasies (and sometimes quite racist toward Native Americans). Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) were but a handful of the classic Oaters he helmed. These are movies that helped set the cinematic vernacular for not just the West but how chase scenes and action sequences were filmed, and how mythic American imagery was perceived onscreen—including by young filmmakers growing up on them, with sensibilities as disparate as Spielberg and Lynch.

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It’s also worth noting that Ford didn’t just make Westerns. He won one of several Best Director Oscars for How Green Was My Valley (1941), but that felt like a make-up after the traditionally conservative and patriotic Ford soberly adapted John Steinbeck’s anti-capitalist The Grapes of Wrath in 1940—which did not win the biggest Oscars of its night. And after serving as a World War II filmmaker, where he was essentially a battle photographer, Ford grew wearier of his own mythmaking later in his career. Arguably his best Western is an indictment of frontier racism by American settlers: The Searchers (1956). And in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart’s onscreen icon of the Old West is revealed to be a fraud; a fella who took credit for his romantic rival (John Wayne) shooting the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) dead.

Whether 15-year-old Spielberg was aware of these contradictions and paradoxes in Ford’s character is hard to say. However, he soon learned that the Golden Age director truly was as mercurial as his politics.

According to Spielberg, in his real-life encounter with Ford, the then-68 and cycloptic Ford came in not only drunk and smoking a cigar, but with lipstick kiss marks all over his face, which his secretary hurriedly brushed off before Spielberg entered the legend’s office. When the young aspirant came in, Ford had his legs up on the desk and asked, “So I hear you want to be a picture-maker?” He then gave Spielberg the test we see in The Fabelmans, demanding him to spot the horizon.

“When you’re able to distinguish the art of the horizon at the bottom of a frame or at the top of a frame, but not going right through the center of a frame,” Ford said, “when you’re able to appreciate why it’s at the top and why it’s at the bottom, you might make a pretty good picture-maker. Now get the fuck out of here!

It’s certainly not the tact that the now elder statesman Spielberg would take with younger filmmakers, but one senses he’s quite proud that he got one of Pappy Ford’s famed “f-bombs” hurled his way back in ‘62.

For the record, another important difference between reality and The Fabelmans is that Spielberg didn’t begin his career on Hogan’s Heroes. In one of Spielberg’s own little legends, the once aspiring filmmaker managed to talk his way onto the Universal Pictures lot after taking the tour once, and then pretended to work there for upwards of half a year before folks realized he wasn’t an employee. Rather than being arrested though, the chutzpah of the kid got him a job at the studio where he worked his way up within a few years to be directing television, albeit on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in 1969 instead of Hogan’s Heroes.

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You imagine by that time, he knew where to place the horizon.

The Fabelmans is in theaters now.