HOLLYWOOD -- Few people outside his family knew it, but Steven Spielberg was sick. Earlier this month, the 52-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker checked into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where doctors removed one of his kidneys, and no one in the media or the public had a clue.
Word got out last week, four days after Spielberg's operation, when publicist Marvin Levy released a statement citing a kidney "irregularity." Spielberg was at home recuperating and even "doing some work," Levy said, and no follow-up treatment was needed.
The fate of Spielberg's kidney is just the latest high-ranking entertainment health crisis in recent weeks, and the latest example of why illness doesn't play well in Hollywood. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, 47, has yet to return to work after being hospitalized for most of January with what officials described as a bacterial infection. And a month ago, late-night host David Letterman, 52, had emergency quintuple bypass surgery that will keep him off the air until next week.
In all three cases, the same publicity machinery that usually magnifies the importance of the tiniest Hollywood news items has proved deft at minimizing what is undeniably life-threatening.
News of Spielberg's kidney surgery came out behind a veil of vagueness that gave the media little but conjecture to report. With Weinstein, Miramax was initially mute and later downplayed the seriousness of his malady, comparing it with mononucleosis. Letterman's surgery has been public record from the start, but nearly every update from his publicists includes a joke crafted to make him sound as healthy and hilarious as ever.
The subterfuge spotlights an issue woven deep into the competitive culture of Hollywood, where even the whiff of weakness can negatively affect the bottom line. In some ways, it's the same for any powerful corporate or political leader: To admit vulnerability is to risk losing ground. But being ill has an added stigma in Hollywood, whose economy is driven by the currency of beauty, youth and vitality. As actress Kathleen Turner recently observed, in the entertainment industry, disease can kill a career.
"It seemed wiser to let people think I was drinking too much, rather than let them know I was ill," Turner told a London newspaper, explaining that she opted not to refute rumors that she was an alcoholic because she figured the truth would be more damaging to her career: She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. "In this business, they'll hire you if you drink, but take two steps back if you're ill."
Spielberg is not alone in seeking to control the perception of his health. Take the case of Robert Urich. He knows firsthand how the admission of mortality can halt even a flourishing career.
Urich was starring in the 1996 TV series "The Lazarus Man" when he was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. The show had been picked up for a full season, and Urich wanted to keep working during his treatment, but Turner Television balked and canceled the series.
"Hollywood is not known for its open-heart policy when it comes to this kind of thing. The notion of the big C scared them to death," said Urich, 53, who has been in remission for 3 1/2 years and is considering legal action against the network. Urich continued acting and doing interviews, even after his treatment caused the temporary loss of his hair.
"Even now, after this much time has passed, it's still a very touchy subject because Hollywood wants its men to be virile, strong and heroic. It's what we sell."