David Geffen is hot again.

In the 1970s, he was the news magazines' Golden Boy of the record industry, a mogul with a sub-30-inch waist whose eye for talent--Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, the Byrds--had made him a millionaire at 25. His association with high-visibility beauties--Laura Nyro, Cher, Marlo Thomas--helped make him the talk of the town.

And then, in 1976, David Geffen tried something new: not making money. But after four years he had to admit retirement was a flop. Now he has learned to live with things as they are.

The way things are is that Geffen Records, founded two years ago on the ashes of retirement, projects a $12 million profit for 1982. Its artists include Donna Summer and Elton John, big names from his old heyday; and it has Asia and Quarterflash, two of the hottest new bands in the business.

He's branched into movies. The first from Geffen Films is "Personal Best," a tale of women athletes on the fast track written and directed by Academy Award winner Robert Towne. This summer he starts shooting "Man Trouble," to star Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, and "Risky Business," in the hands of first-time director Paul Brickman.

His first venture into theater was "Dreamgirls," the hottest musical on Broadway. His second, "Master Harold and the Boys," by the South African Athol Fugard, opened Tuesday night in New York ("lyrical in design, shattering in impact," yesterday's Times said), and his third will be "Cats," Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of T.S. Eliot forecast to become the next ticket of choice.

Geffen is 39 now. He seems relaxed in deck shoes, painter's pants and trademark three-day growth of beard. The manner is ingratiating. "You want some water?" He appears, pixie-like, with twin bottles of Perrier.

The manner belies the mogul, but the view from his $1.5 million Fifth Avenue apartment does not. Outside his 17th-floor window lies the Plaza Hotel and half of Central Park. Behind his head is a Magritte painting, one of a half-dozen in this gallery-like Manhattan residence. Tiffany and Galle lamps adorn the tables. Edward Hopper's "Summer in the City" strategically faces his bedroom, where David Hockney sketches line the walls and John and Yoko and other friends stare from a few picture frames.

"I have never experienced a failure in business," Geffen says. "And if I am as careful and responsible in the future as I have been in the past, it's unlikely that I'll ever have one."

To be "hot" is the brightest award of ambition in late 20th-century America. The status of hotness is unassailable, and is acknowledged willingly and without jealousy. Perhaps we understand better than the source that the more brilliantly this light glows, the more quickly will its filament dissolve. This is, after all, an age of one-term presidents, one-book authors, fame in 15-minute increments.

But Geffen's light did not burn out, he turned it off himself. And back on.

When Geffen retired, he went from 100 phone calls a day to none, this mover and shaker and wheeler and dealer who had been fired from his first job for being "too ambitious." He dropped out of sight, this hawk with the metabolism of a hummingbird, this Volkswagen with the drive train of a Lamborghini. He taught courses at Yale and UCLA on the record business. He stopped making money.

Why?

"I don't want to talk about it," Geffen says, waving those years away. "I thought I was sick. I was diagnosed as having a terminal illness. I stopped working and started collecting art, and glass. After about three years, I had some more tests. It turned out I'd never even been sick at all. Sue the doctor, my friends said. But no. I went back to work."

"When you think about it, it's incredible what he's done after just dropping out like that, taking that hiatus," says Jon Landau, a close friend who manages Bruce Springsteen of the rival Columbia label, and who came to Geffen for advice when he was making his own transition from rock critic to millionaire. "His instincts are just phenomenal, he has tremendous insight and integrity. I owe a large part of my education to him."

Many do, for Geffen has made his career by making the careers of others. He started out as the agent of Janis Joplin, the Doors and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, advanced to manager of equally big names, and quickly founded his own Asylum label. He merged with Warner Communication's Elektra, for which he spirited Bob Dylan away from Columbia, the Band from Capitol, Joni Mitchell away from another division of Warner Bros. He took four performers from several different bands and put them together to form Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

But the litany makes him wary.

"I get more credit than I should on Crosby, Stills and Nash," Geffen said. "I didn't go to them, they came to me. What I did was to cause them to become a group, just as I caused the Eagles to become a group. In the case of Asia, I said to my people--the brilliant people who work at my company--'Let's try to put together a talented group.' In that respect, I caused Asia to become a group. But the music is theirs. And because they are a success, I am very grateful."

He not only managed Laura Nyro, but fell in love with her. And when her $4.5 million deal came through, he was left holding a Dear David note which said, "I love you David. Tell me that we can go ahead with the deal, be done with this nightmare and you and I be soulmates to each other."

He picked up Bob Dylan, brought out his "Planet Waves" album and watched Dylan take the long goodbye.

He says he keeps his distance from the artists now. "But I'm still friends with most of them. Except for Laura Nyro." Even Dylan? "Sure. I think he would say now that it was a mistake to leave me when he did. He was a songwriter who truly captured the imagination of the time. And times change."

Inside Looking Out

Geffen is known as a tenaciously loyal friend and business associate; it is a point of pride with him that he causes money to be made for others as well as himself. It is what he calls "responsibility." "I always took responsibility," he says. "I always lived up to my deals. I never made money before my partners--they get paid first, then me. With this philosophy, I can get an unlimited line of credit.

"I started Asylum Records with my own money. In 12 months Steve Ross at Warner's paid me $7 million for it. He made back all of that in seven months. How? Well, you can do that in the record business. One Eagles record sold 20 million copies. We made $30 million on that one record."

He crosses his legs, looks at the panorama out the window. By the way, does he ever get tired of the view? "I have a place in Malibu. A summer place in the Hamptons." An apologetic grin: "Maybe I'm not here enough to get tired of it?"

Geffen is said to be a spontaneous man. That is, if his boots pinch, he will take off his shoes and walk down Park Avenue barefoot. He asks the last question first. He comes, somehow, to the heart of the matter. He makes decisions quickly, activates them immediately, goes ahead without thinking because he has already thought. But in his beard, with his polite manner, he seems a pussycat. Not quite.

The phone rings. Geffen apologizes, and answers it.

Politely: "Hello?" Peremptorily: "Wait." Commandingly: "Please don't put me on any two-party calls." Irritated: "Don't make me go through this, please." Finally: "If it's important to Moe, it's important to me." Politely: "Goodbye." To his visitor: "Sorry."

He continues: "What I do with artists, with talented people, is to eliminate from their lives the danger of being cheated and abused. That's my role, that's what I do.

"You want an example, right? Okay, in 1976, I gave Carol Eastman $100,000. I just thought she was enormously talented, and capable of excellent work. I just thought, wouldn't it be great to be in business with Carol Eastman? There was no signed contract. Sure, my lawyers wanted one. I said no. We were friends. So a couple of months ago Carol called me and said her screenplay for "Man Trouble" was finished. I flew out to the Chateau Marmont to see her, and read it over her shoulder. It took six years to come in, and it's terrific.

And did he dun Eastman, the screenwriter of "Five Easy Pieces" and "The Fortune," along the way? Remind her of his investment? Drive her relentlessly to make good on his bet?

He seems aghast. "Oh no. All I did was give her support. Such as reminding her of how valuable she is. Such as reminding her of her talent. The accomplishment is all hers.

"You see, Steve Ross has that role in my life. When I'd been out of the record business for four years and it was time to go back, we made a deal in five minutes. He gave me an unlimited line of credit. He has confidence in me. And I believe I justify that confidence."

Chain Reactions

The primary linkage--in which Geffen was himself "discovered"--is often cited. It was the late 1960s, and Geffen was managing Laura Nyro and going broke, when he came into contact with Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records. Ertegun recognized in Geffen what Geffen recognized in Eastman, and asked what it would take to keep the young man going. Geffen named the unthinkable sum of $50,000, and Ertegun wrote a personal check on the spot. He never allowed Geffen to pay it back. But Geffen became Ertegun's prote'ge', their companies merged and in the end Ertegun was richer still.

Geffen smirks.

"It's not true," he says.

What's not true?

"The, ah, the Ertegun story. I made it up. Ah, somebody called me up, they were doing an article on him and I made up the story so he'd look good. He never gave me that $50,000. Years later Ertegun and I were having a big argument. He was shouting at me and I was shouting at him. Finally he said, 'Don't you forget I'm the one who gave you $50,000 when you were broke!' 'What?' I said. 'Don't give me that, I'm the one who made that story up!' "

Nevertheless, Ross hooks up with Geffen, Geffen with Eastman, in a chain letter guaranteed to pay off--as long as nobody breaks the chain.

Which brings up Robert Towne's suit against David Geffen, Warner Bros. Inc. and 30 others for $155 million. It charges coercion, fraud and defamation of character in connection with the production of "Personal Best," which started off as a production of Towne's independent San Pedro Productions Inc. and wound up a presentation of Geffen Films.

"I've known this guy for 13 years," Geffen said, his voice rising. "We were friends. Anyway, I've always been a sucker for talent. Last year he called me on the phone, crying. He couldn't get the money to continue with 'Personal Best,' and he wanted my help. I knew right then it smelled of trouble. But I brought this property to Steve Ross at Warner. They didn't want this film, they had already turned it down. The suit says Warner Bros. stopped financing the project after strikes halted work on it in 1980. But I caused them to take it, for me. I have made hundreds of millions of dollars for Warner, and because you can't cherry-pick, they took it.

"This film was supposed to cost $7.6 million and it cost $16 million. I heard about the budget problems I went out there and talked to Bob, and was very disappointed. With distribution this film has a negative cost of $21 million, and there is no way the movie is going to make that back. That makes me deeply ashamed. I am deeply ashamed by the cost, by going that far over budget. I am deeply hurt by what this film is going to cost Warner Bros.

"What lesson did I learn? The lesson is, you can try to save a drowning man. But don't try to save a drowning crazy man. He'll drag you under with him."

The film, in fact, is a typical example of what faith in Robert Towne, the writer of "Chinatown," might produce: It is original, provocative and generally admired by the critics.

But the bottom-line score is kept in dollars, and it is by the bottom-line budget that David Geffen feels betrayed.

A spokesman for Warner Bros. said the company does not comment on lawsuits in progress. Robert Towne could not be reached for comment on the suit.

The Possible Dream

How does he do it? How does he cause it to be done? Maybe the answer lies in what he caused to be done to himself.

David Geffen grew up in Brooklyn, where his mother ran a brassiere company called Chic Corsetry by Geffen. When he was 14, she told him to get a job and make something of himself. He attended four colleges, graduated from none. In the mail room at the William Morris talent agency, he dreamed of being the agent of movie stars. They had other dreams, so he wound up with musicians. He had other dreams too, and he wound up not much later with a million dollars on the one hand and Cher on the other.

And then he retired.

"It was pretty tough," he says. "For a while I was reading every biography I could get my hands on, looking for the answer. It was depressing, because every single one of them said the same thing: 'Your life is your work.'

"Those courses I taught at Yale and UCLA were really seminars on success. I only realized it later, but that's really what they were. You know, we're all really figments of our own imagination. You're inventing yourself all the time. There's no one who can stop you from being what you want. It sounds obvious, but it's true. In 1980, when I wanted to start up again with Geffen Records, everybody said, 'Oh no, David, you can't, it's the worst possible time.' But I thought, what better time, if you really want to do it?

For a kid who never finished college, Geffen has an obvious affinity for thought--even for intellectuals. He is, after all, a regent of the University of California as of 1980.

"It's remarkable that for somebody who is fundamentally unschooled, he has near-perfect taste," says Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic. "He has the best Magrittes, the best Tiffany glass. He has a remarkable ability to identify cant, and a fine nose for the bogus.

"Even in personal conversation, he always moves directly to the essentials, he passes the effluvia by. He puts the question to you. For example, I work at the New Republic, but I live in Cambridge, and I still teach a course at Harvard. I retain that, even though I'm busy. To do it, I have to stay up late. When we talk about it, David pushes me right to the painful reason why: Can't I let go of that little sliver of prestige that teaching at Harvard confers?"

And of course Geffen pushes himself, too, despite the "inner peace" Peretz notes. He works out an hour and a half daily.

Really? An hour and a half a day.

"Yes," he says. "An instructor comes in and puts me through my paces. Hey, who wants to be fat? I gave up salt, too, what the heck. It makes you feel good."

It's funny how Geffen apologizes.

He should be a nervous guy--that metabolism. But he doesn't smoke.

"My mother didn't smoke. My father didn't smoke. Maybe if they had smoked, then I would smoke?"

He doesn't use drugs, he doesn't even take a drink.

"I tried drinking when I was 17. I just didn't like it." Pause. "I do spindle paper," Geffen volunteers. Yes, and there are people who, while they are talking to you, will unconsciously tear a Styrofoam cup into little tiny pieces. Geffen doesn't do that. "But I know somebody who does," he says helpfully.

The Plaza glints in the sunlight outside. Central Park stretches away, springlike, rectangular, like a private view inside the head of Frederick Law Olmsted. Under the windows are beige windowseats. Cher used to call him "Mr. Beige." It was a crack about his taste. Cher should see him now, a Calvin Klein fashion show. Cher should see him now, among the Magrittes.

Coda

Out of self-knowledge, spontaneity; out of spontaneity, integrity. It is the greatest of the insurance salesmen who look you in the eye and say, "Now I'm going to sell you some insurance."

It's really very simple, being David Geffen. He is responsible. He causes talented people to fulfill their talent. He makes sure his partners always make money first, so everybody wants to be his partner.

But as Woody Allen once said about comedy writing: "It's really very difficult to do, if you can't do it. Almost impossible, actually."

"No one can stop you from being who you want to be if you have invented yourself," Geffen explains. As for failure, it comes to "people who haven't been careful, who haven't investigated, who haven't taken the responsibility. The avoidance of responsibility is the fundamental cause of failure."

Or, you can pick the next hot recording artist and let it go at that.

"Want to hear some music?" He jumps up and inserts a tape in his million-watt hifi. The song is an unfinished version of "Classic," by Adrian Gurvitz. "I think this is going to be a big hit," Geffen says, nodding to the rhythm.

Adrian Gurvitz?

Exactly.