Producer Hillard Elkins
Author David Rensin included the story of Hilly Elkins in his 2003 book The Mailroom:
I interviewed Producer Hillard Elkins at his Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills mansion June 25, 2002. His friends call him "Hilly."
Hilly is a short elegant American with a small carefully shaved beard, tuffs of white hair, and an occasional British accent. He has the manners of a British aristocrat. He's smart, energetic and tenacious, with a will of steel beneath the velvet glove.
Elkins works from an office/study at the front of his house. The walls are covered with posters, photos and memorabilia.
Luke: "You were the subject of the 1971 book The Producer by Christopher Davis."
Hilly: "Yes. Christopher followed me around for a couple of years during the 'Oh! Calcutta!' and 'The Rothschilds' period. He got his facts right. His opinions are his opinions. I'm fine with anything that's accurate."
Luke: "Where are you from?"
Hilly: "I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I went to public school, Erasmus Hall and and Midwood High School. I went to Brooklyn College. One of my drama professors was Skipper Davidson, the father of my dear friend and colleague Gordon Davidson who runs the Mark Taper Forum. We've recently made a deal to coproduce a slate of films for Showtime."
I checked out the Christopher Davis book on Hilly from the library and garnered this description: "[Hilly] is volatile, open, others-oriented, secret, disingenuous, candid, ethically metamorphic, honest, and sweet-tempered. He is also violent, energetic, unfailingly courteous, and notably charming. He is articulate and witty, generous, dedicated to work..." (The Producer, pg. 3)
Born 10/18/29 on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Hilly ran with a gang as a kid. He "was knifed a couple of times." He went to Hebrew school. He was an A student in high school.
"I spent the entire summer of my fourteenth year stoned. Pete Hagan rye. It was very cheap. Once I got stoned on a bottle of kummel because we were baby-sitting...and I chugalugged it. It was then that I peed through an entire set of the Sunday Times edition being held up by my friends on a street corner of Avenue N in Brooklyn. That was the last time I was drunk." (The Producer, pg. 130)
As a child in Brooklyn, Hilly remembers walking across Church Avenue. "I was crossing against the light of course, and out of the corner of my eye I caught this Department of Sanitation garbage truck bearing down - the colossal ego of the child - bearing down on me, and I kept walking into it. 'It's not gonna hit me...not gonna hit me...not gonna hit me.' Then it hit me. So I stopped believing in God. I threw down my tefillin and said, 'Fuck you!' The f-cking thing caught me by the coat, dragged me across the street, and I was in terrible pain, but I remember saying, 'Son of a bitch. The indignity...the f-cking indignity.'" (The Producer, pg. 7)
Elkins spent time in a reformatory holding institution called Youth House. "He had forged and cashed a check for $500, signing his father's name, and spent it at once like a lord, taking cabs to schoool, breaking bills of large denomination for his twelve-year-old boy's lunch. He told the cops he'd found the money in a handbag, the handbag on a subway... He was taken out of school...wearing his father's suit, had a hearing, and wound up in the holding institution. He stayed a week." (pg. 183)
At age 15, he was admitted to the All-City Radio Workshop. One summer he was a combination counselor and drama director at a Farband Labor Zionist Camp. He married at age 19 and got a job as an office boy at William Morris talent agency.
From page 11: "The man with the syringe [full of the urine of a pregnant woman] comes from California, is a good friend, and was once Elkins' analyst. Hilly's favorite color is brown, usually in combination with yellow. He is a compulsive eater of chocolate, and his analyst, when the producer was still int he agency business in Hollywood, tried to cure him of it by hypnosis."
"[Hilly's] telephone voice is deep and reassuring. He is an artist of telephones. The calls are the constant... Yet the tone of his telephone talk is usually one of sweet seduction: if it is persistent or bullying, it is also modest and attentive..." (pg. 17)
"Rarely now is this writer pressed by the staff with the history of the producer's former sex life and other adventures. The atmosphere is cooled... Hilly is married." (Pg. 171)
Luke: "How did you start in the business?"
Hilly: "As a teenager, I worked as a radio actor. Then, while attending law school, I went to work at William Morris as an office boy. I had what has been described as a meteoric rise. Within five months, I was working as an agent, and then as head of the theatrical department. Then I was drafted. I did my time in the Korean War by making various training films in Manhattan. I returned to the agency business. I didn't like it.
"I started my management company in the 1950s when most managers wore black pinky rings and fixed the lights in Las Vegas. At this time, actors, directors and writers didn't have managers. I started something unique. That was then and this is now when you can't walk out the door without tripping over managers, most of whom I wouldn't let do my laundry, let alone my career.
"I represented such actors as James Coburn, Robert Culp (Culp is still a client) Steve McQueen, Mel Brooks, Herb Ross, plus Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who ultimately wrote the score to the musical "Bye, Bye Birdie." I subsequently engaged them to write the score for "Golden Boy."
"Culp and McQueen worked in television in Los Angeles for Fourstar. I traveled back and forth between New York to California.
"For a few weeks, I became vice-President of GAC (General Artist Corporation) [talent agency] which became ICM.
"I became bored. I decided I wanted to produce theater. I ultimately produced a number of musicals and straight plays in New York and London. Goldenboy, The Rothschilds, Dolls House with my fourth wife Claire Bloom, and many other productions.
"I represented Sammy Davis Jr. when I was at the William Morris office. We were good friends. A few years later, I saw what was called a 'Midnight Matinee' at the Prince of Whales Theatre. Sammy kept the crowds going until two in the morning.
"Watching the performance, I had a vision, almost like a bad movie, of Sammy in Golden Boy. I thought the original story of the Clifford Odets play where a young Italian boy wants to get out of the ghetto during the depression had a resonance in what was happening in the sixties with a young black man trying to do the same thing. If you remember Golden Boy, it's the story of a choice between using his hands as a boxer or a musician.
"I told Sammy my idea. He liked it. I came back to New York and talked to Charles Strauss and and Lee Adams. They liked the idea. I called playwright] Clifford Odets."
Hilly gestures to a Leroy Nieman drawing on the wall of Clifford, Sammy, and Hilly.
"We discussed the idea and eventually Odets liked it and agreed that we could proceed.
"I then negotiated a deal with Lenny Hirshan. He'd been my assistant at William Morris and he was now the agent representing Sammy Davis Jr.
"I hired English Director Peter Coe who'd done a brilliant job with Oliver. I hired Donny McHale as choreographer. He was the first African-American choreographer to work on a Broadway show.
"We put the show in rehearsal. Clifford O'Dets unfortunately died. We had a serious problem but we were able to keep the show going based on our having Sammy.
"I brought in Paddy Chayefsky, a former client of mine at the William Morris office, and playwright Bill Gibson, an old friend of Odets. We were getting bad reviews.
"Chayefsky put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Close it. Forget it.'
"Bill just left. He called me a week later and asked if I wanted to hear the first act. I said yes please. He read it and it was marvelous. He asked if I wanted a second act. I said 'Yes, please.' We never made a deal. I never talked to his agent. Bill came down from Truro and read the first act to Sammy, Adams, Strouse, and myself. It was marvelous. He'd written it around the score.
"He asked if I wanted a second act. I said, 'Yes, please.' Bill went back to Truro and eventually returned with a second act. We loved it.
"I advised Peter Coe and flew him in from London. We all assembled. After the reading, Peter said, 'It's ok but nothing special. You can get any hack to do this.' I said, 'Ok, I'll get another hack. You're fired.'
"And I still had no deal. Bill came back with a second act. I loved it. I flew Peter Coe in from London. Peter said, in front of Mr. Gibson, 'It's OK but you can get any hack to do this.' I said, OK, I'll get another hack. You're fired.'
""Bill is 6'2" and a sensitive Irishman and his jaws were clenching as he left the room. I said, 'I'll call him.' We'd never talked about it before but he knew that I meant that I would call [director] Arthur Penn.
"The show at that time was over-budget and fraught with problems. As a result, I threw my back out and used crutches, a wheelchair, and a massage table when necessary.
"These were the days when you could put a musical on for a million dollars.
"Arthur Penn came up to see the show. At the end of the performance, we all retired to my hotel room. Arthur, Sammy, Adams, and Strause sat on the couch. I lay on the massage table. We talked for hours.
"I didn't know Arthur Penn well but given the condition of the show and of my back, I grabbed him by the shirt, lifted him off the couch, and said, 'Are you going to direct this mother or not?' He said, 'Of course.' He was extraordinary. This was his first musical and he did a phenomenal job."
Christopher Davis writes: "Golden Boy was a heroic flop. It wrung, after an endless out-of-town tryout period, good reviews from reluctant reviewers in New York...." (pg. 132)
Hilly points to a framed collection of dollar bills.
"Every day that Sammy showed up for rehearsal, Bill Gibson gave me a dollar. Every time Sammy said 'shit' without blanching, Bill gave me $5. You must remember this was 1964.
"There was a scene where Sammy was alone with a girl - a bridge scene; they...finally ended up kissing, and it was called the assassination scene because so many threats were received. It seems silly today: the first time a black man and a white girl ever kissed on stage, where it was intimated that they went to bed together." (pg. 133)
"We broke our butts playing one show at night and revising it at a daytime rehearsal. We played out of town for 20 weeks. Because we had Sammy, we sold tickets despite our dreadful reviews. As we changed material, the reviews kept getting better. We came back to New York. We did 20 previews. My job was to keep the critics out until we were ready to open. When we did open, we were a hit.
"Shortly thereafter, Arthur Penn invited me to his house and he played an album for me. I thought it was terrific and I said that it would make a great movie. He asked me to produce it. I pointed out that I had never produced a movie. And he gave me a piece of career advice. 'Same shit.' And that's how I made my first movie with Arthur Penn. He directed and I produced."
The 1969 movie was Alice's Restaurant, based on a song by Arlo Guthrie.
From a review on Imdb.com: "Anyone know of a good movie that was based on a song? Boy, I sure don't. Recall "Ode to Billy Joe" and "The Gambler". No exception here. Don't look for a plot here either. The story that is told in the song Alice's Restaurant takes but a few minutes to tell in the movie. Surrounding it is a mishmash of scenes (it would be a stretch to call them subplots, especially considering that there is no main plot) that have very little to do with each other. If you want to see what the world looked liked in 1968 through the eyes of a young, mild-mannered folk singer, this is your movie."
Hilly: "Arthur had done Bonnie and Clyde, which opened weak. Then, because of Warren Beatty's persistence, Warner Brothers released it again and it became a major hit.
"Arlo had recorded that album, Alice's Restaurant, for Warner Brothers. So we offered the movie to them. They passed. We went to UA (United Artists), where David Picker ran the show. He asked, 'How much?' We said two million. He said, 'Make the movie.'
"In the sixties, you went away and made the movie. You didn't have the studio executives on your back. UA trusted Arthur. We shot the film in Stockbridge, where Arthur had a summer home, Arlo lived, and Alice had her restaurant."
Luke: "How did you meet Claire Bloom?"
Hilly: "I knew Claire and [her husband at the time] Rod [Steiger] for years. If you were in film or theater in New York, you hung out. I was on my third marriage, which was breaking up. Rod invited me to have dinner with Claire and him. Rod was preparing to go to Europe to do a film. He said to me, 'Look after her.' I don't think that what resulted was what he had in mind. Claire and I became involved and fell in love and got married. The marriage lasted five years [1969-74]."
Luke: "Does she mention you in her book?"
Hilly: "Oh boy, does she!"
Hilly opens a drawer. "I will show you something. I won't give it to you but you won't find it anyplace else. I find it amusing. The London papers have a tendency to go over the top. This is one I've always..."
Hilly pulls out a photocopy of a newspaper article with this large headline: "Hilly stole me for a willing partner in his dark sexual games."
Hilly: "That was totally untrue, but the size of the headline would make you think it was World War III.
"Arthur was a close friend of Elaine May [actress, director]. I adored Elaine. She asked me to read a screenplay she had written. I read her script and liked it. She hadn't been able to get it on. I offered to produce it. With her help, I got Walter Matthau interested in starring. Eventually we got Paramount to finance it."
Here's a description from Imdb.com of Elaine May's 1971 film produced by Hilly, A New Leaf: "Henry Graham lives the life of a playboy. When his lawyer tells him one day that his lifestyle has consumed all his funds, he needs an idea to avoid climbing down the social ladder. So he intends to marry a rich woman and ... murder her."
Hilly: "It was Elaine's first film. Her first cut was long. Bob Evans reedited the film. It was released and got good reviews and good box office. Elaine wanted to sue for damages. I said, 'What damages?' You got good reviews and you're going to make a good deal of money."
Luke: "Edgar Scherick told me Elaine May was a handful."
Hilly: "He's right. She's brilliant and a handful."
Luke: "Oh! Calcutta!"
Hilly: "Ken Tynan [conceivor of Oh! Calcutta!] was a friend of mine. He'd wanted to put on the show in London but The Lord Chamberlain, the censor, would not allow it to go on.
"I represented Director Jacques Levy, who Ken wanted to direct the show.
"Ken wasn't feeling well. I suggested he could stay at my house [in New York] until he was feeling better. I went to California to close a film deal on The Rothschilds.
"The trip was a short one. We didn't close the deal. When I returned to New York, I stayed at a hotel so I wouldn't disturb Tynan in my house.
"Tynan went to David Merrick to produce Oh! Calcutta! in New York. David wanted total control so the deal didn't happen. I said I'd be delighted to produce the play. It opened in May of 1969.
"I raised $200,000 to stage the play. I used some of my own money.
"While we were in rehearsal, I was able to get a list of the people who were going to be on the Johnny Carson Show, which then came out of New York. I invited them to see the show. Some of them said it was marvelous. Some of them said it was a terrible piece of sexual crap. And whatever they said, sold tickets.
"Once we opened the show, we got the worst set of reviews in the history of show business. I had a party at Sardis. I called Claire in London with the reviews. She started crying. I said, 'Don't cry. It will be fine.' I decided that if I were going to go out, I'd go out with a bang rather than a whimper. In those days, theater tickets were $10. I raised the price to $25 a seat. I expected we'd run three nights and then we'd go home.
"Then the limos started rolling in. And the people started coming. And it became the talk of the town. We were on the cover of Esquire and Time and Newsweek. Fortunately, the mayor [John Lindsey] was an ally because there were an awful lot of people who wanted to close it. The show ran 20 years."
Luke: "Did it always have so much nudity?"
Hilly: "Oh yes, we didn't change anything. The nudity was primarily in the dance. Nudity was an issue with Actors Equity. What [Director] Jacques Levy did when we auditioned people, was first audition them as singers and dancers. If they qualified, he'd give them an improvisation which required them to take their clothes off. The better the actor, the less inhibited they were.
"When it came time for rehearsals, it was Jacques' idea to give them lockers for their clothes and blue robes, with 'Oh! Calcutta!' on the back and their names on the front. They were terry robes, that as you know if you've worn one, untie as you move about. On the first day or two, a lot of tying went on. By the fourth day, they didn't bother tying their robes. By the fifth day, they took their robes off. They took great pride in being able to work without clothes and not be self conscious. The opening number of the play was called, 'Taking off the robe.'
"This was a show about sex. It was not a show about politics or a comedy."
Luke: "How did you feel about the film version ?"
Hilly: "There was no film version. Some folks offered a good deal of money to show the piece in a limited number of theaters. So we videotaped the show. I warned them about the censorship they faced. They ignored the warning and were closed down in a fair number of theaters.
"I found a lab that could convert that to 35mm. I made a deal with the company and it went out theatrically. It made a fair amount of money. Of course they screwed me. If you do a show about screwing, you expect to be screwed."
Luke: "Let's talk about The Rothschilds."
Hilly: "Everybody thought I was nuts to do a play about Jewish bankers. Hal Linden played Meyer Rothschild. Michael Kidd did the choreography and ultimately directed it. Jill Clayburgh had a small part. The show was a tremendous hit in LA and out of it Hal got [a role on the TV show] Barney Miller.
"I wanted to do some plays with Claire. We were both fond of Ibsen. We thought a double-bill of A Doll's House and Hedda Gabbler would be an adventure. We did that off-Broadway.
"It was a success and did well on the road. We did a film version with Claire, Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliot, and Dame Edith Evans."
Hilly points to a photo on the wall of four men.
"I think you will recognize the players. It's Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr, Martin Luther King and me."
Above the picture is a framed letter from Dr. Martin Luther King to Hilllard Elkins, thanking him for Golden Boy and for coming to Selma, Alabama to march.
"I closed the show and we all went to Selma and marched. When we came back, I wanted to do something for Dr. King. I put on a show 'Broadway Answers Selma', raising money for Dr. King. We had Walter Matthau, Sammy Davis Jr, Dennis O'Keefe, Carol Burnett, Ethel Merman, Lou Gossett Jr, Tom Bosely, Victor Borge, Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Carol Channing, Martin Sheen, Sir John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Buddy Hackett, Barbra Streisand, Maurice Chevelier. I even got the Nazis to work."
Luke: "You got who?"
Hilly: "I'm kidding. I even got a lot of right-wing people to support Dr. King's cause."
We look at a poster for a show called 'The Meeting.'
"In 1989, I produced a show for PBS about an apocryphal meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X.
"I did the first Athol Fugard play, the antiapatheid 'Sizwe Barnzi is Dead'. I also produced Athol's 'The Island.' That refers to the island that imprisoned Nelson Mandela and most of his followers. I saw Athol's two plays in London and I fell in love with them and I was determined to bring them over [to New York]. I did in partnership with several producers. The plays got brilliant reviews. Nobody at the time could pronounce 'apartheid', let alone know what it was. Nobody came. We kept the play open. We then won the first-ever double Tony [award] for the two South African performers, Winston Ntshona and John Kani. Then everybody came, for all the wrong reasons, and saw the play.
"I also did a play by my friend Gore Vidal, who's one of Claire's best friends. 'An Evening With Richard Nixon and his Friends.' We told the truth about Nixon and nobody believed us. It was three months before Watergate. We called him a thief and a liar. We closed in two weeks. It was Susan Sarandon's first play on Broadway."
Hilly points at another poster.
"I produced the first Richard Prior concert film - Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1978)."
Luke: "Are you married at the moment?"
Hilly: "No. I am living with the young lady I've been with for 18 years, Sandi Love, a former costume designer, who is much too smart to marry a five-time loser."
Luke: "I found this quote by author Kurt Vonnegut. 'I sold the rights to Cats Cradle for all eternity to Hilly Elkins. He's never done anything with it, never will, and won't sell it back.'"
Hilly: "Interesting you say that because I just closed a deal last week on Cat's Cradle.
"It was in the sixties and Kurt was broke. Strangely enough, I wasn't, so I bought the rights for a good deal of money. He's quite right to be pissed off. It's one of my favorite pieces and I am going to get the bloody thing made."
Luke: "How long did you live in England?"
Hilly: "About four years."
Luke: "I don't hear many Americans using the word 'bloody.'"
Hilly: "I have this terrible habit, when I'm on the phone with someone from London, I get more and more British as the conversation goes on. Some of my best directors and wives have been British... Oh, never mind..."
Luke: "Who did you marry after Claire Bloom?"
Hilly: "A young lady named Judy Wilson, who I'd known for years. We married a year after Claire and I parted."
Luke: "Was she another's producer's wife at the time?"
Hilly: "She was married to Andrzej Gutowski, who produced Roman Polanski's first film. My marriage to Juliette resulted in a son named Daniel, who's a chef living in France. My older boy is a song writer and a book writer. We are trying to produce his animated musical Romeo and Juliet."
Hilly refers to another poster on the wall.
"I did a concert in Israel for the Huberman Centenial. Huberman was a German violinist who started the Israeli Philharmonic. I learned about him while having a drink at the Hilton with Zuben Mehta, who was doing an extraordinary evening at the Mann Auditorium, with some of the world's best violinists - Yitzhok Pearlman, Pincus Zuckerman, Isaac Stern. The Jewish music mafia. The concert lost a lot of money but I'm proud I did it."
At the end of the interview, Hilly shows me around his house. He shows me his collection of about 500 canes. I tell him it reminds me of Jay Bernstein's collection.
Hilly: "He copied that from me."
Hilly pretends to strike me with one cane. I grab it on his instruction. He pulls out a spike at the end and flourishes it like a sword.
I picked up Claire Bloom's book Leaving a Doll's House and read her sections on Hilly.
She describes him as shrewd, flamboyant, amusing, and unlike anyone she'd ever met. He exuded a threatening and intimidating sexuality. He also had an air of fearful anxiety, "the cornered look of a huckster waiting to be caught out." His extravagant lifestyle kept him just one step ahead of financial ruin.
When Claire's husband Rod Steiger, a father figure in her life, was preparing to leave for Russia to star in Sergei Bondarchuk's film Waterloo, he - in Claire's presence - called Hilly and asked him to take her out while he was away. Bloom was furious for being disposed of in this manner. She knew Hilly was a womanizer. Yet she felt strongly driven to Elkins' blatant sexuality.
Hilly and Claire went to dinner. Hilly was a buccaneer. He pursued her. Claire had never experienced a fulfilling sex life.
On their second date, they went back to his place and smoked marijuana. Her first time. She became turned on to the "neurotic turmoil that was Elkins' life."
Hilly demanded that Claire leave Steiger and marry him. She agreed.
The atmosphere in Hilly's office was like that of a bordello. Hilly was always coaxing investors over the phone. He was always on the hustle, short of funds. "He owned more shoes than Imelda Marcos and more suits than Liberace."
Hilly gave Claire a weekly allowance from her theater salary and used the rest of her income ostensibly to pay the rent and expenses. "This marriage had all the high living and dangerous excitement of a pulp novelette." Claire's daughter Anna was terribly unhappy.
"Elkins's entire being was centered on sexual gratification; his fantasies were alternately voyeuristic and sadistic. Inexperienced and sometimes apprehensive, I was a willing partner to his games stretching the boundaries of physical experience."
The rescue came from Hilly's success as a theatrical producer with two Ibsen plays starring Claire, A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler.
Claire bought a home in London. Hilly took great interest in its redecoration. He became friendly with the attractive owner of the local decorator's shop, Tricia Guild.
In her dressing room a few weeks later, Claire received a phone call from film producer Andrzej Gutowski. He said he had incontrovertible proof that Hilly and his wife Juliette were having an affair in Sardinia. Their affair had been arranged by Tricia Guild.
A week later, Hilly returned to New York with Juliette. Claire divorced Hilly. He married Juliette. They had a son Daniel. After three years of marriage, Juliette sought a divorce.
I ask Hilly about the above. He replied: