PORTRAIT OF A MAN WITH A VERY NICE PROBLEM
ANY MAN who marries an exceptionally beautiful woman automatically marries himself some problems, and a man who marries an exceptionally beautiful actress, as a short look at Hollywood’s marital history will confirm, must have nightmares. Bill Freedman, a short guy who looks a little like Mickey Mouse, has faced this second handicap bravely and, in the last couple of years, has made it seem almost as if it were no handicap at all. In his young manhood Freedman was known mainly as “Ben Freedman’s son." Then he married and immediately became known as “Toby Robins’ husband.” But he is now entering a third stage as Mr. William Freedman, Broadway producer.
This month, Mr. and Mrs. Freedman open a production called The Four Faces of Two People, with Bill as producer and Toby as star, at the Crest Theatre in Toronto, if all goes well, the play, written by a New York advertising man named Albert Meglin, will go to Broadway about Christmas.
Four Faces is not the first FreedmanRobins venture to invade Broadway, and their experiences on their first try point up
Fits problem is Toby Robins, wife, mother and beautiful actress, also on her way to try New York
Here is how he’s facing up to it
Freedman’s problem as the husband of Canada’s most beautiful actress. In 1958, after the very successful Toronto run of a musical entertainment called Salad Days, the rights to which they picked up in England and which they produced in Toronto under Toby’s name, the Freedmans tried New York. The newspapers were, to say the least, unkind. Brooks Atkinson of the Times said “no one can make anything funny out of such amateur horseplay.” The Daily News went further, heading its review: SALAD DAYS STRIKES A BLOW FOR DECADENCE. But worst of all was a notice that reported the show had been produced by the “husband of the wellknown TV panelist, Toby Robins.”
Toby is, of course, one of the few real stars of Canadian show business. She could afford to price herself out of regular appearances on Front Page Challenge, the popular CBC game show that paid her four hundred dollars a week for what she calls “going to a party with nice people,” and from which she, with Bill acting as her representative, demanded four-fifty.
And at the time of the cutting reviews of
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Toby knew what she wanted when she married: everything
Sedad Days. Bill Freedman was still suffering from being under the shadow of his famous father — a successful movie-theatre owner — and his even more successful wife.
As he prepares his current trip to Broadway, Freedman is much more his own man, freer to travel with his show and devote all his time to it and, after years of being pushed around in business, ready to stand his ground. Now, he is convinced that he could have saved Salad Days from its New York flop, if only he could have been there to practise his own brand of promotion. "1 tried to persuade the press agent to do some gimmicks — like giving away salads —but he thought it was just corny, neighborhood theatre stuff. That wouldn't happen again,” he says now, five years later. “I'd just tell him to do it and no arguments. I'm a big boy now.”
With the same sense of new confidence, Freedman has launched another project, which, if it comes off, could bring more acclaim and cold cash than even a Broadway hit. He has just paid thirty thousand dollars of his own money for a novel called 7he Flight of the Dancing Bear, written by an American but set in Russia. Freedman thinks he can make a movie of this book in the Russian-like wilds of northern Ontario. Since only about half the movie projects announced in Hollywood ever get on the screen, and the record in Canada is less than ten percent, Freedman's plan may sound like the rankest naïveté. But Freedman has succeeded — or nearly succeeded — where most other angels would have feared to tread before.
Bill's father, Ben. a Russian-Jewish scholar's son who had lost money in the dress business but made it from owning movie theatres and exhibiting movies, wanted Bill to become a lawyer. But almost by accident he pointed him toward the career Bill is so thickly involved in today. He appointed him, at seventeen, manager of the Royal Theatre in a Toronto neighborhood plagued by the lippy, drapeshaped Beanery Boys of the postwar period. He did surprisingly well with it — with lots of advice from his father. "He used to say,” Bill recalls,
“ 'When you’ve got an idea try it.’ If I goofed, he’d never say. 'I told you so.’ He'd say, ‘Let's talk it over and then try not to do it again.’ ” Ben Freedman figured if it was worth spending money on university, it was worth spending it to have Bill learn business. At university, Bill learned so much about business one way or another that he didn't graduate. Perhaps his only distinction on the University of Toronto campus was the production of an undergraduate review that accomplished the unheard-of feat of making money. With the prestige of this coup behind him, he felt he could try for a date with the campus belle, Toby Robins, already a model, TV
performer and an actress with agents in New York and Hollywood. Toby had recently broken loose from a boy friend of four years' standing.
But the first time he called. Bill was still so nervous he hung up without saying a word. ‘‘When he called again,” Toby recalled recently, "I said I had two tickets to the theatre and it was all right with me if he wanted to come along.” Three months later they became engaged.
“An actress!" said Bill's mother, when she heard the news. "Now I'll never have any grandchildren!” Toby's mother was a little happier. "I'm not sure which one Bill Freedman is," one family legend quotes her as saying, "but my Toby could have any man she wanted, and if she picked him he must be all right.”
After the first surprise, the families settled for the fact that their wandering children had married Jewish. And the backgrounds were close enough — Bill's grandparents came from Russia, Toby's parents from Poland — that a long-standing family friendship between her uncle anti his grandfather was soon discovered, like a good omen.
It took Bill a while to find his feet. "1 started to grow up when 1 was twenty-seven,” he now says. That was 1956, the year of the first production of Salad Days, a British musical they had seen and loved on their honeymoon. "When my father saw the budget, he thought 1 was crazy.” But Bill had an idea and he was going to try it. He spent fifteen thousand dollars and used the tricks he'd learned out at the Royal Theatre to promote the show: he gave away free salads on Bloor Street to attract attention. When the show cleared fourteen thousand dollars, Bill bought his father a Cadillac. "Of course, I wouldn't drive a Cadillac myself,” he says.
Bill put Toby's name on Salad Days as producer because he thought it would be a good publicity gimmick.
It was, but the next time he felt sure enough of himself to use his own name. Visit to a Small Planet, which he and Barry Morse produced, had an all-star Toronto cast of Toby Robins (their first professional association), Jack Creley, John Drainie, Robert Goulet, Jane Mallctt, Barry Morse, and Austin Willis. Planet made several thousand dollars.
. “My father always used to say, 'You don't bet when you're down, you bet when you're up.' ” Accordingly, Freedman prepared to bet on Broadway. He tried to raise one hundred thousand dollars, failed to, and decided to settle for off-Broadway with a restaged Salad Days. Freedman and Morse put up all the money, some twenty thousand dollars. Armed with another few thousand from the Toronto tryout, they moved into an odd theatre-in-a-hotel, the Barbizon Plaza, where the show died slowly in three months. The profits from Planet went down the drain, too.
In 1959, another Freedman production, / n o for the Seesaw, starring Toby Robins and George McGowan, again lost money, but not very much. Bill likes to say that all his shows make money, and he has promoted for himself a reputation as a good businessman. Mark Furness, a production
man who has worked on all Bill's shows, says Freedman succeeds where others fail because he is a professional. “Most of the others are frustrated something-or-others who put on a show to give themselves work.” Freedman prides himself on paying well.
Ffe also prides himself on doing business the nice way, holding no brief for New York-style rudeness. He has still not forgotten the Broadway producer in a gold lamé shirt who chomped on a cigar throughout their interview and opened his mouth just once, to say, “Not interested.”
Two years ago, Ben Freedman died. Bill stayed up nights with him in hospital and, as he says, “finished growing up.” But he still doesn’t count himself a really stable person. “All our friends think I’m the one who stabilizes Toby, and I tell her she’s extravagant, but she’s not. She’s the one who stabilizes me.”
Bill has exercised a strong influence on his famous wife’s career. In the nervous early years he applied the brakes for fear of a runaway success. As he’s gained confidence and experience, he’s become a buffer, a guide, and finally an employer. He screens the many requests she gets to do commercials, and they discuss all acting offers. During the long negotiations with the CBC over Toby’s demand for a raise in pay for Front Page Challenge, Bill did the talking, while she stayed home. “Fellows,” he would say, ‘7 will gladly go and take her place on the show for four twentyfive, but for Toby the fee is fourfifty.”
One way or another, Toby has forfeited or refused enough work to make a whole career for another actress. But it would be wrong to imply that this was all Bill's doing. “Bill has control of my affairs because I want him to have,” she asserts fiercely. Like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll’s House, Toby gives the impression of girlish ineptitude, but in fact she's pretty determined. She knew what she wanted when she married Bill: everything. She wanted a sound marriage, children, a beautiful home, and a brilliant career. She now has all but the dramatic career, and as a result is more inclined to concentrate on acting than before. “If you stay at home, you’re frustrated, if you don’t you feel guilty,” she says. “I feel you build a life rather than a career. A career alone is barren. At forty you can be a lonely has-been with nothing.” Toby is thirty-one, give or take a year: she keeps changing it, and Bill is now so confused he can't remember.
Toby is home-struck and stagestruck. Both stem from her loneliness as a child. “1 remember screaming and begging my mother not to leave the house. She worked in my father’s dress business, and I was terrified of the woman who was looking after us. Being alone,” she said as she began to make up her face for a photographic session, "I had more time to fantasize.” She loved to dress up and pretend, and she read all the fairy tales a library card could get her.
The late Moss Hart had a theory that the theatre is the inevitable refuge of the unhappy child. At the age of five, Toby remembers, she played Mother Bear, stirring the porridge. “I didn't even get to play Goldilocks,”
she adds, as though wondering why she wasn't more successful, even then. By twelve she had convinced her parents to let her have dramatic lessons. At sixteen she was discovered by Mavor Moore, then directing for the New Play Society.
Even today, clothes still hold a certain magic for Toby. She has a huge wardrobe (custom-made and from her father’s store), with a couple of spectacular items like a full-length feather evening cape. “I love adventure in clothes,” she said, carefully choosing a red skirt and blue sweater for the camera's eye. In public she dresses as the glamour-queen that she thinks her public expects her to be. “Otherwise people will say ‘Look at that hag. She’s not nearly as beautiful as she was on TV.’ ”
Where Bill values professionalism above all else, Toby wants most of all to be a cultural kind of success “like Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.” She was ready to work for nothing in order to play the lead in Jean Anouilh’s Point of Departure, but when a soap company asked her to do a commercial she said “I’m very expensive,” and asked for $10,000. They didn’t come back.
She’s sensitive about her beauty: “People say I’ve got where I have because of my looks. It's not true. How many good-looking women are there in Canada with fifteen years’ acting experience?”
There have been a number of things Toby was determined to do in her lifetime, and so far she has achieved them all. She wanted and earned a BA. Her mother bet she couldn't make a dress. She did, and wore it, once. Many people thought she’d never work out as a panelist on From Page Challenge. But she read up about all the unpleasant things that happen in headlines and eventually guessed as many news stories as Gordon Sinclair or Pierre Berton.
The photographer arrived at her house to take the picture on the cover. Toby, with whom I’d been talking for four solid hours, jumped up and said she didn’t feel as tired as when we began. “It’s so delicious to talk about
myself, she said. “I feel like I've had a free psychoanalysis.”
When Bill Freedman decided to take another play to Broadway, his problems were of the kind that couldn't be solved by psychoanalysis. Even though there are scores of frustrated playwrights roaming the streets, produceable plays are hard to find. Freedman strongly denies he was looking for a vehicle tor his wife. “I would have taken a play with seven men in it. he says. Toby's not so sure: ‘‘I think unconsciously he was looking for a play for me. After all. when you've got a wife sitting around the house all day ...”
It took Freedman eighteen months to find The Tour Toces of Two People, and it cost him thirty-five hundred dollars to catch his playwright, including a thousand-dollar advance royalty payment.
“He’s nuts about my wife”
Freedman’s opening gambit was a twcnty-five-dollar ad in Variety: "Authors! Tired of rejection? Send me your scripts.” Fifty authors did. There were forty plays, five ideas of movies, and five novels. Freedman read them all. Only five were remotely possible. One was the book he eventually bought for a movie, The Dancinp Bear. "I was just thinking I was crazy,” he says, "when a guy called up wanting to buy the property for Bob Hope.”
At the same time he placed the ad in Variety, Freedman arranged for introductions to seven of the majorplay agents in New York. He flew home with sixty manuscripts—twentyfour dollars in overweight—all thumbed over by the many people who'd rejected them. "When I rejected a script, they'd get mad,” he says. "Everyone else had. hut who was I, some little fink up in Canada, to turn it down?”
Alter weeks of flying back and
lorth to New York, wining and dining the right people and following tips, Freedman finally got to read a script that had been seen only by one other producer. It had two roles, one lor a woman about Toby's age. He liked it. He optioned it. He interviewed the author. Albert Meglin. He liked him. He bought the script.
Meglin had the power to accept or reject both performers and director, f irst the director David Brooks was hired, with Meglin's approval. Then Freedman borrowed a tape of his wife in a television play and screened it for Meglin. He approved all right. "He is so nuts about my wife it frightens me,” says Bill.
The months of July and August were taken up with those agonizing rewrites that have somehow come to be taken for granted in the American theatre. For eight hours at a time Freedman and Meglin and Brooks sat in a cigar-smoky hotel room, rehashing each word, intonation and implication. Finally came the point when Meglin shouted: “I can't go on."
Freedman put on his jacket, put him in a taxi, and took him home. That's what producers are for, after all. The next day, Meglin was fine.
Four Faces is scheduled to run four weeks in Toronto. If nobody comes. Freedman stands to lose forty thousand dollars of his own money. If it's sold out, he will clear eight thousand, and be well ahead of the game when he moves it to New York. A month before the Toronto opening, he had already sold cighteen-thousand-dollars' worth of theatre parties.
If he decides to take it to Broadway, he II have to raise some sixty thousand dollars around Toronto to rebuild the sets, recostume, rerehcarse, possibly even to recast, if the actor is not available later.
"I know we haven't got a lousy show,” he said just before rehearsals started. "More than that 1 can’t tell yet. I ll know once we're open." ★