In 30 years, Tollin has brought to film Donald Trump’s dickishness, Allen Iverson’s blue-collar brilliance, Henry Aaron’s elegant greatness, “Arli$$,” “Varsity Blues,” “Coach Carter” and “Radio.” And within the last year he has bagged “Kareem: Minority of One,” he has a Leonard Tose doc teed up and a feature film about Chuck Wepner, the real Rocky, in the can. It is not a great stretch to call him the sports films cross between Ken Burns and Martin Scorsese.
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Mike Tollin drags his tired bones across the lobby of Philly’s Ritz-Carlton on an October Sunday and rubs his eyes as he reaches the breakfast table.
“Late night?” he is asked.
Tollin was back in his hometown for the Philadelphia Film Festival world premier of his “Tose: The Movie” — a documentary for ESPN’s prestigious “30 For 30” series that captures the essence of former Eagles owner Leonard Tose (left).
“It was the Stanford game,” the 60-year-old proud alum admits before informing his tablemate that the Cardinal had beaten Washington 31-14 in a game that started at 10 p.m. Philly time and was over at 1:30 Sunday morning.
Tollin is a loyal Stanford alum, a loyal Philly guy and dedicated Philly sports fan. Loyalty is a great quality to have, though it can get you in deep water in Hollywood, where Tollin has been a top-shelf film-maker for 30 years.
And it might be an exaggeration to say that Leonard Tose is to Mike Tollin what the white whale was to Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick” —but only slightly.
“I was probably 16, Haverford High days, when I met Leonard — he bought me a coke at Green Valley Country Club,” Tollin recalls.
“Met him many times later as he gave me the rights to make a movie on his life … had breakfast with him several times and once with Jerry Blavat at the Warwick, and lunch with him and Dr. J at the Vesper Club. Never saw a check ever!”
That’s our Leonard to a T!
Tollin was a serious, fun 9-year-old when I was his counselor at Harry Litwack’s Camp Sun Mountain 50 years ago, and he has retained both qualities. He and his pal and Sun Mountain mate Steve Rotfeld have remained buds all these years, and Mike worked for Steve’s dad Berl right out of college on “Greatest Sports Legends,” one of the antecedents of what ESPN does now with “30 For 30.”
Steve owns and operates Steve Rotfeld Productions in Bryn Mawr, and he and Mike still go to Phillies games together — such as the Dodgers-Phils NLCS at Dodger Stadium in 2009.
Rotfeld is very successful in his own right, but this is truly prime time for Tollin, who in the past year has racked up:
Executive producer of last spring’s “Iverson” about the Sixers’ terrific guard, “which actually outrated Showtime’s doc on Kobe Bryant by an exponent of 4!” he proudly points out. “As a lifelong Sixers fan, I can say that Wilt won us a title, Doc won us a title, and Allen won our hearts. You know, that’s how I felt,” Tollin told CBSSports.com. “There’s something about our relationship with Allen that transcends even the guys that had won for us.”
Executive producer of the “Kareem: Minority of One,” which won great praise when it was aired in November 2015 on HBO.
The Tose doc whose air date hasn’t been announced yet by ESPN.
Producer of “The Bleeder,” a film about the real Rocky, Chuck Wepner,” the Bayonne Bleeder who took Muhammad Ali to the 15th round before getting knocked out in a bloody mess 19 seconds before the bell. It features Liev Schreiber, the star of “Ray Donovan” and the God-like voice of many HBO sports docs, and it wrapped production recently in New York.
Producer of a film about the University of San Francisco 1951 Dons football team, notable for players Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson and coached by Joe Kuharich, who would go on to coach — and ruin — both Notre Dame in the late 1950s and the Eagles from 1964 to 1968. BTW, the Dons’ PR guy was a fellow named Pete Rozelle.
Quite a year for a guy who already has on his CV the Oscar-nominated doc “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream,” the hit HBO series “Arli$$” and feature films “Coach Carter,” “Radio” and “Varsity Blues.”
You might call Tollin a sports films cross between Ken Burns and Martin Scorsese.
Steve Rotfeld: “One thing about Mike is that he is fearless. When he was 22 he called Wilt Chamberlain to do a feature on ‘Greatest Sports Legends.’ And I think Wilt hung up. Mike called back and Wilt agreed. My dad got on the phone with Wilt to cut the deal. ‘Pay you $500.’ Wilt says, ‘I don’t get out of bed for $500.’ So they got him for $1,000.”
Tollin’s path to Hollywood began in Havertown in October 1955 and, as his oldest friend Rotfeld says:
“We lived next door to one another and I spent every day with Mike — went all the way through Oakmont School, Haverford Junior High and Haverford High. He was a terrific kid and he is exactly the same way now — cool exterior, quiet charisma.”
After Haverford High, Tollin went to Oberlin, one of the best small colleges in the country. “Before Oberlin,” he says of the Ohio college, “I thought I would be a sportswriter.”
Howard Cosell spoke at Oberlin, which stirred Tollin’s passion for journalism, and athletic director Jack Scott and track coach Tommie Smith — one of the black-gloved, fist-raised U. S. medalists on the 1968 Olympics victory stand — stirred his lefty politics.
But he transferred to Stanford, where he was exposed to the tender mercies of the fine Sports Illustrated baseball writer Ron Fimrite, who lived just up the bay in San Francisco, and former New York Times sports reporter Leonard Koppett, who was ending his working life at the Palo Alto Peninsula Times.
After college MLB hired him to film the 1980 Phillies-Royals World Series — narrated by Vin Scully — and then to create “The Baseball Bunch,” a Johnny Bench-hosted series for kids. Then Tollin created Halcyon Days Productions, which was awarded exclusive rights to the United States Football League.
Hello, Donald J. Trump.
“I have always been fascinated by flawed figures,” Tollin admits, which may in part explain his Tose obsession, and his interest in Iverson and Phillies great Richie Allen — about whom he also plans to make a film.
Trump easily fits into the flawed figure category.
And all you have to know about the conflict between Tollin and Trump is the name of the “30 For 30” doc he did in 2009 on the demise of the USFL:
“Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL” — small being the operative, offending adjective.
Tollin best described the genesis and outcome of his battle with Trump in a post he wrote in September 2015 for the web site The PostGame:
For those of us who wake up in a cold sweat these days, imagining the nightmare scenario of Donald Trump’s candidacy extending into next November, a mostly forgotten aspect of his past provides a small dose of comfort. Three decades ago, Le Grande Coiffure was a professional football team owner. He bought the New Jersey Generals of the fledgling United States Football League, in a circuitous attempt to bully his way into the NFL.
Not only did that ploy fail miserably, but so did Trump’s team. And here’s the comforting parallel: The Trumpsmen were stellar during the early-season contests (think meaningless debates more than a year before the election), but never managed to win a single playoff game (think Iowa, New Hampshire), and never even sniffed the championship game (think November ’16).
Back then, I ran the league’s production company and spent all-too-much time in the boss’s office at Trump Tower. Our shows were just another opportunity for his self-aggrandizement, but I soon tired of his boorish ways. And when I made ESPN’s 30 For 30 film, “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL,” many years later, The Donald took issue with the film’s thesis in his inimitable way.
When the letter (above) went viral, I confess to feeling a measure of gratification. And as his hate mail Hall of Fame has swelled, I’m honored to be included alongside such recent inductees as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I was only concerned about my mother being upset at the public rebuke of her son, but she put it all in perspective: “Don’t be silly,” she said with a smile. “Being insulted by a man like that is something to be proud of!”
Mothers are so smart!
Please allow me to disabuse any of you who think the movie business is an easy way to make a living — let alone leave a mark.
There’s a reason “Entourage” was on HBO and not the History Channel.
As Tad Friend wrote in a recent New Yorker profile of studio exec Adam Fogelson:
“The history of the movie business is a soaring ascent followed by a long swoon. In 1927, when America had a third of its current population and movie tickets cost $.25, the studios enjoyed box-office revenues of $780 million. That’s $10.6 billion in today’s money — nearly $300 million more than the studious took in in 2014.”
In other words, making movies is at best a crap shoot of a business with more and more competition from TV, streaming and cord-cutters who cringe at the thought of paying a monthly cable bill.
And at worst?
Take it from renowned screenwriter William Goldman — “All the President’s Men,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” “Harper” and dozens more — who famously said:
“Nobody knows anything…… not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
So when Tollin set out to make a movie about the fascinating life of Leonard Tose, an aging and sad fellow whose last few years were spent keeping up appearances, you can imagine how the people who could green light a movie reacted.
Or acronyms to that effect.
Steve Rotfeld, asked to think of something that Tollin isn’t good at: “Mike was never a very good driver. The man cannot drive. But he took it up at a young age, 14, and one time he took his mother’s car without her knowledge, and we were tooling around the neighborhood. He lost control, smashed into a fence, into a man’s house. They made him paint the fence as his penance.”
Tollin was 5 in 1960, when his father took his brother to the Eagles-Packers championship game at Franklin Field; Mike was deemed too young to go, which he will never forget. “In some subconscious way, I was scarred,” Tollin told Philly mag about that game, which the Birds won 17-13, their last title.
“I felt, This may take the rest of my life, but I will be at an Eagles championship game.”
Tollin pursued making Tose’s life into a feature film for several years and then all but gave up when he got a call from Trey Wingo, the ESPNer who had taken over the creative side of “30 For 30” when Bill Simmons left over contract issues. And he suggested doing a short, 15-minute “30 For 30”.
“Leonard Tose has always fascinated me as a person: A multi-millionaire who had it all,” Tollin told ESPN Front Row in November.
“He created the Ronald McDonald House to help one of his player’s daughters and died penniless in an apartment in Philadelphia paid for by Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski.
“He was such a human character: incredibly charitable and incredibly flawed at the same time. I just have wanted to see this Leonard Tose film made on some level for so long. It’s one of the great stories in sports that no one really knows about.”
It’s hard to cram Tose’s entire 88 years into about 15 minutes, and “Tose: The Movie” doesn’t try. Instead, it’s a sweet distillation of Leonard’s life beginning around 1969 when he bought the Eagles from Jerry Wolman for $16.1 million through the sale to Norman Braman in 1985 for $65 million, through the crazy Atlantic City casino days.
And the interviews with Ray Didinger, Vermeil, Jaworski and Jim Murray, who was Eagles GM under Tose, add a poignant touch that brings Leonard to life.
Tollin lives a good life in Studio City, an un-tony neighborhood of L. A. just over the hill in the San Fernando Valley.
He married the former Roberta Rowe and they have two kids, Lucas, who is 16, and Georgia, a smart 23-year-old Brown grad who came to Philly with her dad in October and who is an event coordinator for a couple of Washington, D. C. restaurants.
In 1997, Mike started a production company with Brian Robbins — Tollin/Robbins. And then in 2012 Tollin hit the big-time when he partnered with Peter Guber — the producer of “Rain Man,” “Batman,” “The Color Purple” and the underrated Costa-Gavras film “Missing” — in Mandalay Sports Media, which develops sports-themed entertainment programming for film, television, mobile and digital.
Oh, and Guber is also part owner of the Dodgers and the NBA champ Golden State Warriors, who started in Philly until they were sold in May 1962 and moved to San Francisco. Guber is CEO of MSM and has the bona fides and the flash of a studio exec, which he was from 1989-to-1995 as chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures.
Tollin is co-chairman, and he has no flash but lots of credentials in a world where, as Bill Goldman can attest, “nobody knows anything.”
As the hour-long breakfast interview is ending, Tollin nervously checks his watch, takes a call from Georgia, who is upstairs packing, and then gets up to meet her at the elevator.
She and her dad trundle across the lobby, dragging their wheelie luggage, say good-bye and hail a cab for 30th Street Station. Chuck Wepner, the real Rocky played by Liev Schreiber, awaits in New York for the start of production.
And as I watch the cab roll down Broad Street toward Walnut, I think back 50 years to the nice kid with real curiosity and smarts I met at Camp Sun Mountain.
Bill Goldman may be right about making movies, but Mike Tollin has proven that nice guys can finish first, even in Hollywood.