Hillard Elkins was born on
October 18, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. His father Max was an accountant and his mother Rachael was a doctor.
to the public schools, Erasmus
Hall and Midwood High School. Hilly played stick ball on the streets like
most kids during the depression. He also ran with a gang as a kid and was
knifed a couple of times.
Elkins spent time in a
reformatory holding institution called Youth House. He says, “I had forged
and cashed a check for $500, signing my father's name, and spent it taking
cabs to school, breaking bills of large denomination for my lunch. I told the
cops I'd found the money in a handbag, the handbag on a subway... I was taken
out of school...wearing my father's suit, had a hearing, and wound up in the
holding institution. I only stayed a week."
Hilly went to the theater
often and from the first was attracted to the idea of putting together what
he saw on the stage. When he was fifteen he
auditioned for a radio program at WNYC and got in. Hilly ran the sound board,
produced, directed, wrote and acted.
At Brooklyn college his
drama coach was Gordon Davidson's dad. Gordon - who has for
years been artistic director of the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum of
Los Angeles. – Together they opened a tent theater in Belle Harbor. Hilly had
a combination job: producer, star, and janitor.
Hilly says, “I thought
maybe learning the agency business would be a way of getting a rounded entertainment
education. People were in the theater, nightclubs, or motion pictures. But
now it was the beginning of television. Milton Berle and the Colgate Comedy
Hour. The only players were William Morris and what was then MCA. I thought
it was an interesting opportunity. I
came in cold. Sid Feinberg
interviewed me. I was eighteen; I already had my college degree and was
starting law school. I gave it up for a job in the mailroom. Within five
months, I was working as an agent, and then as head of the theatrical
department. My sense of what I had to do was simple: Get out of the mailroom
as fast as I could. In fact, at the risk of being self-serving, I think I
made the fastest transition from office boy to secretary in seven weeks.”
Hilly was drafted during
the Korean war crisis. He spent most of the time by making various training
films in Manhattan. He returned to the agency business but being an agent
wasn’t enough to satisfy his ambition.
Hilly says, “I started my
management company in the 1950s. 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.”
He represented such
actors as James Coburn, Robert Culp, Steve McQueen, Mel Brooks, Herb Ross,
plus Charles Strouse and Lee Adams,
Culp and McQueen worked
in television in Los Angeles for Fourstar. Hilly traveled back and forth
between New York to California.
"For a few weeks, I became vice-President
of GAC (General Artist Corporation) 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 Rothschild’s, Dolls House
with my fourth wife Claire Bloom, and many other productions.” said Hilly.
Arthur Penn invited Hilly
to his house and played an album for him. He thought it was terrific and said
that it would make a great movie. He asked Hilly to produce it. He pointed
out that he had never produced a movie. And Arthur gave him a piece of career
advice. 'Same shit.' And that's how Hilly made his first movie with Arthur
Penn. He directed and Hilly produced. The 1969 movie was Alice's Restaurant, based on a song by Arlo Guthrie.
Hilly says, "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
Ken Tynan wanted to put
on the show “Oh Calcutta” in London
but The Lord Chamberlain, the censor, would not allow it to go on. Tynan went
to David Merrick to produce Oh!
Calcutta! in New York. David wanted total control so the deal didn't
happen. Hilly said he'd be delighted to produce the play and raised $200,000
to stage the play. He even used some of his own money.
It opened in May of 1969.
While they were in
rehearsal, Hilly 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. He 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. Once they opened the show, he got the worst
set of reviews in the history of show business. Hilly had a party at Sardis
and called Claire in London with the reviews. Most Producers at this moment
in time would shut down the show. Hilly, not to one give up, decided that if he
was going to go out, he'd go out with a bang. In those days, theater tickets
were $10. The genius that he is Hilly raised the price to $25 a seat. He
expected to run three nights and then go home.
Hilly says, "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, mayor John Lindsey was an ally because there were an awful lot
of people who wanted to close it. This was a show about sex. It was not a
show about politics or a comedy. Oh
Calcutta ran for 20 years. Raising the prices for the tickets got
everyone’s curiosity, something like having your book or film banned in
Boston. It became an instant success.
He later produced the
first Richard Prior concert film - Richard
Pryor: Live in Concert.
Hilly followed this
masterpiece with one project after another. The Rothschilds with Hal Linden, A
Doll House with Claire Bloom, Golden
Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. Hilly got a letter from Dr Martin Luther king
thanking him for producing Golden Boy.
After closing the show in Selma Alabama Hilly put on a show Broadway Answers Selma to raise money
for Dr. King. He 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 to work for the show.
"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.” states
Hilly did a play with
Gore Vidal, An Evening With Richard
Nixon and his Friends. This was Susan Sarandon’s first play on Broadway. We
told the truth about Nixon and nobody believed us. It was three months before
Watergate. He called him a thief and a liar but
closed in two weeks.
“I imagine that
one could view my lifestyle as "extravagant", but frankly it was
things like Golden Boy, Oh! Calcutta!, Alice's Restaurant and A New Leaf, etc., which afforded me
the ability to live as I wished. Financial ruin was never an option or a