In Focus-Magazine

Retro to the late great Hilly Elkins
Tuesday, 03.05.2019, 01:57 AM

Retro to the late great

Hilly Elkins

Producer and Manager

By Ed Donovan

Manager for Sammy Davis Jr, James Coburn, Mel brook, Steve McQueen, Roy Culp.

Produced the Original Oh Calcutta! For 20 years on Broadway.

Opened the Kennedy Center in DC with A Doll’s House.

Instrumental in Steve McQueen’s career and has done 6 documentaries on his life.

Robert Guillaume in Phantom of the Opera the first time a man of color played that role.

Produced over forty shows on Broadway and London’s West End.

Winner of three Tony Awards, one Ohio State Award and one lifetime achievement award.

 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.

 He went 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 restaurant."

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.

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 threat.”


Ed Donovan can be reached at :

Ed Donovan is a SAG-AFTRA member since 1982. He is a Writer, Biographer, Producer, Director, Screenwriter and the Editor of the Award winning online magazine, In Focus- Magazine. The magazine is linked World Wide with writers and readers throughout the World. For more on Ed Donovan go to IMDB,






Ed Donovan

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