Charles Joffe: Producer of Woody Allen's films
Wednesday 16 July 2008
Charles Joffe was a high-powered agent and manager, and co-producer of most of Woody Allen's films, winning an Oscar for Annie Hall (1977) and a Bafta award for Manhattan (1979).
He and his partner, Jack Rollins, specialised in comedy talent and helped shape the careers of Dick Cavett, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal. Crystal was moonlighting as a substitute teacher and working as part of a comedy trio when they urged him to perform as a solo stand-up comic. Rollins and Joffe booked the first New York appearance of the controversial comic Lenny Bruce, and are also credited with developing the legendary partnership of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
One of Joffe's clients, Robin Williams, called him "The Beast" because of his tough negotiating skills. Indeed, the lucrative deals Joffe struck for his clients were awesome. In 1985, when he brokered a deal netting Crystal $25,000 for each appearance on Saturday Night Live, the New York Times stated that, "Mr Joffe excels at nailing down the big money in negotiations."
The son of a pharmacist, Charles Harris Joffe was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He displayed his entrepreneurial skills at an early age, getting bookings for dance bands in local nightclubs while he was still studying journalism at Syracuse University. The epitome of the perceived agent, Joffe, known as Charlie, was a fast-talking, cigar-chewing extrovert and tough negotiator who tried to make a living as half of a cabaret act before joining the agency MCA as a junior agent. While there, he met Rollins, who was trying to promote a folk-singer and former short-order cook, Harry Belafonte. In 1953, the pair formed their own agency. Rollins, sweet-tempered and a sensitive handler of feelings, complemented Joffe perfectly and the two formed a formidable partnership, working from a messy one-room office on West 57th Street, where their small stable of clients included Belafonte, Nichols and May.
Woody Allen was a well-paid writer on The Garry Moore Show when they signed him in 1958, urging him to perform his own material. At first, the shy Allen resisted, and his first engagement at New York's Blue Angel club was disastrous. But a few weeks later Joffe booked him into the Duplex, a tiny, smoky Greenwich Village venue, with a postage stamp stage. Allen worked two shows a night, six nights a week, learning the art of structuring an act. In the small hours, after his last show, he would often go uptown with Joffe to the clubs and cafés that Allen would later evoke so vividly in Broadway Danny Rose.
By 1963, Allen was headlining in the top rooms in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but it was his television appearances on the shows of Johnny Carson and Steve Allen that provided his true breakthrough, and when the producer Charles Feldman asked him to write a film script, What's New Pussycat?, Joffe and Rollins were able to persuade him that Allen should also act in the film.
According to Allen's biographer Eric Lax, when Allen complained to Joffe that the film was going to be awful, Joffe replied, "You're trying to get into the film business. It's going to be a big picture, and you're in it with a lot of stars. You're having a nice time in London, playing poker every night, visiting all the museums. Just shut up." The agents then spent months trying to persuade United Artists that Allen should be allowed to make films as writer, director and star with complete artistic control, but finally signed with the newly-formed Palomar Pictures, who agreed to put up $1.5m, even though Allen had never directed a film. The result, Take the Money and Run, convinced UA to strike a deal providing modest budgets of $2m a film, plus $350,000 for Allen's writing, directing and acting skills. They also ceded complete artistic control to Allen – a rare concession in Hollywood at the time.
His first major success, 1973's Sleeper, prompted a new five-film contract that extended his contract to seven years. When Annie Hall was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1978, Allen stayed in New York playing clarinet with a jazz band while Joffe and Rollins accepted the award. Joffe told the audience that night, "United Artists said to Woody, 'Woody, do your thing.' They have allowed him to mature into a fine film-maker."
Allen would strenuously deny the perception that many of the roles he played were autobiographical, but he conceded that the nostalgic Radio Days (1987) was based on his own childhood in Forties Queens. "Woody denies a lot of truths in his life," said Joffe. "Radio Days was easy to admit because he was [aged] six in it."
Joffe and Rollins, who also produced several television films for Showtime and PBS together, split in the late Eighties, when they decided that each should focus on a single client. Rollins became an executive producer for the television host David Letterman, while Joffe continued to handle Allen and produce most of his films. The forthcoming Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring Penélope Cruz, will be Joffe's 42nd Allen film.
Charles Harris Joffe, film producer: born New York 16 July 1929; married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 9 July 2008.
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