One year after his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor and his controverisal best picture triumph at the 1957 Oscars for 'Around the World in 80 Days,' the flamboyant producer — an early master of the Hollywood awards campaign — died in a tragic accident.
One more time, Mike Todd thought, ascending the staircase of the 12-room, white stucco villa in Coldwater Canyon. I’m going to go up just one more time.
In the master bedroom lay his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, ravishing even in the throes of bronchitis and a 102-degree fever. He walked over to the bed and hugged her, as he had done four times that night. His twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, The Lucky Liz, was on a Burbank airstrip, waiting to take him to New York, where the Friars Club was to honor him the next night as Showman of the Year.
Liz had planned on attending, too, but then illness had set in. Now she and Todd clung to each other as a rainstorm pelted the villa’s windows and pebbled the swimming pool below.
Even at the age of 49, Mike Todd still was not a man who thought a lot before he acted. He’d made his name with brashness, what many called brazenness, rising from poverty on the streets of Chicago to win and lose a pair of million-dollar fortunes by the age of 21. He’d gone on to conquer Broadway and eventually Hollywood, winning the 1957 Best Picture Oscar as a first-time producer for the charming, lush and overblown romp Around the World in 80 Days. People often remarked that he didn’t know how to sit still, that he had the attention span of a 6-year-old. But now, hugging his 26-year-old wife goodbye for a fifth and final time, he couldn’t move. “Without you, honey,” he whispered in her ear, “I’d feel like half a pair of scissors.”
Thirty minutes later, sitting aboard the plane he’d named for her, Todd picked up the air-to-ground telephone to say goodbye to Liz one last time. “I’ll call you when we stop in Tulsa to re-fuel,” he told her. Across the aisle from him sat the newspaper columnist Art Cohn, who was writing Todd’s authorized biography. The plane’s interior was plush, with an oak conference table, a couch, a bar, thick carpeting, and bronze ashtrays. The toiletries were engraved LIZ and HIS. The pilot radioed in from the cockpit. Despite the bad weather, it was clear above the clouds. He was expecting a smooth flight.
At 10:41 p.m. on March 21, 1958, its lights flashing through the downpour, The Lucky Liz zipped down the airstrip, wheeled up and headed to New York.
The 1956 premiere of Around the World in 80 Days dazzled Hollywood’s elite. Few films since Gone With the Wind had possessed such sweeping, audacious cinematography. Before the screening, a tuxedoed Mike Todd threaded his way through the crowd at L.A.’s Carthay Circle Theatre, accepting congratulations from Lauren Bacall, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Gary Cooper, June Allyson, Robert Young and Rock Hudson. Outside, a huge hot-air balloon stood sentry by the doors; after the screening, every patron received a handsome hardback volume with photographs of the scenery.
Film critics sensed a coronation. Todd “has brought into being a theatrical kind of film entertainment, a kind of show-business bonanza,” crowed The Saturday Review. Labeling it “a fabulous work,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Jack Harrison said the film was “one of the greatest ‘shows’ ever seen on a screen or stage.”
Based on the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in 80 Days tells the story of Victorian Englishman Phileas Fogg (David Niven), who wagers his fortune that he can circle the globe in 80 days. What follows is a madcap chronicle of the exploits of Fogg and his French valet, Passepartout (played to the loopy hilt by Latin America’s biggest star, Cantinflas) as they travel by balloon, boat, train and elephant through exotic locales. What made the film a sensation was the marriage of grand spectacle, as seen through the new widescreen filming process the producer had modestly named Todd-AO — a technologically superior sibling of Cinemascope — and cameos of more than 40 stars that kept the audience alert for glimpses of Buster Keaton as a train conductor, Noel Coward as a banker, Frank Sinatra on piano and Marlene Dietrich as a leggy San Francisco saloon keeper. While hardly the stuff of great cinema, the joyride was vertiginous kitsch, an outlandish spectacle.
The same could be said of its producer. The one-time street hustler and con man had barreled to the top through a combination of steely guile, glibness and bathtub-gin style. “He was a powerful man in every way,” recalls actress Shirley Jones, who was an apple-cheeked ingenue when she met Todd during the filming of the first Todd-AO picture, the 1955 screen adaptation of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Broadway smash Oklahoma! “He wasn’t the tallest man or the most handsome man you ever saw. But boy, when he was in a room, you were drawn to him.”
Avrom Goldbogen was born in 1909 to Polish immigrants, a rabbi and his wife. Before he was 10, he was pulling in more money than his father, sniffing for quick cash around the streets of Minneapolis. A street vendor who hawked kitchen gadgets hired him at age 8 to attract customers by walking the streets with a potato peeler sticking out of his neck (an optical illusion; the blade was retractable). Avrom went to the manager of a local theater and told him boys were sneaking in the fire exit and offered to guard it, then charged the boys a nickel apiece to creep in. After the family moved to Chicago, he ran a craps operation inside the Wicker Park Grammar School, taking a cut of every pot (usually a dime), with some additional skimming to pay off the janitor. In his first year of high school, he dropped out. The world was waiting.
So was Bertha Freshman, a local girl Avrom married at 17; by then he’d been through a host of careers — pharmacist, shoe salesman, window dresser. By the age of 18, he was running a $2 million homebuilding business that went bust; undaunted, he saw the advent of talkies as an opportunity to start a movie-studio soundproofing system, and staked yet another fortune. Avrom and Bertha had a son — 17 days before the stock market crashed in 1929. He lost everything, again.
And so a pattern, and a new name, was born. Avrom decided to call his son Michael and changed his own name to Mike Todd — a variation on his childhood nickname, Toat, which came from his mispronunciation of “coat” — and drafted the blueprint for the rest of his life. He blew money gambling, blew money on get-rich-quick schemes, blew money because he didn’t know how not to. He began writing gags for vaudeville. Then he had a brainstorm, an act he called “The Moth and the Flame.” On stage, a girl with wings would dance near a torch, eventually straying too close. Her costume would catch fire and drop from her body, leaving her seemingly nude as she scurried off stage. (She would actually be wearing a flesh-covered leotard.) The act was a smash at Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair. Todd took it on the road to New York.
Over the next decade, he stormed Broadway, eventually becoming what Edward R. Murrow called “the most colorful producer since the late Flo Ziegfeld.” Todd’s Vaudeville-type girlie revues and a string of popular musicals helped him develop an eye for talent. He signed an unknown comedy duo named Abbott and Costello for Streets of Paris. For The Dancing Campus, he hired a fresh young singer named Doris Day. He embarked on a dizzyingly successful partnership — business and personal — with burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, and became pals with Damon Runyan and Walter Winchell, ensuring steady boldface buzz in the papers.
There was only one thing that seemed even more outsize than his ambition: his gambling. It was nothing for Todd to dip into the night’s take to bet on the fifth at Belmont or to buy into a six-figure poker game. “He was the worst,” said Eddie Fisher (in his last interview before his death), who once watched his longtime friend lose $200,000 to Darryl Zanuck on one card. “He was a good card player but a terrible dice shooter. Of course, we still tried [dice], showing off for the girls.”
By 1943 there was only one girl. Unfortunately for Bertha Todd, it was Joan Blondell. While producing The Naked Genius — a particularly Toddian affair that included 43 cast members, seven dogs, a rooster and a monkey named Herman — Todd met and fell in love with the film star, known mainly for roles as a wisecracking bombshell. Struggling to extricate herself from her failing marriage to actor Dick Powell, Blondell fell fast and hard, burnishing Todd’s reputation as a skilled and inexhaustible lover.
By 1946, the Todd-Blondell affair was in full throttle. For Todd, that meant a permanent split from Bertha, which he knew wouldn’t come easily: The first Mrs. Todd seemed resolved to remain the only Mrs. Todd. Now living in Los Angeles (in typical fashion, Todd had bought the Del Mar racetrack near San Diego), the producer filed for divorce, citing mental cruelty.
A day or two after the filing, Bertha supposedly confronted her husband in his rented home in Rancho Santa Fe and lunged at him with a knife, only to miss, hit a doorframe, and slice a tendon between two of her fingers. The version put out by Todd and his son, 16-year-old Michael Jr., had Bertha accidentally gashing her hand while slicing an orange. Whatever the case, Bertha went to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica for minor surgery to repair the tendon — and died.
MICHAEL TODD’S WIFE DIES ON OPERATING TABLE, the Los Angeles Times headlined its story, setting off a forest fire of conjecture. Things got worse when a preliminary autopsy couldn’t determine a cause of death.
By the time a coroner blamed Bertha Todd’s death on an allergic reaction to anesthesia, Blondell was more convinced than ever that she and Todd were meant to be. Her friends fretted that she was turning a blind eye to his gambling and what was becoming a notorious temper. “While we do not feel that Mike actually will kill you, in spite of his threats,” Blondell’s friend, the screenwriter Frances Marion, wrote in a letter she never sent, “he eventually might kill your spirit, and that’s the cruelest phase of a living death.”
Whether it was true love, great sex or simply the raw excitement of life with a man so unpredictable, Blondell wanted it. With Mike Jr., 12-year-old Norman Powell, and her sleepy 8-year-old daughter, Ellen, in tow, the couple drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a steamy July evening in 1947 and got married. The ceremony was perfunctory, held in the banquet room of the El Rancho Vegas on the Strip. Pictures show Joan smiling tightly and the three kids of the new blended family “looking really sad,” in Norman Powell’s words today.
Mike Todd was, for the most part, an uncomplicated individual. He knew his virtues and vices and was comfortable with both. When he was on top he was, as Fisher said, “the most fun person on Earth to be with.”
But when he was down and out, the muscular braggadocio dissipated like dime-store cologne, revealing a man who could be self-absorbed and, at times, unconscionably cruel. Within the year, Blondell began to feel isolated on the 22-acre estate in Irvington, New York, that she had purchased to build a new life with her new husband. But cash flow slowed to a trickle as Todd’s gambling losses mounted and Universal decided to drop its development deal with him. The fighting escalated. “Irvington became something of an emotional prison for her,” says Blondell’s biographer, Matthew Kennedy. “All of the great hopes she had went up in smoke.”
By 1950 Todd was in bankruptcy court. He owed more than $1 million to 1,000 creditors. At a humiliating hearing in October, he conceded to betting more than $350,000 on the horses in one year alone. “I went to the track and looked for every form of gambling,” Todd told Irving Galpeer, the attorney representing his creditors. He wasn’t exaggerating: At one point, he’d gotten a hot tip on a horse at Del Mar, bet the entire racetrack on it, and lost.
Buckling under the emotional weight, Joan packed up in the middle of the night, got in her Cadillac and took off for Las Vegas and a divorce. Todd started over — again — this time getting in on the ground floor of the revolutionary film process known as Cinerama, which promised moviegoers the chance to feel as if they were in the movie they were watching. But typical of Todd, he found teamwork a challenge, wanting to call most of the shots. Similar tensions arose when he got involved with Cinemascope, another emerging technology. So Todd coined his own process and marketed the hell out of it.
Todd-AO (for American Optical, the company that developed the technology) simplified the premise of three-camera Cinemascope by using just one camera to shoot 65-millimeter film instead of the standard 35 millimeter, which made the format 20 percent taller than its competitors. To show it off, Todd landed the biggest Hollywood property going into production: Oklahoma! “Rodgers and Hammerstein were both on the set every day — this was their baby,” says Shirley Jones. “But they had a lot of confidence in Mike.”
Yet not enough to hand him control of their movie. That responsibility went to Fred Zinnemann, the acclaimed director of High Noon. During the filming, Todd spent long days lurking on the scorching Arizona set, watching as the process he was sure would change moviemaking was relegated to a few minor sequences, most notably the movie’s opening, in which Gordon McRae lopes his way on horseback through a lush cornfield. Todd sat in a screening room and watched a rough cut with Eddie Fisher — then promptly went downstairs and threw up. “The film was a hit, but it wasn’t a hit for Mike,” Fisher told me. “He wanted to show off his process, and Oscar and Richard wouldn’t let him.”
Even so, he was back in the game. He convinced producer Alexander Korda to sell him the motion-picture rights to Richard III; Todd had even persuaded Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to star. But standing in Korda’s London office, the producer blithely told Todd that no studio would back a picture co-produced by him. “I guess you overplayed the mug role,” Korda said. “I’m truly sorry, my friend.”
Todd walked over to a bookshelf and plucked out a random script — Around the World in 80 Days. “How much do you want for this?”
“Back away from it, Mike,” replied Korda, who’d been trying to find a way to film the Verne story for years. Orson Welles had, too, after he’d produced a disastrous Broadway version that crashed and burned faster than Phileas Fogg’s balloon. Todd had been an investor in the Welles fiasco. “I dropped 40 Gs on this project a few years back,” he told Korda. “I’m gonna get my dough back.”
Evelyn Keyes was everything Joan Blondell wasn’t: intellectual, outspoken, sassy, overtly sexual. She was best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s long-suffering sister Suellen in Gone With the Wind. (“She’s gone and married my Mr. Kennedy!”) But to Todd she was the perfect playmate, a woman he could call and simply whisper, “S.I.B.,” code for “Stay In Bed — I’m coming over.” Her influence manifested itself in subtle ways, including a makeover that replaced Todd’s greasy duck’s-back hairstyle with a square, bristly cut. It accentuated his crooked nose, giving him the look of a retired pugilist.
But she wasn’t spared the Todd temper. Things would be fine, then something would spark — an offhand comment, a laugh that sounded a bit too this or too that, a lingering look at another man — and the fuse would light until Todd erupted and Evelyn told the cab to pull over, or she showed up in tears at the apartment of her ex-husband, actor John Huston.
In the meantime Todd had a movie to make, one he thought would garner him proper Hollywood stature once and for all. Around the World in 80 Days would be the ultimate Todd extravaganza, shot in 13 countries and costing a then-astronomical $6 million.
By today’s standards, the movie is pure mishmash, a high-def Discovery Channel special as envisioned by Baz Luhrmann channeling Jerry Lewis. Its plot is paper-thin, and all of the fawning postcard views become wearying. But 80 Days was made long before the age of special effects, adding a luster of moviemaking bravura that helped Todd win his Oscar. “It’s not being judged at all the way it was distributed and shown to people at that time,” says Robert Osborne, the Oscar scholar and Turner Classic Movies host. “I think it if it were shown now on a big screen in a theater, it would stand the test of time better.”
The most interesting thing about Around the World in 80 Days, though, was what was happening off screen. Hoping to catch some authentic footage of the Kaiwo Maru, a 436-foot antique vessel scheduled to sail near Santa Barbara, for his Singapore sequence, Todd chartered a 117-foot cruiser and arranged a small sailing party. He invited Kevin McClory, one of his assistant directors, who brought along two friends: English actor Michael Wilding and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Later, Todd discovered that Wilding and Taylor were separating — and that Taylor had begun quietly seeing McClory.
A few nights later, Todd hosted a barbecue at his house. Again, Wilding and Taylor attended. Todd lavished attention on Elizabeth, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his best friend. As Todd walked Fisher and his wife, Debbie Reynolds, out to their car at the close of the evening, Fisher turned and stared at him. “You’re in love with Elizabeth,” he said.
Todd, rarely one to be taken by surprise, was. “Oh, shut up, you Jew bastard,” he groused.
Todd sent McClory overseas to finish some shooting; he dispatched Evelyn Keyes to Caracas, Venezuela, on the pretense of asking her to see if screens there could accommodate Todd-AO. Oblivious, she tottered off.
Taylor had just filed separation papers from Wilding when she found herself alone in the office of vice-president Benny Thau at MGM, sipping a Coke. Todd barged in, grabbed her by the arm and — without saying a word — ushered her down the hallway, into an elevator, down another corridor, before finally shoving her into an empty office. He then proceeded to talk — as only Mike Todd could talk — nonstop, for the next 90 minutes. “I see you have decided to shed that guy,” he barked. “Now understand one thing and hear me good, kid. Don’t start looking around for someone to latch on to. You are going to marry only one guy, see, and his name is me.”
Bad Bogie act aside, Taylor was both incredulous and dazzled. “I looked at him I guess rather the way a rabbit looks at a mongoose,” she later admitted. “I was absolutely hypnotized.”
Todd’s courtship was fierce. He called her every day for six weeks while she was on location filming Raintree County. Meanwhile, Keyes flew from Caracas to Paris, only to get dumped over the phone. For McClory, who had begun to idolize Todd, the betrayal was crushing.
L’affaire Todd-Taylor threatened to overshadow the triumph he was planning with Around the World in 80 Days. Columnists revved their Remingtons, chronicling the pair’s trans-Atlantic jaunts and public spats. The New York Journal harrumphed that the couple “put on their usual Punch and Judy show today on arrival from European social triumphs and domestic brawls.” Todd and Taylor professed to love the fighting, saying it made their making up all the better. Sometimes they would stage public outbursts, then sit in bed the next morning in a hotel, cackling wildly about all the tittering in the papers. “She really let him have whatever it was he had coming to him, and he heard her,” says Shirley MacLaine, who played a wispy Indian princess in 80 Days. “They were a wonderful match.”
One thing was certain: They were in love, and they didn’t care what anybody else thought. “I’ve never seen such a physical attraction in my life,” Debbie Reynolds says. “She adored Richard Burton” — the man who would twice marry Taylor, as husband No. 5 and 6 in a sequence of 8 — “but I still think it was flamingly giant love with Mike Todd.”
Todd and Taylor were married in a lavish ceremony in Acapulco; a huge fireworks display, a gift from Cantinflas, lit up their names against the night sky. A few weeks later, Around the World in 80 Days was nominated for eight Oscars and went on to win five (for picture, cinematography, editing, music score, and adapted screenplay), besting a formidable Best Picture field: Giant, The Ten Commandments, The King and I, and Friendly Persuasion. You must know,” Hedda Hopper later wrote to the couple, “that most people in Hollywood are so jealous of you they could cut your throat.”
Over the years it’s been alleged that Todd bought his Oscar with backroom arm-twisting. But the truth is that he relied on his trademark: pull-out-the-stops showmanship, in the form of a shrewd marketing campaign. He opened the film in New York to a small, select VIP audience without fanfare, evoking mystique and exclusivity. Then he blew the roof off with the pageantry of an L.A. premiere. During its stunning run (it was still playing more than a year after its release, something unheard of today), he treated the movie like a Broadway musical, with advance ticket sales, programs, and an intermission. He also banned the sale of popcorn (too low-brow) at cinemas showing the film. It all combined to make 80 Days what is known today as “event-able.”
At the press conference backstage at the Academy Awards, Todd clutched Taylor, regal in a tiara, and his Oscar — both proof, he said, “that it’s better to be lucky than smart.” Taylor chimed in that the only thing more exciting was that she and Todd were expecting their first child together.
“That’s an understatement. Can you imagine?” Todd told reporters. “I hope I live through all this.”
At 6 a.m. on March 22, 1958, Jim Bacon, the West Coast correspondent for the Associated Press, got a phone call. A fellow AP reporter near Albuquerque had found his name on the passenger list of a Lockheed Lodestar that had crashed into a mountain in bad weather.
Bacon had agreed to go with Todd on his trip to New York but hadn’t been able to make it.
“Is anyone injured?” Bacon yelled into the phone.
“Everyone’s dead,” the reporter said.
Dick Hanley, Todd’s personal secretary, took a call from Taylor early that morning; she was worried that she hadn’t yet heard from Mike. Rex Kennamer, her physician, and Hanley went to the house in Coldwater Canyon to break the news. As the pair opened the door to Taylor’s bedroom, she shrieked, “No!”
Debbie Reynolds rushed to the house to take care of the young Wilding boys, Christopher and Michael, as well as the Todds’ daughter Liza, not yet 8 months old. As Reynolds pulled up to the house, the only thing she could hear was Elizabeth screaming. Shirley MacLaine rushed over after Taylor called her, hysterical. “She was in the house drinking orange juice and vodka,” MacLaine recalls. “I stayed there for two, three days. She was terrible, just terrible. Absolutely distraught, wouldn’t eat. It was a very, very bad time.”
In New York, Eddie Fisher was walking into the Essex House, where he’d been staying as a guest of Chesterfield cigarettes, one of the sponsors of his television show. He’d just finished a 16-verse parody of the theme song to Around the World in 80 Days, which he planned to sing at the Friars roast. Jim Mahoney, his press agent, intercepted him. Fisher went into his hotel room, closed the door, and dissolved into tears.
The funeral was held on a cold day in Chicago; Howard Hughes offered Liz his plane to transport the funeral party. Press and spectators swarmed, with the Los Angeles Mirror News erroneously reporting that Taylor had thrown herself atop the coffin. It seemed fitting that Mike Todd’s last show degenerated into spectacle. “Kids were sitting there eating ice cream cones,” Eddie Fisher remembered, “yelling to see Elizabeth. There was all kinds of noise. It was awful.”
Today, Todd’s legacy is mixed. He is remembered as “a dazzling showman” by film historian Osborne, as a shyster by others. “He was either completely loved or completely hated,” his granddaughter, film photographer Demmie Todd, says. “Either you thought he was a cheating scumbag, or you admired his nerve and panache.”
At a memorial service at Temple Israel in Hollywood three days after the crash, more than 1,000 mourners, including David Niven, Kirk Douglas, Van Johnson, Danny Kaye, Eva Marie Saint, Esther Williams and David O. Selznick, came to pay their respects. George Jessel, the nation’s self-proclaimed “toastmaster general,” presented portions of the speech he had planned to deliver at the Friars dinner. He talked about Todd’s legendary showmanship, audacity, and resilience. He quoted an old proverb that, he said, lent itself to Todd’s life: “‘Napoleon, world in hand, found the world too small for him.’”