They Know Drama

Growing up Rothman meant that a connection to performing was almost inevitable

December 02, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Tom Rothman is working the room at Baltimore's Charles Theatre, serving up the inside scoop on the film biz and life as the head of Fox film studio. Garrulous and quick-witted by nature, the Mount Washington native is clearly in his element, expansive before a crowd that's engaged and encouraging.

"The art of `exhibition' is gone with the wind," proclaims Rothman, rocking back in his chair and lamenting a Hollywood business model that stresses blockbuster opening weekends over the careful nurturing of worthwhile films. Noting the reliance on multiscreen megaplexes and the huge profits they generate, the executive sheds a quiet tear for the single-screen movie theaters of his youth. "It is a dying aspect of the business."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Arts & Life Today section misstated the branch of the military in which Donald Rothman served. It was the Navy.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"What did he say?" asks an elderly gentleman.

The bespectacled studio head, whom Premiere magazine deems one of the two most powerful men in Hollywood, smiles indulgently and turns to the silver-haired man on his left.

"I'll repeat it for you, Dad," Rothman says. Amid laughter from the audience, he comments to no one in particular, "That father-son relationship never changes."

Maybe not, and for Baltimore's Rothman clan, that's a good thing. Inspired by Donald, a trial attorney who helped found Center Stage and spent a decade as board president of the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Rothman sons -- Tom and his older brother, John -- have done him one better, devoting their lives to show business.

John, 58, graduated from the Yale Drama School in the same class as Meryl Streep.

Besides steady stage work, highlighted by the one-man show The Impossible H.L. Mencken, his credits include 80-plus film and TV appearances, from Stardust Memories in 1980 to last month's Enchanted. Though his name might not be familiar to most audiences, his face -- with hooded eyes and high forehead -- invariably rings a bell.

Tom, 53, has been a production head at Fox since 1994, and since February 2006 has been co-chair and co-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the parent company of 20th Century Fox. Films made under his watch have ranged from Titanic to Sideways to X-Men to this month's Alvin and the Chipmunks. Total worldwide box-office for films made during his tenure: $23 billion.

The eldest Rothman male is now 84, living with his wife of 63 years, Bette, in northern Baltimore County's Broadmead retirement community. Donald, still tall and direct, if a little slowed by the years, says he never pushed his children -- including daughters Ellen, 57, and Julie, 48 -- into any profession. He simply urged them to do what he hadn't: pursue careers they could be passionate about.

"I didn't have any great desire to be a lawyer, not at all," says Donald, a founding partner in the premier Baltimore firm of Gordon, Feinblatt and Rothman. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. Nobody in my family was a lawyer; nobody in my family was a performer."

Fresh out of the Army after World War II and looking for a job, the only thing the Baltimore native knew was that he didn't want to follow his father into paper manufacturing.

As he told that audience at October's Maryland Film Festival fund-raiser at The Charles, careful consideration had left him with two choices: Harvard Law School or Yale Drama School. Donald Rothman loved movies, loved theater, but wasn't sure about making a living.

So, he sought advice from a family friend, a successful Broadway producer. The response: "Do you like to eat?"

Still, his taste for performing never quite went away.

"My father ... was a great trial lawyer, and a very theatrical one," says Tom Rothman. "He could mesmerize a jury."

Together, Donald and Bette built a stimulating home life for their brood.

"Mine was a very boisterous household," says Tom, recalling the two-story glass-and-redwood gem, designed by Washington architect Charles Goodman and still nestled into a Mount Washington hillside. "It was hard to be heard above the din, so that tended to give us all a certain amount of energy."

The kids were good -- they could break curfew if they called ahead -- Donald says, and he and Bette were permissive.

"She was a very excellent child-raiser," Donald says. "I was more demanding, but she talked me out of it. When Johnny couldn't throw a baseball ... that really worried me. But she said, `Take it easy on him.'"

Theater in his soul

Donald Rothman hadn't limited his thespian skills to the courtroom. He acted while studying at Hopkins. He appeared with Baltimore's Vagabond Players, one of the nation's oldest amateur theatrical groups. He worked with the old Baltimore Actors Theater. In the early 1960s, with local director Edward Golden, he started the process that eventually would become Center Stage, now in its 44th year.

"We would have actors from the theater come to dinner," says John Rothman. "It would be these people from a totally different world -- they were New York actors come down to work at Center Stage.

"They were very special, and as a kid, you wanted to be special like that."

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