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."
"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."
Bette Rothman, 82, recalls her husband's commitment.
"Sometimes, he'd spend 40 hours a week working on [Center Stage]," she says. "And he'd talk to the kids, tell them why it was needed. ... Of course that had an influence on the kids."
Donald and Bette's daughters, too, inherited a storytelling gene: Ellen is a historian living in Boston, and Julie is a photo-stylist and freelance writer whose recipes column appears in The Sun.
A way to meet girls
But John, Park School Class of '67, truly built on his father's passion for drama -- if for no other reason than the chance to meet the girls of the tony St. Timothy's School in Stevenson.
"My father would say, 'You will never meet those girls. You Jewish boys are not going to meet those girls,'" John says over the phone from New York, where he lives with wife Susan. "At Park School, it was sort of like the quest for the Holy Grail, to get hooked up or meet a St. Tim's girl."
And then that Grail appeared: The St. Timothy's drama coach decided to stop casting girls in the male parts in school plays -- and she called John.
"I remember thinking, 'All those jocks, they never got in to St. Tim's," he recalls with a chuckle. "The doors opened for me as an actor."
Not that he was ready to embrace the struggles of an acting life -- even after a St. Timothy's teacher told him he was good enough to make a living at it.
"I remember it scared the [heck] out of me," John recalls. At Wesleyan University, he considered architecture or the law. But as a senior, he tried out for a play.
"And I had an epiphany. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is where I'm supposed to be.' I got the lead, and in effect, I never looked back."
Neither has his dad: John has allayed any fears of an actor's inability to feed himself. His easygoing likability, combined with a willingness to take on key minor parts, have served him well.
"The only one who has the heart to take what it takes [to act] is Johnny," Donald says. "Tommy said, 'Not for me, man. I'm a great athlete, but I'm not gonna take that rejection.' I'm sure I would have been the same way."
'An eye for talent'
In his youth, Tom never seemed destined for show business.
"If anything, I was a jock. ... I was living for whatever next Friday night's game was -- that was pretty much it, living for the Colts and the Orioles," Rothman says over the phone from his Hollywood office.
A lacrosse star at the Park School, he achieved All-American status at Brown University. Following in his father's footsteps, he earned a law degree (from Columbia University), then spent 10 years practicing entertainment law in New York. When new media such as VCRs appeared, Tom began a career as a producer, raising funds for independent films.
Though not an actor like his brother, he found his own niche.
"I had an eye for talent," he says. "That was something that was critical to me in my early career, and guess what? It's critical to me today, 25 years later."
Ultimately, Tom says, two reasons started him down the road that has led to the top of one of the world's biggest movie studios. For one, he can thank his father. For the other, he can thank that same instinct that led John to St. Timothy's School for girls.
The movie was 1974's The Phantom of the Paradise, and the girl was 24-year-old Jessica Harper. Years later, working for a New York law firm, Tom saw that face when debating a move to the West Coast.
"I'm getting out of this town," he told The Charles audience, recalling that decision, "and going where girls look like that!"
Tom Rothman and Jessica Harper married in 1989 and now display another trait of their father's: They tend to stay married for a good while. Tom and Jessica have been together for 18 years, John and Susan for 24.
Now there's a Hollywood ending you don't see every day.
Donald N. Rothman
Married Elizabeth "Bette" Davidson, married 63 years. Children: John, 58; Ellen, 57; Tom, 53; Julie, 48
Founding partner of Gordon, Feinblatt and Rothman
Acted with Baltimore's Vagabond Players; worked with the Baltimore Actors Theater; helped found Center Stage; decade as board president of the Baltimore School for the Arts
In Broadmead Retirement Community in Cockeysville
John M. Rothman
Park School, Wesleyan University, Yale Drama School
Married writer-editor Susan Bolotin, 24 years. Children: Lily, Noah
Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Center Stage, 1972
Credits include Some Americans Abroad; revival of Prelude to a Kiss.
Credits include writing and starring in the one-man show The Impossible H.L. Mencken.
Include Stardust Memories (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), Big (1988), Gettysburg (1993), Jingle All the Way (1996), Say It Isn't So (2001), Welcome to Mooseport (2004), Taxi (2004) and Enchanted (2007)
Appearances include Guiding Light, Law & Order and Arrested Development
In New York
Park School, Brown University, Columbia University Law School
Married Jessica Harper, 18 years. Children: Elizabeth, Nora
Co-chair and co-CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment; formerly president of Fox Searchlight Entertainment
Grossed $23 billion with films ranging from The Darjeeling Limited to Titanic.
In Los Angeles