He prowled the streets of Manhattan looking for attractive young women, usually in their early 20s, sometimes college students, on occasion a high schooler. He approached them in Central Park, standing in line at a bank or drug store or at a copy center while they worked on their resumes.
His opening line had a few variations. One went: "My name's James Toback. I'm a movie director. Have you ever seen 'Black and White' or 'Two Girls and a Guy'?"
Probably not. So he'd start to drop names. He had an Oscar nomination for writing the Warren Beatty movie "Bugsy." He directed Robert Downey Jr., in three movies. The actor, Toback claimed, was a close friend; he had "invented him." If you didn't believe him, he would pull out a business card or an article that had been written about him to prove he had some juice in Hollywood. That he could make you a star.
But first, he'd need to get to know you. Intimately. Trust him, he'd say. It's all part of his process.
Then, in a hotel room, a movie trailer, a public park, meetings framed as interviews or auditions quickly turned sexual, according to 38 women who, in separate interviews told the Los Angeles Times of similar encounters they had with Toback.
During these meetings, many of the women said, Toback boasted of sexual conquests with the famous and then asked humiliating personal questions. How often do you masturbate? How much pubic hair do you have? He'd tell them, they said, that he couldn't properly function unless he "jerked off" several times a day. And then he'd dry-hump them or masturbate in front of them, ejaculating into his pants or onto their bodies and then walk away. Meeting over.
The women's accounts portray James Toback as a man who, for decades, sexually harassed women he hired, women looking for work and women he just saw on the street. The vast majority of these women — 31 of the 38 interviewed — spoke on the record. The Times also interviewed people that the women informed of the incidents when they occurred.
As is often the case, none of them contacted the police at the time. When contacted by The Times, Toback denied the allegations, saying that he had never met any of these women or, if he did, it "was for five minutes and have no recollection." He also repeatedly claimed that for the last 22 years, it had been "biologically impossible" for him to engage in the behavior described by the women in this story, saying he had diabetes and a heart condition that required medication. Toback declined to offer further details.
The women interviewed during The Times' investigation offered accounts that differed from Toback's recollections.
"The way he presented it, it was like, 'This is how things are done,'" actress Adrienne LaValley said of a 2008 hotel room encounter that ended with Toback trying to rub his crotch against her leg. When she recoiled, he stood up and ejaculated in his pants. "I felt like a prostitute, an utter disappointment to myself, my parents, my friends. And I deserved not to tell anyone."
"In a weird sense, I thought, 'This is a test of whether I'm a real artist and serious about acting,'" remembered Starr Rinaldi, who was an aspiring actress when Toback approached her in Central Park about 15 years ago. "He always wanted me to read for him in a hotel or come back to his apartment, like, 'How serious are you about your craft?'"
"And the horrible thing is, whichever road you choose, whether you sleep with him or walk away, you're still broken," Rinaldi continued. "You have been violated."
Like Harvey Weinstein, Toback, now 72, was a big, hulking man with a reputation, so much so that he titled his 1987 semi-autobiographical movie "The Pick-up Artist." He has been a writer/director since 1974; his most recent film, "The Private Life of a Modern Woman" starring Sienna Miller, premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival. Media profiles often referred to him as a womanizer. Lurking underneath were darker rumors of creepy behavior, reported in 1989 by Spy magazine and, more recently, by Gawker.
According to the 38 women who spoke to The Times, the scope of Toback's behavior was far more serious.
"He told me he'd love nothing more than to masturbate while looking into my eyes," said Louise Post, who met Toback in 1987 while attending Barnard College. Post, now a guitarist and vocalist for the indie rock band Veruca Salt, added: "Going to his apartment has been the source of shame for the past 30 years, that I allowed myself to be so gullible."
In the wake of Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein being fired after reports revealed decades of sexual misconduct, many women have been coming forward with tales of harassment, abuse and assault. On the Twitter hashtag campaign #MeToo, Toback has his own special universe. The Veruca Salt account tweeted on Monday: "Us too: by bosses, boyfriends, male babysitters, taxi drivers, strangers and movie director/pig #jamestoback #metoo."
"It's a common thread among many women I know … after someone mentions they were sexually abused by a creepy writer-director, the response is, 'Oh, no. You got Toback-ed,'" said Karen Sklaire, a New York drama teacher, actor and playwright who said a 1997 meeting with Toback in an office ended with him grinding against her leg. "The numbers are staggering."
Toback always kept his credentials handy when he introduced himself to women. He had amassed a solid body of work over four decades: His 1974 debut, "The Gambler" starring James Caan, the three movies with Downey Jr., a sympathetic documentary about boxer Mike Tyson and, of course, that Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Bugsy," the 1991 portrait of gangster Bugsy Siegel, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Beatty and Annette Bening.
Toback's movies often examine extremes — gambling, drinking, womanizing — that he says overlap with his own demons. "The idea is not to have a separation between my life and my movies," Toback said in a 2002 Salon interview. His characters are often on edge — Harvey Keitel's pianist in "Fingers," the teenagers infatuated with hip-hop culture in "Black and White."
As a writer/director, Toback liked to push the envelope sexually. The widely panned 2004 drama "When Will I Be Loved" opened with a five-minute shot of Neve Campbell masturbating with a shower nozzle.
Off-screen he constantly brought up those provocative scenes, say the majority of the women interviewed by The Times, to see how far they were willing to go, both during the audition process and, should they be cast, in his movies.
"The more time you spend with him, the weirder it gets until it's like just like one giant red flag," said Los Angeles radio reporter Anna Scott.
Scott was an 18-year-old senior at Manhattan's Hunter College High School when Toback approached her at a deli across the street from her campus. He told her he was working on a movie called "Black and White," that it starred boxer Tyson and he was casting complete unknowns. He asked if Scott was interested in acting. She was about to attend USC to study screenwriting. She thought she had made a fortuitous connection.
Toback invited Scott to a taping of the "Charlie Rose" show, where he was part of a panel. After the taping, he told her, they could talk more about the movie. But as they walked the streets of Midtown, the conversation quickly veered into sexual territory, including queries about masturbation and pubic hair.
"It was disgusting and embarrassing," Scott said. "I tried to extricate myself from it without causing a scene."
Instead, Toback steered her into a restaurant where, she said he told her, "You have to be ready to turn yourself completely over to me." Finally, she abruptly stood up and fled.
In his trailer on the set of "Black and White," Toback knelt in front of actress Echo Danon and, she says, put his hands on her thighs, telling her, "If you look into my eyes and pinch my nipples, I'm going to come in my pants right now." She resisted. She felt helpless. Eventually he backed down.
"Everyone wants to work, so they put up with it," Danon said. "That's why I put up with it. Because I was hoping to get another job."
Toback approached Sari Kamin at a Kinko's in Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2003. He pulled out a DVD copy of "Two Girls and a Guy" and told her he'd like to cast her in his next movie. He said he felt an instant connection to her.
After several dinners over the course of a few months, Kamin says, Toback convinced her to accompany him to a hotel room, telling her that he needed to experience a "real connection" with her. Alarms went off, she says. She knew she wouldn't sleep with him, but she felt like if she could make it through the evening, maybe she'd finally land a part.
Once in the suite, Kamin says, Toback asked her to take off her clothes. She protested. Toback berated her, saying that if she couldn't reveal herself to him in the hotel room, how would she be able to act in a provocative sex scene in front of a movie crew? She gave in, removed her clothes. After commenting on her body, he knelt down before her and began to vigorously rub his groin against her.
"I felt really paralyzed," Kamin recalled. "And I asked him, 'Are you trying to get yourself off?' And he said, 'Absolutely.'" She jumped out of her chair, grabbed her clothes and ran.
Not all of the incidents in the women's accounts occurred in private. Terri Conn was 23 and acting on the soap opera "As the World Turns" when, she says, Toback approached her on the street. She was intrigued by his credentials and dreamed of being in an edgy independent film. Toback asked her to meet him in Central Park to discuss his process. He took her to a somewhat secluded area — there were people yards away — and told her the best way to get to know someone is to see their soul. And the way you can see someone's soul is to look into their eyes when they're experiencing orgasm. And he knelt before her and began humping her leg, telling Conn to look into his eyes.
"I was shocked and frozen and didn't know what to do," Conn said. "I thought if I resisted, it could get worse. He could overpower me." He quickly ejaculated into his khakis, got up and asked her to meet for dinner later to continue the process. Conn ignored his subsequent phone calls and never saw him again.
Chantal Cousineau was 19 and living in Toronto when, she says, she was asked to meet Toback for an audition for "Harvard Man" in 2001. The encounter began in a hotel restaurant and ended in his hotel room, with Cousineau prepared to walk away after Toback kept talking about masturbation. When she reached the door, he told her, "Calm down, you've got the part," as though the whole thing had been a test.
Cousineau didn't believe him, but her modeling agent called shortly afterward to confirm the casting. During a rehearsal for a monologue in which her character — a drug dealer — looks directly into the camera, she heard Toback, 10 feet away, on the other side of a half wall where the set's portable monitors were located, grunting, his hands rubbing, loud and rapid, against his windbreaker pants as he masturbated. After issuing a pronounced grunt, she said, Toback told the crew to break for 15 minutes.
When he returned to the set, Toback excused the camera man and sat two feet from Cousineau's face as she delivered her monologue, the first time she had ever been on film.
"I felt so violated," she said. "And there was my abuser, inches away from me."
Several of the women The Times interviewed quit acting after their encounters with Toback. Some returned to school. Some got married and buried their incident, never telling their husbands because of a sense of shame. Then the Weinstein scandal hit, and, for many, the news dredged up memories they had long repressed.
"Today, I cried for the first time since then about it," Post said. "I was crying for the 20-year-old woman who lost something vital that day — her innocence."
But even as an ever-growing list of high-profile women recount their sexual abuse on social media and in first-person accounts, many women remain afraid. Several women said he told them intimidating stories, some of which verged on the ridiculous, like when he informed flight attendant Ashly McQueen in 1998 that he killed someone at the racetrack with a pencil.
This woman asked to remain anonymous; she still feared for her safety 23 years after Toback humped her leg in his office until he ejaculated in his pants. Others interviewed for this story requested anonymity as well, fearing retaliation. One woman recounted the time when she met Toback at his New York home and he wouldn't let her leave until she grabbed his nipples and looked into his eyes while he masturbated.
Another well-known actress had a similar experience in 2000 at a Los Angeles hotel during what she thought was to be an audition. As with so many other women, Toback told her he felt a connection with her but that she needed to display the sexual confidence the role required. She needed to remove her clothes. "I am really uncomfortable," she replied."That's the whole point of this exercise," she says Toback told her.
The young woman, then a rising Hollywood star, wondered why she was so uncomfortable, why she couldn't just be naked in front of someone. So she took off her sweater, but started to cry. She stumbled through the monologue Toback had given her, thinking, "God, I really am a bad actress. I can't concentrate. I'm just trying to get through this."
Toback brought up all the famous people he had worked with, boasting about how he had made their careers and telling her he could do the same for her — if she trusted him. She thought maybe he was right. But she still wanted to leave. She pulled on her sweater. He blocked the hotel room door. He told her he needed to ejaculate and she had to help him.
"People who go against me … I know people that hurt people," he warned her. Then he asked if she'd have sex with him. No. Would she jerk him off? No.
She went for the door. He told her he couldn't let her go unless he had sexual release. All she needed to do was pinch his nipples and look into his eyes and he would press himself against her and come in his pants. She felt she had no choice. And while it was happening, she tried to look away, but he grabbed her head and made her stare into his eyes.
Her manager told her not long afterward that he wanted to see her again. Her reply: He's a vile person. And you shouldn't ever send another woman to him.
Times staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.