Robert Chartoff, an Oscar-winning Hollywood producer who got a tantalizing peek into show business in the Catskills and went on to make six "Rocky" films, "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff" and nearly two dozen other movies, has died at his home in Santa Monica. He was 81.
Chartoff, who died Wednesday, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, his son William said.
Most of Chartoff's films were collaborations with Irwin Winkler, his producing partner from 1967 to 1985. Over the years, their movies captured 12 Oscars and 40 nominations, with "Rocky" winning best-picture honors in 1977.
The two shot Sylvester Stallone's story about Rocky Balboa in 28 days. Resisting studio pressure to cast a bigger name than the relatively unknown Stallone as Rocky, they spent $950,000. "Rocky," which Chartoff described as "the personification of the American Dream," ultimately earned more than $200 million.
"I kind of believed we had something special," he told interviewer Steven Prigge in 2004. "I never believed we would capture the whole world's imagination the way we did."
For Chartoff, the path to Hollywood led through the Borscht Belt, where his uncle, Charlie Rapp, booked talent for more than 100 resorts.
As a college student, Chartoff worked summers at the resorts, first as a waiter and then as an assistant to Rapp. After Columbia Law School and a brief, unsatisfying stint as a lawyer, he signed on with Rapp as an agent.
As Winkler recounted the story to Variety in 1999, Chartoff's uncle was skeptical.
"I don't think this is for you," Rapp told his ambitious nephew, "but I have this young comic and I think he's good, and I'll give him to you as a graduation present. You can be his manager."
The comic was Jackie Mason, who suddenly gained a national audience after Chartoff booked him on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show."
After Chartoff teamed up with Winkler, who was then a young agent in New York, they took off. When they landed Julie Christie for MGM's "Dr. Zhivago," the studio asked them to produce "Double Trouble" — a 1967 effort that was "re-gendered" with Elvis Presley in the lead instead of Christie.
They collaborated on numerous projects over the next few years, including "Point Blank" (1967), "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" (1969), and "The New Centurions" (1971). Their biggest smash, though, was "Rocky," which Chartoff described in Prigge's "Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews With Top Film Producers," as "one of the greatest experiences of my life."
Stallone, who mentioned that he had an idea for a boxing picture as an afterthought in a meeting with Chartoff and Winkler, wrote the script in six weeks. On the last day of shooting, Chartoff presented him with a leather-bound pad and a pen.
"I walked up to him and said, 'Now go write the sequel,' " Chartoff said.
Born on Aug. 26, 1933, in New York City, Robert Irwin Chartoff was the son of William Chartoff, a cellist and bass player for the New York Philharmonic, and his wife, Bessie. He grew up in the Bronx and attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
While he was known for the "Rocky" films and "Raging Bull" (1980), the wrenching story of middleweight Jake LaMotta, Chartoff was not a big fan of the ring.
"Personally I don't even like boxing," he told Prigge. "I like movies and I like solid drama, and I feel both movies are filled with them."
In 1983, Chartoff and Winkler produced "The Right Stuff," but they almost fizzled before the launch. Sen. John Glenn privately expressed concerns that the film would be something on the line of "Laurel and Hardy Go to Space" and urged NASA to cancel its planned cooperation with the producers.
"We were going to shoot at Ames Research Center, and we needed to use their wind tunnel and special exercise bikes and a lot of testing equipment like the 'human milkshake machine,' " Chartoff later told the Washington Post. "Suddenly, right at the crucial time, it had been taken away from us."
In an emergency meeting with NASA administrators, Chartoff calmed their fears and the filming proceeded. "The Right Stuff" won critical acclaim and four Oscars.
In addition to his son William, Chartoff's survivors include his wife, Jenny Weyman Chartoff; children Miranda, Charley, Julie, and Jenifer; and 10 grandchildren. His earlier marriages to Phyllis Raphael and Vanessa Howard ended in divorce.
Chartoff was involved in a number of philanthropies. For more than 20 years, he kept close touch with a school he started for the children of "untouchables" in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya.
On a sort of spiritual quest there with a friend who was a Buddhist monk, Chartoff was struck by the poverty they encountered.
"He met two boys who followed him around," William Chartoff said, "and he went to their parents to ask if he could pay for their education."
He wound up starting the Jennifer School, "and those two boys grew into thousands."