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Havertown Native Mike Tollin Has Lasting Success As a Filmmaker

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Award-winning film expert and media mogul Mike Tollin can’t seem to escape his Delaware County roots—not that he’s ever tried.

For Mike Tollin, it’s the ultimate insult. Despite an ever-present Phillies cap, his four best pals insist on calling him the “Hollywood guy.” Tollin actually grew up in what’s considered Havertown, though it was an Ardmore mailing address. He recalls slipping under the fence at Merion Golf Club for an up-close view of the classic playoff between Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino in the 1971 U.S. Open.

mike tollin

Photo by Anthony Geathers

These days, as a leading documentary filmmaker and media mogul, Tollin is more of a Hollywood guy than he’d care to admit—even if he’s not much of a self-promoter. His immense success, however, has demanded it. Tollin did 100 interviews alone for 2020’s The Last Dance, an enthralling 10-part ESPN series on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty, which was hugely successful and won about a dozen awards, including an Emmy. Protective of himself around fellow media types, he’s survived the “cauldron without blemishes,” even if The Last Dance made the coals red-hot.

mike tollin

Photo courtesy of Mike Tollin

Now 65, Tollin has produced and directed more than a dozen feature films, several award-winning documentaries and hundreds of hours of television. Most recently, ESPN announced his six-episode series on modern-day baseball legend Derek Jeter. Titled the The Captain, it will air next year. His production credits also include feature films like Wild Hogs, Coach Carter, Varsity Blues, Summer Catch and Big Fat Liar. As a director, Tollin won a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy for 1995’s Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. He’s directed and produced other award-winning docs, including “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?,” an original installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, for which he was a consulting producer. He also has production credits for the dramatic series Smallville and One Tree Hill, along with seven seasons of Arli$$, the popular HBO comedy about a sports agent.

As for The Last Dance, it proved that sports documentaries can pass what Tollin calls “the watercooler litmus test.” With COVID-19 ravaging the country and no live sports on the air, each episode was treated like the big game. “We created a frenzy,” he says.

At Haverford High School, Mike Tollin played basketball, though he never did his father’s athletic legacy proud. A two-handed set shooter from Chester High School, Sol Tollin averaged nearly 20 points a game in basketball’s pre-three-point-shot era. He was also a crafty left-handed baseball pitcher. Both talents landed him in the Haverford College Athletic Hall of Fame. Interestingly, Tollin and his father were both elected to the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. For Tollin, it was for his media career, not athletics.

Growing up, Tollin would grapple with his older brother, Larry, for the Philadelphia Bulletin and its heralded sports section. They also engaged in fierce backyard games, initiating many a bloody nose. Tollin started at Oberlin College in Ohio, largely because of its liberal arts focus on sport and society—“the grandeur of sports, more so than could be found in just playing them,” he says.

mike tollin

Photo courtesy of Mike Tollin

Sophomore year, Tollin transferred to Stanford University, where he was a sports columnist for The Stanford Daily and the play-by-play radio announcer for Cardinal basketball. He and three friends—the self-named “four donkeys”—ran KZSU Stanford basketball operations, crafting black blazers for themselves modeled after the mainstream media’s Olympic blazers. They even called for the firing of Stanford’s football coach, stirring controversy. “We had about as much fun as you can have,” remembers Tollin. “I didn’t have the pipes for broadcasting. But I loved writing, and I loved sports.”

At Stanford, he found the mentors he needed. “The longer you stay [in one career], the less likely you’ll be to get out of it,” says Tollin, noting the advice one gave him. “That was 1977. Now, 44 years later, I’m still in it.”

Across his lifetime, Tollin has received advice from many sources, including Hank Aaron. The late baseball legend and friend always spoke about being the tortoise, not the hare. “He never hit 50 home runs in one season, but he still became the home-run king,” Tollin says.

Tollin credits his success to his team and an ability to keep multiple balls in the air. He’s a decade in as the cofounder of Mandalay Sports Media in Los Angeles, which he started with Peter Guber.

The company’s focus is feature films, scripted and unscripted TV series, and documentaries. “Sports have become the ultimate pop culture,” says Tollin. “One time, it wasn’t. It used to be called ghetto programming.”

Three days after his Stanford graduation in 1977, Tollin secured his first job as a writer and producer for Berl Rotfeld, an early television pioneer and a family friend. The Rotfeld TV series Greatest Sports Legends was headquartered above an Italian restaurant on City Line Avenue. There, Tollin earned $130 a week, plus gas for his 1968 Oldsmobile. With 80-hour weeks as common as an empty tank, he was making a “cool $2 an hour.” It didn’t matter. He found a place to live across from Haverford College on Lancaster Avenue and quickly began researching baseball legend Ted Williams for his first show.

Tollin grew up with Rotfeld’s son, Steve, a three-time Emmy-winning television producer and writer. “[We were] best friends from pre-consciousness on,” Rotfeld jests. “We spent a lot of time together—practically the first 17 years together, every day.”

Rotfeld now has his own self-named media production company in Bryn Mawr, though Tollin actually worked for his father before he did. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, there weren’t many TV production studios outside Los Angeles and New York, and hardly anyone was doing sports programming. So Rotfeld went to law school after college. “There was no ESPN, no FOX Sports Network—only ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a couple syndicated shows and NFL Films,” Rotfeld recalls. “There were live sports, but not today’s 24-hour inundation.”

At Greatest Sports Legends, Tollin’s signature moment was convincing a recalcitrant Wilt Chamberlain to be on the show. Decades later, he’d nab the likes of Jordan and Jeter for bigger projects. “It all illustrates how far I’ve come—and how far I haven’t come,” Tollin says. “But my appetite [for sports] has never dimmed, nor my love for sports, the currency it provides or its backbone for relationships. I have my Philly guys, my Stanford guys, my L.A. guys, my New York guys. Sports have been a constant drumbeat for me.”

Rotfeld still texts Tollin daily, and they attend games together on both coasts. “We haven’t strayed far from our passions and boyhoods,” he says. “In quiet moments, I look at the texts, and we could’ve written them when we were 16. We’ve grown older, but we’re still kids.”

From City Line Avenue, Tollin went on to Major League Baseball Productions. In 1980, he and then-wife Robbie moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote a script for Vin Scully, the voice of baseball, when sports documentaries were first coming in vogue. That year, he was also a writer for the official World Series film chronicling the Phillies first-ever world championship. That was the first time he worked with the late David Montgomery, who rose from the ticket office to become the team’s chairman, minority owner and president. “Michael and David had a remarkable friendship,” says Lyn Montgomery, David’s widow. “They had a lot in common, including the ability to make people feel special. They both had incredible passion and drive, but neither seemed like they were that driven.”

During the season, baseball executives have long business days followed by night games, sometimes on the West Coast. “One night, Michael called David, and it was well after midnight,” Lyn says. “David did fall asleep while Michael was talking. It was a story they enjoyed telling for many years.”

In 1982, Tollin formed Halcyon Days Productions and was awarded exclusive rights to the fledgling United States Football League. Ten years later, he cofounded Tollin/Robbins Productions and had a 15-year run with partner Brian Robbins before going it on his own. He established Mandalay Sports Media in 2012.

And the work never ends. There’s the Disney Plus hockey movie Great Scott, plus documentaries on the 2008 gold-medal-winning U.S basketball team and NFL quarterback Drew Brees and his relationship with longtime coach and “quarterback whisperer” Tom House. Other projects in active development include a scripted comedy series starring boxer Mike Tyson. And there’s a new six-part series in the works for The Discovery Channel called Justice USA, which has nothing to do with sports. “It’s nice to have a niche, but it’s also nice to have the ability and freedom to go beyond,” Tollin says. “I don’t say I can do whatever I want—but I can try. And then the universe tells me what I can do.”

Sometimes projects move at glacial speeds, and Tollin insists that he turns down most of what he’s presented. He’s also had great experiences with projects that never came to be. “Opportunity often emerges from the ashes,” Tollin says, “as does a greater respect for humanity and the dignity, passion and challenge of it all that makes it churn on for years.”

mike tollin and dick allen

Mike Tollin with Phillies great Dick Allen, Arli$$ star Robert Wuhl and basketball icon World B. Free. Photo courtesy of Mike Tollin

Tollin has had a documentary in the works on friend Dick Allen for 20 years. Recently, the project has taken on greater interest and scope ahead of Allen’s likely induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2022. Allen, who played twice for the Phillies, was set to be on the Golden Days Era Committee ballot for the Class of 2021, until a pandemic-induced rescheduling of baseball’s Dec. 6 winter meetings. Sadly, the much-embattled and misunderstood Allen died a day later at 78.

The news prompted a call to Tollin from a Paramount Pictures executive, who offered a boardroom pitch about a black baseball player who’d just died—one who’d experienced racism during his career then continually fell short of election into the Hall of Fame. “Did you ever hear of Dick Allen?” Tollin was asked.

“I said, ‘Who put you up to this?’ We first became friends in 1977 and shared the first of many beers,’” Tollin recounts.

So began discussions about a potential feature film, with a likely release in late 2022 or the start of baseball season in 2023. “It seems like forever away, but it’s already been forever,” says Tollin. “There’s such a huge gap between the public perception and the man himself. He was kind, lovable, affable—an independent guy who definitely marched to the beat of his own drummer, and a guy ahead of his time. But most thought he was angry and sullen.”

Months before Allen’s death, the Phillies honored him by retiring his No. 15 jersey at Citizens Bank Park. David Montgomery will be getting the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies Sept. 8. “I’d love to go, and I’d love to be in Cooperstown (N.Y.) next summer for Dick,” says Tollin. “We’re hoping the movie concludes with his Hall of Fame induction.”

An active philanthropist, Tollin is a founding board member of Children Now, Common Sense Media and Hank Aaron’s Chasing the Dream Foundation. He’s also the founder of PACE, which devotes resources to kids’ charities. PACE just invested in the graduating class from Philly’s Northeast High School, working with Philadelphia Futures to find and guide 20 students through college admittance and application for financial aid.

Another of Tollin’s longtime Philly friends is Pat Croce, who rose to executive ranks with the Sixers much like Montgomery did in his time with the Phillies. Croce reveals that Tollin watched his latest Emmy presentation alone on Zoom—though he did have Ollie, his chocolate Lab, by his side. “Most of us are buried in frenzied activity and end up spinning around,” says Croce. “But Michael always keeps one foot in the peaceful hub of the wheel and the other in the hub of performance. Because of that, he doesn’t suffer, nor does he cause anyone else to suffer.”

Croce believes Tollin’s body of work transcends the concept of winning in sports by emphasizing the character of its participants. “He shares a passion with everyone,” says Croce. “He can find commonality in anyone and anything. His questions feel harmless, but they’re intense. And he gets his answer. He knows who he is, and that’s a difference—because most people don’t know who they are.”

In early May, Tollin and his 22-year-old son, Lucas, were at Citizens Bank Park for the Phillies’ four-game sweep of the Brewers. He and Lucas share a dream of buying and operating a minor league team “somewhere in the mountains.” Of all the sports, Tollin prefers baseball. “It was great to be back in a ballpark, drinking a beer, eating a hot dog and seeing some wins,” he says. “It was the official reopening of life for me. A ballpark has always been the happiest place on earth for Lucas and me.”

At a recent dinner with his ex-wife, Tollin and Lucas were screaming away at the TV during a Phillies game. “She turns and says, ‘Some things never change.’ I said, ‘But aren’t you glad they haven’t?’” says Tollin. “We care so much that it’s still relevant—and it’s still beautiful.”

Related: What to Do in Ardmore: Spend a Day in This Bustling Town

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