Eccentric Hollywood Producer Returns to His Jerusalem Roots

Howard Rosenman may be best known for films like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but the former yeshiva student, who volunteered in the Six-Day War, traces his roots to Mea She'arim.

Hollywood producer Howard Rosenman, a scion of fifth and sixth generation ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemite families from Mea She'arim, and the product of long days in the yeshivas of Far Rockaway, Queens, long nights at the gay clubs of New York and Los Angeles, and a never wavering love affair with Israel, was back in the city of his ancestors this week.

Sporting a newly trim waist — he recently shed 100 pounds -- a varsity jacket from Gross Anatomy (“It’s a movie about me,” he says), and two pairs of glasses -- one for long distance, the other for short-- balanced on his forehead, the 68-year-old, who flew in for the international conference in Jerusalem on innovation in television sponsored by the Keshet Media Group, kicks back, at midnight, with two cups of ice coffee (“no milk, more ice cubes,”) to discuss the Six Day War, Leonard Bernstein, Linor Abargil and everything in between.

The man who produced romantic comedies like "Father of the Bride," horror-comedy-action flicks like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and serious documentaries like "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt" (which won both the Peabody and an Academy Award) was born Zvi (“Ben Moshe Yosef”) Rosenman in Brooklyn – named after his six-foot-six, great grandfather’s grandfather ( a “scholar and a stud,” notes Rosenman), who arrived in the Holy Land, off a boat from Russia in 1840.

Rosenman’s parents met at a wedding in Brooklyn, which is where both their long time Jerusalemite families had moved in the 1930s. His father’s brother was marrying his mother’s sister. His father, a printer, immediately clocked the cute new sister-in-law.

“My mother was 14 and my father was 18. Mom was very beautiful and well developed, and dad said: “I want to take you out. Mom said: “But I am 14,” relays Rosenman, his voice gravelly, his tone intense and conspiratorial, as if secrets are being shared. “On her 18th birthday, he called her up and took her to a Frank Sinatra concert in Brownsville.” Rosenman stops for effect, and, is his wont, pokes his interlocutor in the ribs for emphasis. “I was born a year later.”

The family moved from Brooklyn to Queens, and little Zvi went off to yeshiva and then, later, to Brooklyn College, where he picked up a degree in European Literature before beginning medical school at the Hahnemann Medical College. And that is when fate – in the shape of the Six Day War - intervened.

“My cousin Aryeh Maidenbaum…” begins Rosenman, a world class raconteur with a phenomenal memory and a tendency to let his stories go off on tangents, “… who is, today, by the way, one of the world’s foremost Jungian analysts…”

“So, Aryeh says to me… “I am picking you up on 6th Avenue and 11th —that’s where I was studying for the medical boards -- and we are driving to Kennedy to get on a plane to help Israel fight in the war.”

Off to the battlefront

By the time the cousins arrived at Ben-Gurion, the Egyptian air force had been destroyed on the ground, and Ariel Sharon was pushing his troops through the Sinai. Rosenman was sent off to serve as a medic in the Gaza Strip, doing amputations and triage.

Then, before he knew it, he found himself escorting the Israeli paratroopers into Jerusalem. “I was there when [future chief rabbi] Shlomo Goren blew the shofar,” says Rosenman. “It flipped me out. I never recovered.”

The next thing he never recovered from, as Rosenman tells it, was his meeting with legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who had arrived to support Israel after the war and conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with Isaac Stern on violin, in Mahler’s "Resurrection" symphony -- in the newly liberated Mt. Scopus Roman amphitheater. Rosenman was volunteering as a medic at Hadassah hospital. And Bernstein arrived to visit the patients.

“I was very cute in those days, with a great square jaw and I was wearing hospital whites and had a stethoscope hanging out of my pocket,” says Rosenman with a wink. “And Bernstein said: ‘I know a guy who looks just like you — my waiter at Arthur, the discothèque in New York.’ And I answered in Hebrew, ‘Maestro Bernstein, I am your waiter,’” says Rosenman, who had, indeed, been moonlighting, back home, at the hip New York institution to make some extra money. “Whereupon he kissed me on his lips and gave me four tickets for his concert.”

One thing led to another, and before long Rosenman, 21 at the time, found himself following the maestro, 49, around – first as a gofer on a documentary film about Bernstein conducting the IPO in the West Bank for the Israeli soldiers, and soon after, on vacation to Italy with Bernstein, his beautiful Chilean-born actress wife and their three kids. “I idolized him,” says Rosenman. It was the beginning of both Rosenman’s life as a gay man, and his life in the entertainment business.

“Lenny said to me: ‘You will never be able to bow to the mistress of science, you are too creative,’” recalls Rosenman. “He said: ‘You should become a writer, director, producer. You are a natural-born storyteller.’” He lowers his voice. “And I am.”

Later, back in New York, having dropped out of medical school and taken off his kippa, Rosenman, mainly through Bernstein, met a long parade of bold-faced names, who became, variably, friends, mentors, colleagues and lovers. Among them the good and the great - Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Lawrence and Hal Prince ( “I sat at the feet of all these geniuses,” says Rosenman), and Diane von Furstenberg, who became his BFF.

Katherine Hepburn's assistant

Zev, now Howard, which came from his middle name Heschel, started his career in the world of entertainment as an assistant to the late great Katherine Hepburn who was acting, that 1969, for the first and only time, on Broadway in the Andre Previn musical Coco. He then dabbled in few other Broadway musicals, turned his attention briefly to making commercials -- winning acclaimed Clios for his campaigns for Cool Whip and Almond Joy – and met and impressed Barry Diller. Within five years Rosenman set out for Hollywood to work for Diller’s new “Movies of the Week” operation at ABC.

His first feature film as a producer, which was written together with Joel Schumacher, was "Sparkle," inspired by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, which was remade in 2012 with Whitney Houston, right before her death. The 1976 version was a flop, but it put Rosenman solidly on the map and he quickly followed it up with a string of others films, some more memorable than others, included "The Main Event" starring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, the Oscar nominated "Resurrection" starring Ellen Burstyn and Sam Shepard and the schlock buster TV movie "Killer Bees" starring old school screen legend Gloria Swanson.

But mainly, between 1979 and 1983 as Rosenman says, he partied. A lifestyle that was disrupted when “AIDS reared its ugly head and changed everything.” “All my friends began to die,” says Rosenman who counted 2400 friends who passed away from the disease. “I should have been dead too. But I was damn lucky. The luckiest Jew that ever lived.”

Eventually, Rosenman decided to “quit my wicked ways,” and, after a breather at his religious sister’s home in Ramat Shlomo back in Israel, he returned to full time producing, putting out over a dozen films, from romantic comedies like "A Stranger Among Us" (the Sidney Lumet film starring Melanie Griffith as an undercover policewoman in the Hassidic community) and "Father of the Bride" with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, to "The Family Man" starring Nicolas Cage, Noel with Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Robin Williams and You Kill Me, with Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni.

It all started at Camp Massad

Rosenman also produced several documentaries, including "The Celluloid Closet" about the portrayal of gays and lesbians in Hollywood films, and "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt," by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman – a movie about the AIDS memorial quilt, which won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1990. And, he also got in front of the camera, playing David Goodstein, owner of The Advocate in "Milk," the Gus Van Sant bio-pic with Sean Penn as gay rights activist Harvey Milk. When Van Sant’s assistant called to see if Rosenman wanted to try out for the part, and asked if he had ever acted before, Rosenman said, “Sure: ‘I played Henry Higgins at Hebrew Camp Massad.’”

These days, Rosenman, who also teaches master classes in UCLA on how to pitch in Hollywood, has “at least” 30 projects in development, he says, including two Broadway musicals (one, based on a dream he had in 1985) and no less than four Israel-related projects.

He is working with Paramount on a remake of the Israeli comedy "A Matter of Size," about overweight people and sumo wrestling; raising money for an adaptation of the Israeli tearjerker "The Jewish Dog," by Asher Kravitz, about a Jewish boy and his German Shepherd in Berlin in the 1940s; and has just sold former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren’s book "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" to David Ellison’s company to be made into a six-hour mini series.

Another project, close to Rosenman’s heart, has him collaborating with his longtime friend, the Israeli producer Motty Reif on a documentary, to be released in L.A. next week, called "Brave Miss World," which is about another friend, Linor Abargil, Israel’s 1998 Miss World, who was raped six weeks before the competition.

“The Jews are the people of the book. We have been telling stories for more than 2,000 years,” Rosenman says as he gets up to jump in a taxi, wondering where he left a certain pile of papers, including his passport. “And that is what I am. A Jew. A speilmeister. Nothing else.”

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