New York Times Film Critic Janet Maslin: James Toback Threatened to Kill Me

It was 1978 and the young critic had just reviewed James Toback’s directorial debut. Then came the phone calls: ‘I’m going to f**king kill you.’

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

The threatening calls came in the middle of the night at her apartment, and during the day at her office at The New York Times.

“I’m going to fucking kill you,” the male caller warned in his rants.

It was 1978, and Janet Maslin had just reviewed James Toback’s directorial debut, Fingers. She believed Toback was the man behind the death threats.

“He disguised his voice,” Maslin tells The Daily Beast. “It was a very menacing tone, and you know, I was scared. But at that point I had a listed phone number. He was the guy who made me unlisted.”

The renowned film critic believes Toback called her at least 10 times following her scathing summary of his film. The daytime dials were more comical, Maslin says, because she waved over fellow scribes to listen in.

Still, the threats prompted the Times to contact authorities. Maslin says it was the only time in her decades-long career that she filed a police report.

“The calls came in a badly disguised voice and said some version of, ‘I’m going to fucking kill you.’ I don’t remember them any better than that,” Maslin said. “They came to both the Times office in the daytime and my apartment in the middle of the night.”  

Maslin had been at the paper for about a year. She asked her boss, Vincent Canby, to listen in on the calls so he could corroborate them. She believes Canby contacted the Times’ security, which referred them to police.

When officers took a report, Maslin learned that fellow critic John Simon received threats, too, after he panned Toback's film. Police played Simon’s answering machine messages to see if Maslin recognized the caller. “It was the same voice saying the same stuff,” she said. “That proves it wasn’t sexual. [He] was an equal opportunity threatener.”

Toback wasn’t charged in Maslin’s case. “I was frightened by late night calls but never doubted their source,” Maslin told The Daily Beast. “And in 1978 he wasn’t anyone I was afraid of. The whole thing was more than a little ridiculous.”  

Toback called Maslin after her police report, and identifying himself using his normal voice, he invited her to the Harvard Club to clear the air.

Maslin says she was angry, curious, and wanted to show Toback she wasn’t afraid of him, so she accepted the invitation. “I was pretty mad, too,” she recalls. “My attitude was kind of, ‘OK, buster. Let’s have it out.’”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

According to Maslin, Toback was pleasant over lunch, ordering oysters and Champagne. He claimed he would never make death threats. If he wanted to kill her, Toback allegedly said, he would have done so in the middle of the street.

His denials, Maslin says, were disingenuous, as he bragged that he’d be even more dangerous if the phone threats were true.

“This was really creepy, out-of-line behavior. There were filmmakers I know I made angry that nursed a grudge, but this kind of thing just didn’t happen,” she added. “Vincent and I were each there [at the Times] for decades and neither of us had to call the police, except in this case.”

Maslin came forward because her Toback story is different—and disturbing in its own way—from the accusations by droves of actresses who say the director sexually harassed them. The incident occurred much earlier in Toback’s career, and it stayed with Maslin for nearly 40 years.  

She didn’t see Toback’s face again until the Los Angeles Times revealed that 38 women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. The number of accusers has since mushroomed to more than 300.

“I am surprised,” Maslin says of the allegations. “But he had the early seeds of some kind of a nuisance and stalker when I’d met with him. That’s why I told this story.”

Toback twice hung up on a Daily Beast reporter when reached for comment. “Oh, man. I’m not talking,” he said Wednesday.

Since the LA Times exposed the allegations against Toback, countless others are speaking out about their own encounters with the 72-year-old screenwriter.

Authorities in New York and Los Angeles are fielding calls about alleged incidents that stretch over three decades. On Tuesday, Beverly Hills police announced they opened investigations into Toback, as well as disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, over allegations of sexual assault.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Toback responded to the accusations with a profanity-laden rant. “The idea that I would offer a part to anyone for any other reason than that he or she was gonna be the best of anyone I could find is so disgusting to me,” Toback fumed. “And anyone who says it is a lying cocksucker or cunt or both. Can I be any clearer than that?”

Last week, one woman told The Daily Beast that Toback pinned her down in Central Park and stalked her in his vehicle as she ran away. Another said Toback humped her leg and ejaculated in his pants as they sat in Central Park.

Another accuser said Toback tried feeling her up as he ranted about his fantasy to commit a mass shooting, where he’d kill everyone on his “black list.” In the months afterward, Toback left slurred messages on her voicemail.

Some of the Toback stories circulating on social networks and in media interviews have taken a more sinister turn, with allegations of death threats.

Selma Blair told Vanity Fair that Toback threatened her during a meeting in a hotel room, where he pressed himself against her leg.

According to Blair, Toback warned her, “There is a girl who went against me. She was going to talk about something I did. I am going to tell you, and this is a promise, if she ever tells anybody, no matter how much time she thinks went by, I have people who will pull up in a car, kidnap her, and throw her in the Hudson River with cement blocks on her feet. You understand what I’m talking about, right?”

Robyn Hussa Farrell’s story is eerily similar. During her own hotel lunch with Toback in 1993, she alleges that the director bragged of murdering someone.

At the time, Farrell was an actress and cocktail waitress at Hotel Del Coronado, a beachfront luxury resort in San Diego, when Toback ordered a drink. Toback tossed his business card onto her tray and said, “Hey, I’m Jim.”

Farrell, who recounted her disturbing meeting with the director in an autobiographical play, remembers her sassy reply: “So what else is new?”

“I’m writing a screenplay, and I think you’d be a terrific lead,” Toback replied, before she walked away to deliver more drinks.

The next day, Toback sent a fax to the hotel—addressed to Farrell—with a copy of his driver’s license and an image of the back of a Bugsy VHS tape to prove his Hollywood credentials. He invited her to lunch.

Farrell called Toback for more information. “From the moment I spoke to him on the phone, I said, ‘I know these stories. I’m not interested in the casting couch scenario,’” Farrell told The Daily Beast. Toback allegedly replied, “That’s not what this is about. This is about the screenplay. You’re perfect for it.”

She agreed to join him at the Chateau Marmont. He wanted to meet in his penthouse, but she was adamant they stick to the restaurant. Her roommate would be waiting outside the hotel at 4 p.m., ready to call police if she didn’t emerge.

Shortly after Farrell sat down, Toback allegedly declared, “My wife and I have an open marriage.”

“If the bar for the conversation starts at, ‘My wife forces me to have sex with other people in front of her,’ … you’re no longer in what any of us would consider a realm of normalcy,” Farrell said. “I’m in this crazy universe, and I don’t even know what what the rules are because this guy is so weird.”

She realized their rendezvous wasn’t about a starring role. “I kept calling him out on it. I said, ‘Obviously your agenda and my agenda don’t line up,’” Farrell says. Toback eventually relented and said, “Fine. I’ll tell you about the screenplay.”

Talk of the script, she says, evolved into Toback’s wild claims that the mafia paid him to throw games when he played basketball at Harvard. This new screenplay would be based off his collegiate experience, he told her. Toback said he wanted her to play a mafioso’s daughter in what would become Harvard Man.

At one point, Farrell claims, Toback’s monologue included boasts of stabbing someone to death. “He was bragging about murdering somebody. That alarmed me, and I didn’t quite know if it was in the context of reality,” she says.

Farrell again asked to see the script. “Robyn, that’s not how I work,” Toback retorted. He allegedly explained that he wrote his characters after getting to know the actors themselves—after seeing them naked.

According to Farrell, he rattled off a list of celebrities he’d worked with, including Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., and claimed that they, too, followed his artistic process. He then convinced Farrell to come to his room to see examples of his work.

At Toback’s apartment, he handed her an article describing how he had sex with an actress on set in front of other performers. Then he gave her a Perrier water, and they sat down in the bedroom—the only room with a TV and VCR—to watch his documentary The Big Bang. She stealthily poured her water into a plant.

As they watched the film, Toback segued into the importance of seeing his actors naked. “He said The Big Bang was all about the orgasm of the cosmos creating the world,” Farrell recalls. “Then it led into him saying something like, ‘I can have an orgasm without touching you.’” She claims Toback instructed her to sit on the kitchen table, where he would demonstrate his dubious talent.

Toback then ordered her to rub his nipples and began humping her leg. “I was terrified,” she said. “You’re also just like, ‘I can’t believe it’s all happening.” Unsure of how to react, her defense mechanism was to be smart-alecky.

“Right after that happened and he was done with my knee… I was basically mocking him. I was like, ‘Really. That’s it?’” Farrell says.

That’s when Toback turned threatening, Farrell recalls. He allegedly warned her, “Do you know what it feels like when a knife enters the skin? Do you have any idea the layers of tissue you can feel the knife cutting through layer by layer?”

She remembers calmly telling him, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to grab my purse, leave, and I’m gone.

“It was like I was walking away from a lion that was standing on its hind legs in a cage with me. By that point, I knew I was in a serious amount of danger,” Farrell said.

As she reached the door to leave, Toback allegedly barked, “You will never amount to anything if you don’t do this film,” and she ran outside to her roommate’s car.

After the incident, Toback allegedly called Farrell multiple times, sobbing and saying that he loved her. She changed her phone number—then looked into getting a restraining order. She says she may not have completed her petition to receive one, as the courts have no record of a civil order of protection.

“It’s something you want to bury and run away from the memory of it. It’s very terrifying,” says Farrell, who now runs Mental Fitness, a South Carolina nonprofit that helps students with mindfulness, body image, and other mental health concerns.

Meanwhile, Maslin says she was “spooked” by her brush with Toback but that she doesn’t consider herself a victim of harassment.

“I feel like I took care of it myself and I don’t feel like a victim, but I feel like this very strange guy came at me, very early in my career, and revealed a very spooky part of himself,” Maslin tells The Daily Beast.

And the way Toback has reimagined the story is revealing, ghoulish, and sexist, she says. Canby’s Sunday review of Fingers came after Maslin’s daily critique, which was what people would often get worked up about, Maslin says.

During a 2013 interview with Alec Baldwin at the 92nd Street Y, Toback recalls fighting Maslin’s boss, Vincent Canby, but doesn’t mention her at all.

Maslin describes Toback’s account as “a sick, twisted, self-serving version of this story,” because Toback apparently didn’t remember making death threats to “an insignificant woman in her twenties.” Instead, Toback recounted the incident as “an epic battle between himself and the great Vincent Canby, who also thought badly of Fingers and wrote an Arts and Leisure piece saying so.”

An audience member asked Toback about Spy magazine’s “hit job,” which detailed sexual harassment allegations against the director. “Did that register at all for you? Do you care what people write about you?” the man asked of the 1980s exposé.

In response, Toback talked of his grandfather’s advice for schoolyard enemies, saying not to let people bother him. Then he transitioned into Canby’s Fingers review, saying it was “the closest I came to really letting something get to me.”

Toback told Baldwin he wanted to “kill” Canby and sought advice from Norman Mailer, who allegedly said there would be no better revenge “than the ability to continue working” and having Canby watch his success from the sideline.

Then Toback boasted of “the cruelest thing I ever did in my life... the most sadistic thing.”

Years later, when Toback heard Canby was dying of cancer, he called him at Mt. Sinai Hospital to laugh and wish him a miserable death.

Toback claimed he told Canby, “Vince, I heard you’re suffering terribly and dying of cancer, and I just want you to know how thrilled I am, how excited I am and I hope you continue to suffer and die a miserable and slow death.” Then he hung up.

But Maslin says Canby wasn’t at Mt. Sinai, and that if Toback did call the hospital, he must have harassed a sick stranger.

“Maybe he called Vincent in the hospital. He knew Vincent was dying of cancer. He got that right. I wonder if he really did it,” Maslin said.

“He certainly didn’t do anything to threaten or approach Vincent when he wrote the Sunday piece saying Fingers was terrible. He didn’t have the nerve,” she added. “All he did was harass the young woman [at the Times].

“That really matters. It’s set up a pattern of his going after the people he thought were vulnerable.”