A fun night out at a movie screening in New York City ended, as Stephanie Kearns remembers it, with the director James Toback aggressively pinning her to a park bench as she tried to get away from him.
Earlier that evening in 2005, Toback had singled out the then-23-year-old aspiring actress at a screening of his film When Will I Be Loved, inviting her to P.J. Clarke’s with his production crew. But when she arrived at the restaurant, Toback was alone. “Where’s everybody else?” she remembers asking. He allegedly replied, “They’re not joining us till later. It’s just us for now.”
Her night would end in terror, she says, fleeing Toback’s town car only to have him follow her into Central Park. “Can you just stop and leave me alone?” she recalls asking the Oscar-nominated screenwriter. Then, she says, “this is the part that will be forever burned in my mind: He took his heavy body and placed his knees on my feet and pinned me there.”
Two police officers approached them, she says. “I was so paralyzed with fear and what do you say? I spent all night hanging out with him, now all of a sudden he’s a horrible person. I didn’t feel justified in accusing him,” Kearns says.
The cops said, “Ma’am, are you OK?” Kearns remembers Toback replying, “We’re OK. We’re just spending time together.” Kearns froze, unable to ask for help.
When the police left, Kearns says she pushed Toback off and hightailed it toward her apartment. Toback trailed her in his vehicle as she ran home. “He followed me almost halfway home,” Kearns says, claiming that Toback yelled out the window, “You can run, but you can’t hide!”
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Kearns says. “It was like a horror movie.” Kearns says she never went to another audition and quit acting after her run-in with Toback. “That wasn’t an industry I wanted to be in anymore,” she says.
Kearns, now 34 and living in Brooklyn, is one of countless women who have taken to social media to speak out following Sunday’s bombshell Los Angeles Times report, which detailed how at least 38 women have accused Toback of sexual misconduct.
Monday night, Times reporter Glenn Whipp revealed that more than 200 women had contacted him after he broke the story on the accusations.
Toback denied the Times allegations and told the paper he’d likely never met any of his accusers or did for “five minutes and [has] no recollection” of them. According to the Times, Toback said it was “biologically impossible” for the director to behave as he did because he has diabetes and a heart condition that requires medication.
When contacted for comment on this story, Toback’s former agent Jeff Berg said he would forward messages to Toback from The Daily Beast. Toback had not responded to The Daily Beast by press time.
The Times detailed how Toback would allegedly roam Manhattan and Central Park for his prey: typically young women in their twenties. He introduced himself as a Hollywood director, asking if they’d seen Black and White or Two Girls and a Guy. He routinely name-dropped Neve Campbell and Robert Downey Jr., and carried articles about himself to prove he was a big shot filmmaker looking for his next star.
According to the Times report—and an avalanche of accusers who are sharing their own Toback stories on social media—the now 72-year-old director would invite young women to his hotel room or residence under the guise of getting to know them, offering advice or writing parts for them in his scripts.
But these sessions often took a vile turn, with Toback allegedly asking the women how often they masturbated and if they shaved their public hair. One woman told The Daily Beast that Toback asked to lick her armpit.
Toback told the women he “jerked off” multiple times a day to function, the Times reported. He is also accused of dry humping or masturbating in front of them and ejaculating into his pants—a pattern he’s allegedly carried out for decades.
The accusers and their advocates are posting phone numbers on Twitter and Facebook, asking victims to call investigators with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department. A spokeswoman for the Manhattan DA declined to comment, while the LAPD did not return messages Monday.
Kearns and four others told The Daily Beast that Toback pretended to take an interest in their careers but sexually harassed them instead. At least two said that he “humped” their legs and ejaculated in his pants.
All five said they didn’t go public until the Times story. They were too afraid or ashamed. They felt they should have known better or would be blamed for putting themselves a potentially dangerous situation with an older man.
Lisa Marie Miller-Pasquale, of Queens, says she was a 20-year-old model when Toback approached her on the street. It was 1996, and she was smoking outside a dentist’s office while her friend had his tooth pulled.
“He went walking by me really fast, then stopped, turned around and rushed up to me,” Miller-Pasquale told The Daily Beast. “At first I was creeped out. He said, ‘I’m James Toback and I’m a writer-director. You’re very striking. You’re destined to be in film.’”
The now 42-year-old said she panicked when she read about the Toback allegations on Monday. With the hashtag #MeToo, Miller-Pasquale penned her own Facebook post: “After several meetings he [Toback] tried to grind on my leg in Central Park while begging me to go back to his apartment with him.”
Introducing himself as the director of The Pick-up Artist, Toback allegedly told Miller-Pasquale he saw “something different” about her.
A month or so later, she accepted his invitation to a pizzeria. They met a few more times, and Miller-Pasquale says she would accompany Toback to the city’s now-shuttered off-track betting parlors. (Toback’s gambling was no secret. In Vanity Fair in 2014, Toback wrote that he “developed a profoundly demanding gambling habit, and it was this addiction... which led to my writing what I intended to be a semi-autobiographical novel called The Gambler.”)
During another hangout, Toback asked Miller-Pasquale to read a script—but she says he soon began asking “weird questions about masturbation.” Toback allegedly inquired: How many times do you masturbate? Have you ever had sex with a woman? Were you molested as a kid?
“He asked me if I shaved my privates or not,” she said, adding that he asked to lick her armpits, too. “He said, ‘You have really nice armpits.’ I thought he was joking.”
Miller-Pasquale said she was young and from the Midwest, naive about the entertainment industry. Toback, she said, would explain away his behavior. “He would always say, ‘This is part of my process,’” she recalls.
One spring day, they left an OTB parlor for a jaunt in Central Park. “He’s like, ‘Read this script,’” Miller-Pasquale says. “All of a sudden, he gets down on his knees and presses himself against my leg.”
At first, she wondered whether his maneuver was part of the movie script. But Toback allegedly ordered her to stare into his eyes. When he backed away from her, she says, she realized that he’d ejaculated in his pants.
“It was embarrassing,” Miller-Pasquale said of the alleged incident. “You think, ‘Oh, my god. I’m so foolish. Did I bring this onto myself? Did I send out some sort of signal to this guy that he thought he could hump my leg?’”
Afterward, Toback allegedly begged her to come to his apartment, saying his wife was out of town. But Miller-Pasquale declined. “Then he started calling me after that and trying to set up other meetings with me,” she says, adding, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this guy to be exposed. I knew I couldn’t have been the only one.”
Shannon Wheeler, a 50-year-old architect in Los Angeles, also came forward on Facebook on Monday. A dancer at the Joffrey Ballet School, Wheeler was 19 or 20 in the 1980s when Toback approached her on the street.
She was in full stage makeup for The Nutcracker and rushing to visit her brother between performances. “You were made for motion pictures,” Toback allegedly told Wheeler, adding that she had the aura of German actress Nastassja Kinski.
He pressed a business card into her hand. Wheeler asked her aunt, who lived in Los Angeles, to look him up and ensure he was actually a director. Once she confirmed his identity, Wheeler agreed to join him at the Harvard Club.
After dinner, Toback invited Wheeler to his residence for a sneak peak of raw footage from his film The Big Bang. Somehow, she says, she let him talk her into this visit. Then he talked her into his only room with a television.
He allegedly began asking her questions about how often she masturbated, then pushed her down on the bed. Wheeler says the director “had his penis out and was pulling at my panties, [while] pulling up my skirt.”
Worried that Toback was going to rape her, Wheeler shoved him away. Then Toback allegedly blocked the door and started masturbating in front of her.
“I pushed him out of the way and fled. I told nobody at the time. I was so embarrassed,” she said. “It was a completely different time.”
When Spy magazine exposed Toback’s alleged misconduct years later, Wheeler’s family asked if she’d been his target, too. Young and ashamed, she denied anything happened. She didn’t want them to know she’d been tipsy, having imbibed at the Harvard Club, wanting to be sophisticated. She remembers the Spy story’s chart showing Toback’s pickup lines, including one about how he “discovered Nastassja Kinski.”
“If this would have happened to the person I am today, I would have told police. I would have told everybody and their pet rat. I was so embarrassed and thought it was completely my fault for going and thinking I was somebody special,” Wheeler said.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she added. “He did.”
For Sara Sawyer, her brush with Toback in 2008 still plays out vividly in her mind. Sawyer says she was 22, one year out of college, and aspiring to become an actress. She regularly sunbathed in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow.
One day, she overheard a man talking loudly on his cellphone. She opened her eyes to see Toback standing over her. She had no idea who he was, but he announced that he was a movie director. She, he said, was his next muse.
“He said he wanted to make a movie about me and I would become a star just like Neve Campbell, who he claimed he made a star,” Sawyer told The Daily Beast. She later told her boyfriend about her bizarre encounter, and they looked him up.
Sawyer reconsidered. What if she was passing up on her big break? What was the worst he could do? After all, she had a boyfriend. She would tell him that.
She agreed to meet Toback for lunch at the Harvard Club, and she barely got a word in as Toback allegedly unleashed his pervy proclivities.
In 15 minutes, Toback allegedly said that he needed to get to know her inside and out to create a character for her. They’d need to have “sessions,” where she would give herself fully to him. But she couldn’t speak of them to her beau.
Toback advised her to watch the opening of When Will I Be Loved, because he envisioned her in the same scene, which involved Neve Campbell masturbating. “I needed to do anything, he told me, and if I wasn’t willing to do that fully, to walk away from the project,” recalls Sawyer, now 31 and living in Minneapolis.
Then, she says, Toback told her he’d “masturbated all night long to the vision of me in Central Park and his son walked in on him, so he ejaculated out the window.”
Toback’s rant allegedly included his “goal to father a child in every country in the world” and claim that his wife “was understanding of what he needed to do with other women.” He concluded by suggesting that if Sawyer wanted a job, she couldn’t tell her boyfriend about any of their activities together.
Sawyer thanked for lunch him and never saw him again.
Ambika Leigh was waitressing at the Beverly Hills Hotel when she met Toback in 2008. Then 30, she was an actress who enjoyed a witty repartee with Toback, whom she considered creepy but harmless. “It felt like a strange mentorship in terms of him sharing with me his experiences in the business,” she recalls.
She says a month or so after meeting him, Toback invited her to the Hollywood home of producer Brett Ratner, who wasn’t there at the time. Toback “said he wanted to do some acting exercises with me,” Leigh told The Daily Beast.
Toback allegedly had Leigh sit in a comfy armchair as part of a trust exercise. “If we’re going to do this, write this role together, I need you to trust me, and I need to trust you,” Leigh remembers Toback saying.
Then Toback kneeled in front of her and began “grinding his crotch against my left shin,” she says. The seconds-long episode allegedly ended with Toback ejaculating in his pants. Unsure of how to react to the grotesque encounter, Leigh laughed at him.
“His face was beet red with anger. He got pissed, because I wasn’t taking this exercise seriously,” Leigh says.
“This was serious for him, and I was laughing in his face. When that happened, he got super angry, and that’s when I started to get scared,” she added. “That’s when I realized… this is not OK. I feel unsafe.”
Leigh darted out of the house and cried as she drove herself home. She didn’t go to police, because she feared victim blaming; she willingly went to the house with him, so what could she say?
Still, she posted on Facebook about Toback shortly after the Weinstein allegations made national headlines. Her post, where women shared similar experiences, was deleted for violating the website’s terms of service.
On Monday, Leigh said she planned to call Los Angeles authorities, to come forward as another woman harassed by the director.
She says she abandoned acting shortly after the Toback incident, tired of being exploited by men in the business
“People are like, ‘Are you an actress?’ No, not in this town. Yes, I’ve been an actress, but I’m not going to do what it takes to be one here.”
Meanwhile, in a Facebook comment Monday, Stephanie Kearns—who fled from Toback in Central Park—wrote, “#metoo seeing this news flooded me with guilt and fear. These aren’t the reactions you’d expect but that is what these experiences will do to you. I luckily got away at the last minute but I will never forget the smell of his breath, the sweat on his brow, and the weight of his knees on my feet pinning me down. I hope he rots for what he did to all of us.”
Kearns told The Daily Beast that Toback’s denials compelled her to speak out. “It’s one thing to bury the information... It’s another thing to be in a family of victims and to have that person get away with it again,” Kearns said. “That’s what triggered my obligation to contribute to the conversation and be one more person that stood up.”