Ask Mike Tollin a question, and he’s liable to answer with a story or two.
Have you heard the one about the time that Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino narrated a bar mitzvah video for his son, Lucas? Or how about, later that day, he and Lucas had a celebratory baseball catch on top of Masada?
Tollin’s told other stories, too, stories you don’t have to ask him about to hear. In fact, if you’ve been one of the millions to watch “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN docuseries on Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Chicago Bulls that aired its finale on May 17, you’ve already heard one.
“It’s been a real source of community, which makes me very grateful,” said Tollin, who was executive producer of “The Last Dance.”
Over his decades as a producer, Tollin’s been responsible for TV shows like “Arli$$,” “Smallville,” “One Tree Hill” and “All That,” among others. On the big screen, his credits include “Varsity Blues,” “Coach Carter,” “Radio” and an Oscar-nominated documentary about Henry Aaron, to name a few.
And it all started in a little office above an Italian restaurant on City Line Avenue.
Tollin, boomeranging back east from his undergrad career at Stanford University, returned home to Philadelphia to work for his father’s friend, Berl Rotfeld. The year was 1977.
The Tollins and the Rotfelds grew up rather symmetrically, in Havertown. When Sol and Ruthellen Tollin had their first son in 1953, Berl and Joan Rotfeld did, too. The pattern repeated with a second son in 1955 — the point of symmetry where Mike Tollin enters the picture — and with each family’s daughter a few years later, too. When the Rotfelds got divorced in 1964, well, you should be able to guess, by now.
Tollin grew up at Har Zion Temple, then still in Wynnefield. He is the sort of person who will off-handedly mention that Chaim Potok served as pinch-rabbi at his bar mitzvah. He attended Haverford High School, and spent eight summers (“the happiest times of my life,” he said) at Sun Mountain Camp, a long-defunct basketball oasis in the Poconos. His father, Sol, had played basketball at Haverford College. Though Sol Tollin and Tollin’s eldest brother each bested the younger Tollin on the court, the wire-crossing that would shape the rest of his professional life — a knotty tangle of family, Judaism and sports — had already begun.
Tollin joined Berl Rotfeld’s production company, three flights of stairs up in a City Line Avenue office building. Tollin was putting in 80-hour weeks producing “Greatest Sports Legends” documentaries. In June 1977, the first Legend documentary he produced was on Ted Williams. Forty-three years later, he said, he’s basically doing the same thing.
“The gift of still being able to do something I love into my fifth decade makes me feel pretty grateful,” Tollin said.
Tollin next got a job working for Major League Baseball. His first assignment, during that 1980 season, was to write the script that would celebrate that season’s World Series winner. Serendipity; the Philadelphia Phillies, the losingest franchise in team sports history, won their first title that season, and the next thing Tollin knew, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully was narrating it with his words.
After a few years at MLB, Tollin got a chance to run the production operation at the short-lived USFL, a “rival” football league to the NFL. In taking the job, though, Tollin created his first production company, alongside Stanford buddy Gary Cohen. With the end of the ‘80s came the end of that company, Halcyon Days Productions, and the beginning of his marriage to his wife, Bobbie.
Tollin moved to Los Angeles, starting a new production company with Brian Robbins: Tollin/Robbins Productions. The partnership produced much of the work that follows Tollin’s names in profiles and introductions to this day. The pair split in 2007, and both kept on rolling.
Robbins is the head of Nickelodeon, and Tollin kept doing what he and Robbins had done best, producing sports movies and children’s media. Prior to “The Last Dance,” Tollin had already worked with ESPN to produce a dramatization of the 1977 Yankees season and a “30 for 30” documentary about the demise of the USFL.
In 2016, Tollin was tapped by Jordan and his team to make the defining documentary on one of the most famous athletes to ever walk the Earth. As recently as the spring, the plan was to air the finished product in June; a national quarantine and public pleading from LeBron James created the necessary pressure for Tollin, the editors and Tollin’s self-described beshert, director Jason Hehir, to finish the documentary early.
Over the past few weeks, the accolades (and criticism) have poured in for “The Last Dance.” But more than any accolade what is pleasing to Tollin about the success of the show is that it’s created a water cooler conversation during a time when people are finding that they might actually be missing such a concept.
“The legacy,” Tollin said, “is that it brought people together, brought families together,
brought communities together.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0740