EXCLUSIVE: Known universally as Biff and ever-present both backstage and at Broadway openings when Broadway openings mattered, Liff wore hats as a manager and producer, and as a longtime talent agent for William Morris during a career that spanned more than six decades. Liff died Monday at home in Westchester County, New York, his longtime friend and colleague, producer Emanuel Azenberg, confirmed.
“He was a giant. A giant,” said Azenberg, who worked with Liff for David Merrick, the producer of such hits as Gypsy and Hello, Dolly! (and such flops as Breakfast At Tiffany’s). Liff began his career in 1949 as the stage manager of Along Fifth Avenue and then the hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, produced by Herman Levin and Oliver Smith. For Levin he also served as the production stage manager for My Fair Lady, the hit musical by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner that starred Rex Harrison and launched the career of Julie Andrews in 1956.
“The production managers were the kings,” Azenberg, currently general manager of Hamilton, told Deadline. “They were the ones who got things done, the unsung heroes of Broadway.” For the brilliant but tyrannical Merrick, Liff associate-produced The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd, Oliver! and Marat/Sade, among many other shows, often taking charge of them when they spawned national and international tours.
When Liff changed careers and became one of the most powerful agents at William Morris, he and Azenberg — producer of plays by Neil Simon and Tom Stoppard, among others — were often on opposite sides of the negotiating table.
“Because we knew one another and because we never lied,” Azenberg recalled, “we would go out to lunch to make a deal. We would write down our offers and exchange napkins, and usually we were very close. One time, I think it was Ellen Burstyn, we hit the exact same numbers. Both napkins. We attached the napkins to the Equity contract. Equity kept sending the contract back, saying ‘We can’t approve this — it has two napkins attached.”
Liff served for many years on the Tony Awards nominating committee until health prevented him from getting into New York for his beloved openings. But for some thirty years throughout my own career as Broadway reporter and critic, I was accustomed to discussing shows with him in interviews and seeing him at the theater, where inevitably we would exchange warm greetings. It wasn’t always easy to get to him; Biff Liff always had a circle of friends and admirers around him.