Fred Weintraub, Founder Of The Bitter End And 'Enter The Dragon' Producer, Dies At 88

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 2:19 pm

An impresario and producer who helped launch the careers of many marquee-name musicians, comedians and actors — including Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Bruce Lee — has died. Fred Weintraub was 88 years old.

His wife, Jackie, confirmed his death to NPR. He died at their home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. on March 5, due to complications related to Parkinson's disease.

Born in the Bronx on April 27, 1928, Weintraub studied for his bar mitzvah with famed cantor and Metropolitan Opera soloist Richard Tucker. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, he started his career as heir to his father's baby-carriage and toy business.

But, despairing of that life at age 26, he abandoned his two children and then-wife to travel the world and pick up odd jobs, including running a fishing boat in Cuba. (He married four times in total, but was married to his last wife, Jackie, for 30 years.)

Eventually, Weintraub returned to New York. In 1961, he opened a club called The Bitter End, serving ice cream and coffee drinks instead of alcohol, at 147 Bleecker St., in the heart of Greenwich Village.

It's nearly impossible to overstate The Bitter End's position as a fulcrum of New York's music and comedy scenes. Among the many talents fostered on that stage, against its famous bare-brick wall, were Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, Randy Newman, George Carlin, Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and Bill Cosby.

A decade after the Bitter End opened, its manager, Paul Colby, opened another club next door called The Other End — and Weintraub fired him. By 1974, however, Weintraub had sold the Bitter End to Colby, who died in 2014 at 96.

In the late 1960s, Weintraub headed west to the Warner Bros. film studios as a production executive. One of his first tasks there was to finance a music documentary for the "hesitant ... establishment" at the studio, as Jackie Weintraub wrote in a statement provided to NPR. It was the landmark, Oscar-winning Woodstock, released in 1970. Woodstock earned $32 million in its theatrical release, an impressive return for a documentary film both then and now.

Soon after that smash hit, Weintraub decided he wanted to replicate the success of Hong Kong's martial arts movies in America. He went looking to make a star, and found one in an aspiring actor and martial arts teacher working in Oakland: Bruce Lee. Their resulting film, 1973's Enter the Dragon, made more than $100 million worldwide — and made Lee, who died a few days after the movie's release, an instant legend.

Weintraub went on to have additional commercial successes in both film and TV, including producing the folk music program "Hootenanny" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Weintraub also helped develop the film industry in then-Yugoslavia and in Lithuania.

At a 2012 event in Burbank promoting his autobiography Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me: From the Man Behind a Half-Century of Music, Movies and Martial Arts (written with David Fields), Weintraub told the audience: "I've had a serendipitous life with more failures than you can imagine. I believe success and failure go hand-in-hand, and you can never go wrong in failing. You'll always come out of a failure as a better person. I agree with Winston Churchill, who said, 'Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.' You have to be willing to stick your neck out. Always do new things. Try anything. You never know when something life-changing will come your way."

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