James Toback, highly respected as a screenwriter and the director of nine films, was born on November 23, 1944 in New York City to a successful garment manufacturer. A 1966 graduate of Harvard College, Toback later taught creative writing at City College of New York in the early 1970s. He suffered from a gambling compulsion that still plagues him, which was the subject of his autobiographical screenplay for the Karel Reisz film The Gambler (1974) that starred James Caan as a New York University literature professor who was a compulsive gambler. The film was a success and launched Toback's career in movies. He graduated to writer-director with his movie _Fingers (1978), a gritty, urban melodrama influenced by Martin Scorsese's early New York pictures starring early Scorcese collaborator Harvey Keitel as a hitman who has ambitions to be a concert pianist (the latter a determinedly non-Scorcese theme).
Fingers (1978) revealed Toback's obsession with former football great and blaxploitation movie star Jim Brown, one of the more potent mainstream avatars of African American pride and defiance to the culture at large in the late 1960s and early '70s. In a year 2000 appearance at the National Film Theatre in London to screen and discuss _Black and White (1999)_, his film dealing with relations between "wiggas" (Caucasian black-wannabes) and African Americans (with a cast that included former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson playing himself, counseling another African American to commit murder), Toback admitted that he revered black culture as an antidote to the sterility of middle-class white existence. Toback said that he was bored with his life and his wife after graduating from Harvard, and he saw Jim Brown as a symbol of the freedom he wanted to achieve. His explanation and the portrayal of a homosexual character in the film (played by frequent Toback star Robert Downey Jr.) did not go over well with the members of color in the audience, but Toback was undaunted by their hostility and remained in good spirits.
Long before making the controversial _Black and White (1999)_ and 'Harvard Man (2001)_ (both of which return to his theme of gambling), Toback spent two decades after Fingers (1978) on a career rollercoaster. Love & Money (1982) and Exposed (1983) were flops, though he did redeem his reputation later in the decade with the popular The Pick-up Artist (1987) (which starred Downey, Jr. and was produced by his friend and fellow-womanizer Warren Beatty) and his highly acclaimed documentary about the meaning of existence The Big Bang (1989). In 1992, Toback's talent as a screenwriter was recognized when he was nominated for an Academy Award for for Warren Beatty's star vehicle Bugsy (1991), a modest box office success which was directed by Barry Levinson.
After reaching those heights, Toback's career again swooped downward, and none of his projects reached the screen until the late 1990s, when he wrote and directed Two Girls and a Guy (1997), starring, once again, 'Robert Downey, Jr.'. After experiencing a career renaissance at the turn of the millennium, Toback has written and directed only one more picture, the underwhelming When Will I Be Loved (2004). He also had an earlier screenplay adapted and filmed by French writer-director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005).