BIFF 2013: The man behind the Man in Black

Documentary delves into Johnny Cash’s first manager

Johnny Cash, left, and Saul Holiff in 1962.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

In 2005, Jonathan Holiff was living in Los Angeles, working hard at his agency, The Hollywood-Madison Group. He hooked up celebrities with Fortune 500 companies for product endorsements; one of his biggest successes was getting Jessica Simpson together with Chicken of the Sea while the singer had a reality show on MTV.

His father, Saul, was Johnny Cash’s manager from 1960 to 1973, and Jonathan had followed his father’s footsteps into show business. However, he wasn’t close to his parents. In fact, in the 20 years since he had left home, he had spent just 17 days visiting them. That all changed when he got the phone call from his mom. His father had killed himself.

“Only after he died in 2005 did I realize that I was trying to be bigger than he ever was in order to get his attention, if not love or respect,” Holiff says.

Jonathan asked when the funeral was. Saul had specified there wouldn’t be one. When’s the memorial service? Saul didn’t want one of those, either. Why, then, was his mother calling? Just to notify Jonathan of his father’s passing. Take care. There was no note.

“I immediately fell apart,” Holiff says. “I finally came to the realization that I was only in Hollywood to prove something to a guy who was now dead, and impossible to get his approval from. So I just closed up shop and went back to Canada.”

He spent some time with his mom in Canada, helping pick up the pieces his father left behind. At the same time, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line began picking up steam and buzz. Suddenly, there was interest in his father, and reporters were calling the house asking questions, wondering if there was any memorabilia left behind. Jonathan said no, but then his mom tapped him on the shoulder. Actually, there was something, she said, and handed him a key to a storage locker.

It took Jonathan two trips to get the courage to open it. But after he saw Walk The Line, he went straight to the locker and looked inside. He found a locker full of Johnny Cash memorabilia — gold records, signed posters, and a treasure trove: 60 hours of reel-to-reel tape, Saul’s audio diaries as well as recorded phone calls with the Man in Black himself.

He decided to make a documentary. My Father and the Man in Black tells Saul’s story as discovered by his son. Saul dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help provide for his family during the Great Depression, and as he became an adult he opened up a series of businesses, always trying to out-entrepreneur the competition. He promoted country music shows as a way to boost a drive-in restaurant he owned, and it’s there he met Johnny Cash.

The two hit it off, and Saul eventually became Cash’s manager. But this was during Cash’s pre-evangelist days, and his life was ruled by drugs. In one letter that Jonathan discovered, Cash admits to his father that at one point he was up to “100 pills a day” and a “case of beer.” This prolific amount of booze and drugs eventually took a vicious toll on Cash’s body; he hit rock bottom. Johnny canceled some of his shows at the last minute, leaving Saul holding the bag, scrambling to book shows for Cash after all the major promoters became alienated. And as Johnny’s career spiraled downwards, Saul had to work harder and harder, and his family received less and less of his attention.

Dan Champagne and Elli Hollands play Johnny Cash and June Carter in re-enactments | Still courtesy of Jonathan Holiff

My Father and the Man in Black, through reenactments and actual audio from the tapes Jonathan found in his father’s storage closet, tells the story of how Saul helped launch Cash’s career, pulled him from the gutter, introduced him to June Carter and more. It also provides an answer to the biggest mystery of Saul’s story: Why, in 1973, did he resign from being Cash’s manager?

The question daunts because resigning meant walking away from a six- to seven-figure annual salary. It just doesn’t happen.

“Managers don’t walk away from millions of dollars a year, for anything,” Jonathan says. “They’ll convert to Scientology before that happens.”

As Cash pulled himself together in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he started hanging out with an evangelical Christian crowd, like controversial televangelist Billy Graham. Soon, he and June were reborn. Cash started preaching Jesus on his television show, and it was canceled. In 1973, Cash went to Israel with a film crew and, three decades before Mel Gibson did it, shot a passion play. And he cast his Jewish manager, Saul Holiff, as Caiphas, a Jewish priest supposedly instrumental in getting Jesus nailed to a cross.

It was clearly an experience that shook Saul, an atheist who identified as Jewish, to the core.

“What was terribly fascinating about this is that my father, he had many great qualities, but modesty is not one of them,” Jonathan says. “He loved attention from the press, for example, and he loved to tell stories about hanging out with Kirk Douglas, and being in Hollywood and hanging out with all these people who are Jewish.

“Saul used to brag about all his accomplishments, but he never bragged about being in a movie [with Cash].”

At this point, things became “untenable,” as Jonathan says, for his dad. Everything was pushing him to quit.

“[Saul’s] job, by any objective definition, was to do his best to ensure that his client made money, ever increasingly moved up in his career and became more successful. That’s the job of a manager. So when Johnny was born again in 1971, lost his television show and started making career decisions that were non-commercial in nature, Saul basically felt that his job was now moot,” Jonathan says.

The documentary is ultimately a tale of how Jonathan, through his father’s recordings, discovered the adult behind the parent, and developed an appreciation for the forces that shaped Saul’s character. Though the story is remarkable, Jonathan is quick to point out some humble realities of his situation.

“I hate to admit there’s nothing special about my childhood [story],” Jonathan says. “I have the privilege of telling my very basic story about fathers and sons just because there’s a star attached.”

Ultimately, Jonathan is still following in his father’s footsteps. Making the documentary swallowed six-and-a-half years of his life, and it cost him his “marriage and a trip to the hospital.” He left a successful career in show business in his 40s, just like his father did, and devoted himself to something entirely different. There’s one thing that separates him from his father: He refused to work with the Cash estate. His documentary is unauthorized, if such a thing was needed for a work only tangentially involving a celebrity.

“Cash in the U.S., everything that has been done about him has been hagiographic in nature,” Holiff says. “I could not legitimately make this a documentary if I had the blessing of the Johnny Cash estate.”

My Father and the Man in Black plays at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 16 at the First United Methodist Church. See for more information.

This story is part of our complete coverage of BIFF 2013