We are very sad to announce the death of Bill Freedman, at the age of 93. Bill was the founder of Pilates Central and, until recently, still a regular presence at the studio. We will all miss his charm, smile and enthusiasm.
Bill was both an evangelist and walking advertisement for Pilates. Yet, he only discovered it at the age of 62, when searching for help with both a lifelong back problem and chronic trouble with his feet. Someone suggested Pilates and recommended Alan Herdman, who had set up Britain’s first ever Pilates studio.
Bill found that Pilates helped him even more than he had hoped – and from then on he was a convert. In fact, he liked it so much that he opened his own Pilates studio, Pilates Central, in 2004 – with the initial help of Alan Herdman himself and the close collaboration from day one until Bill’s death with Pete Ottevanger, who, of course, remains the manager of Pilates Central today.
“Everyone at Pilates Central was so saddened to hear of Bill’s passing, as he was loved by teachers, clients and everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him”, says Pete. “I will miss Bill terribly.”
With the help of daily Pilates, Bill was still playing golf regularly at the age of 92 and, until the Covid lockdowns, still taking the Tube each day into work at Pilates Central. He was a familiar and friendly presence not just at the studio but to many along Upper Street.
Bill recalled that when he broke his arm at the age of 82, his doctor told him that he had the bones of a 20-year-old – and that, on learning that Bill did Pilates, could only attribute his youthful bones to that.
Bill himself attributed his good health to “80 percent luck and 20 percent Pilates.” Bill thought that the over-60s, in particular, could benefit hugely from Pilates and said, “Everyone says that older people fall down – but those that do Pilates get up!”
Whenever he saw someone his age or sometimes much younger looking stooped or frail or struggling to walk, he would lament the fact that they didn’t do Pilates and reflect that, in an ideal world, Pilates would be provided to all, as a public service.
At Bill’s funeral, his elder son Peter’s eulogy spoke of a man who was renowned for being not just charming and cheerful, but also funny and wise – and a mentor and sage to many.
Bill was also known for being dapper and had no less than 70 bow-ties. Peter recalled: “When my sister Lisa worked as a Fleet Street fashion editor and was doing a piece about the best dressed men in London, she needed suggestions. And so she phoned Bill’s tailor, Dimi Major, himself a modish figure in the fashion world of the day. Dimi instantly replied, “What about your dad?”
“Bill was famously optimistic,” added Peter. “I remember once reading a self-help book that advised: ‘Try to be the most positive person you know.’ And my immediate reaction was, ‘That’s all very well, but you don’t happen to know the most positive person I know. I don’t think you’d write that if you did’. Never mind. I pledged from that day on to try and be … the SECOND most positive person I knew.
“He was, I can also confirm, extremely clean,” remembered Peter. “My Aunt Ellen used to say that Bill was the only man she’d ever met who, when he entered a room, ran his finger across the windowsills and top of the door to check for dust. This made him an intimidating houseguest.
“Some children”, added Peter, “disappoint their parents by becoming junkies or serial killers. I had to live with the knowledge of being a disappointment to my dad because … I didn’t wash my car more often. He would ask, “Where did I go wrong?” And I couldn’t answer.”
The Cinema Business
Bill was born in Toronto in 1929 – the much-loved only child of Russian-born parents, who ran a movie theatre in a rough suburb.
Since his mother Mary had suffered several miscarriages before he was born and the fact that it was also the Depression, she piled his plate with as much food as he could eat, until he became the fattest boy in the school, and the family doctor finally had to intervene and insist that she put her son on a diet – which he then remained on for the rest of his life.
After studying at the University of Toronto, where he discovered his love of theatre, he joined his parents in the family cinema business.
It was also in this period that that he wooed his future wife, Toby Robins, by then already a celebrated young beauty and actress, with many, more conventionally eligible suitors than the unglamorous young Bill, who, to general surprise, won her hand.
When Bill’s mother phoned her future in-laws to introduce herself, Toby’s Mum replied, “I don’t know which one he is … but if my Toby chose him, he must be wonderful.”
Bill and Toby and their three young children – Lisa, Peter, Ben – moved to London for the sake of Toby’s work in 1964, for what was intended to be a trial few months.
In London, Toby’s acting career flourished, while Bill became a leading theatre producer. He went on to produce some 15 plays and musicals in the West End and several on Broadway. They included included one of the first stage depictions of a gay couple in the Tony-award winning Broadway play Staircase (1968). Another success the same year, both in the West End and later Broadway, was Hadrian the Seventh starring Alec McCowen, as an obscure English priest who becomes Pope.
This was an important year for Bill for yet a third reason. In 1968 he attended his first Arsenal match and became a diehard fan for the rest of his life.
(Until the lockdowns, he was also still attending every Arsenal home match, mispronouncing the names of the foreign players and vainly betting on Arsenal to win the league. And he greatly enjoyed Arsenal’s return to the top of the league this season.)
Bill’s Charity Work
He produced further stage hits in the 1970s and beyond and gave important early roles for such future names as Penelope Keith, Maureen Lipman and Polly James of The Liver Birds.
Bill also ran cinemas, both in Canada and here, working closely with his son Ben, who was named after Bill’s own revered father.
Father and son together helped make the Prince Charles Cinema at Leicester Square renowned for, among other things, its joyous singalong showings of movie musicals including The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
Bill spent then spent several years co-running a group of six West End theatres.
When Toby died of breast cancer in 1986 at the age of just 55, Bill, with his family’s support, set up the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which, in turn, funded the Toby Robins Research Centre, named in her honour. It brought breast cancer scientists and clinicians together in a coordinated way for the first time.
Starting from a kitchen table, it grew to become Europe’s biggest dedicated breast cancer research unit, and still thrives today, continuing to do ground-breaking research next to the Royal Marsden Hospital in Fulham.
When Bill’s son Peter recently went for a cancer genetics test and the cancer researcher conducting it spotted from his family tree that Toby Robins was his mother, the researcher asked Peter: “Did you know that research by the Toby Robins Centre has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives across the world – and will, in time, save countless more?”
Bill’s charity work also included being one of the founders in 1983 of Aspire, the national spinal injuries charity, which he also went on to chair for many years.
At age 74, Bill embarked on another new project and set up Pilates Central in 2004.
If that wasn’t enough, at 84 he became a TV producer in 2014, making Warren United, a loosely autobiographical animated cartoon series about the long-suffering fan of a chronically losing football team, which was broadcast on ITV. He was happy to be billed as “the oldest TV producer in the UK”.
After Toby’s death, Bill spent some years on his own before finding a new partner and personal happiness with Ingeborg Coe. Ingeborg predeceased him, but her children became and remained like a second family to Bill.
Bill had a tough last few months. He kept himself alive long enough to celebrate the marriage of Sam, his oldest grandchild, and Sam’s new wife, Rebecca.
Bill’s son Peter, ended his eulogy for Bill with this conclusion: “His death at 93 was both expected and a shock. We thought that, like the Queen, he would live forever and always be there. And besides, death was just not his style.
“Someone once said that “Life’s a game – and if you were loved, you won.” If so, Bill won big. He was hugely loved – both by his family and so many others.
“And that … along with saving millions of lives … all in his spare time … between producing plays and TV, running cinemas, theatres and a Pilates studio … between assembling his seven grandchildren for regular ‘movie nights’ and brightening the life of everyone he met … that’s not a bad legacy.”