Todd was born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Chaim Goldbogen (an Orthodox rabbi) and Sophia Hellerman, both Polish Jewish immigrants. He was one of nine children in a poor family, the youngest son, and his siblings nicknamed him "Toat" to mimic his difficulty pronouncing the word "coat." It was from this that his name was derived.
The family later moved to Chicago, arriving on the day World War I ended. Todd was expelled in the sixth grade for running a game ofcraps inside the school. In high school, he produced the school play, The Mikado, which was considered a hit. He eventually dropped out of high school and worked at a variety of jobs, including shoe salesman and store window decorator. One of his first jobs was as a soda jerk. When thedrugstore went out of business, Todd had acquired enough medical knowledge from his work there to be hired at Chicago's Michael Reese Hospital as a type of "security guard" to stop visitors from bringing in food that was not on the patient's diet
Todd began his career in the construction business, where he made, and subsequently lost, a fortune. He opened the College of Bricklaying of America, buying the materials to teach bricklaying on credit. The school was forced to shut its doors when the Bricklayers' Union did not view the college as an accepted place of study. Todd and his brother, Frank, next opened their own construction company. Their company was worth over a million dollars but came to an abrupt halt when its financial backing failed in the wake of the Great Depression. Not yet twenty-one, Todd had lost over a million dollars with the loss of his backer. He was now the father of an infant son and had no home for his family.
He later served as a contractor to Hollywood studios, and during the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago he produced an attraction called the "Flame Dance." In this number, gas jets were designed to burn part of a dancer's costume off, leaving her naked in appearance. The act attracted enough attention to bring an offer from the Casino de Paris nightclub in New York City.
Todd got his first taste of Broadway with the engagement and was determined to find a way to work there. After seeing the Federal Theatre Project's Chicago run of The Swing Mikado, an adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado with an all African-American cast conceived by Harry Minturn, Todd decided to do his own version on Broadway, The Hot Mikado, despite protests by the FTP. The Hot Mikado, starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, opened on Broadway March 23, 1939. The subsequent success of Todd's production, at the expense of the Chicago production, contributed to the financial crisis and ultimate demise of the Federal Theatre Project unit in Chicago.
Todd's Broadway success gave him the nerve to try taking on showman Billy Rose. Todd visited Grover Whalen, president of the 1939 New York World's Fair, with a proposal to bring the Broadway show to the World's Fair. Whelan, eager to have the show at the fair, covered Todd's Broadway early closing costs. Rose, who had an exclusivity clause in his fair contract, met Todd atLindy's, where Rose learned his contract covered new forms of entertainment only. To avoid any head-to head competition, Rose quickly agreed to promote Todd's production along with his own.Todd went on to produce thirty Broadway shows during his career.
In 1945, Todd floated the idea of holding the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in newly-liberated Berlin. Although baseball's new commissioner Happy Chandler was reportedly "intrigued" by the idea, it was ultimately dismissed as impractical. The game was finally cancelled due to wartime travel restrictions.
In 1952, Todd made a production of the Johann Strauss II operetta A Night in Venice, complete with floating gondolas at the then-newly constructed Jones Beach Theatre in Long Island, New York. It ran for two seasons.
In 1950, Mike Todd formed Cinerama with the broadcaster Lowell Thomas (who founded Capital Cities Communications) and the inventor Fred Waller. The company was created to exploit Cinerama, a widescreen film process created by Waller that used three film projectors to create a giant composite image on a curved screen. The first Cinerama feature, This is Cinerama, was released in September 1952.
Before its release, Todd left the Cinerama Company to develop a widescreen process which would eliminate some of Cinerama's flaws. The result was the Todd-AO process, designed by the American Optical Company. The process was first used commercially for the successful 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma!. Todd later produced the film for which he is best remembered,Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, which debuted in cinemas on 17 October 1956. Costing $6 million to produce, the movie earned $16 million at the box office. In 1957, Around the World in 80 Days won the Best Picture Academy Award.
In the 1950s Todd acquired the Harris and Selwyn Theaters in downtown Chicago. The Selwyn was renamed Michael Todd's Cinestage and made into a showcase for Todd-AO productions, while the Harris was renamed the Michael Todd Theatre and operated as a more conventional cinema. The facades of both theaters survive as part of the Goodman Theatre complex, although the interiors have been demolished.
A William Woolfolk novel from the early 1960s, entitled My Name Is Morgan, was considered to be loosely based on Todd's life and career.Todd with daughter Liza and wife Elizabeth Taylor, 1957
At age seventeen, Todd married Bertha Freshman in Crown Point, Indiana, on Valentine's Day 1927. He had been interested in Bertha since age fourteen, but needed to develop confidence before even asking her out. In 1929, she bore him a son, Mike Todd, Jr. A turning point came for Todd when his father died in 1931; Avrom Goldbogen decided to change his name to Mike Todd the same day. Bertha Todd died of a pneumothorax(collapsed lung) in 1946 in Santa Monica, California, while undergoing surgery at St. John's Hospital for a damaged tendon in her finger.Todd and his wife were separated at the time of her death; he had a lengthy affair with Gypsy Rose Lee in the early 1940s. Less than a week earlier, he had filed for divorce.
The following year, Todd married actress Joan Blondell on July 5, 1947. They were divorced on June 8, 1950, after she alleged that he had abused and extorted her, including holding her out of a window by her ankles.
Todd's third marriage was to the actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship. The couple exchanged vows on February 2, 1957. Todd was 47 and Taylor was 24 (two and a half years younger than Todd's son); he was also her third husband. Todd and Taylor had a daughter, Elizabeth Frances (Liza) Todd, who was born on August 6, 1957.
On March 22, 1958, Todd's private plane Lucky Liz crashed near Grants, New Mexico. The plane, a twin-engine Lockheed Lodestar, suffered engine failure while being flown, grossly overloaded, in icing conditions at an altitude which was too high to sustain flight with only one working engine under those conditions. The plane went out of control and crashed, killing all four on board.
In addition to Todd, those who died in the crash were screenwriter and author Art Cohn, who was writing Todd's biography The Nine Lives of Mike Todd, pilot Bill Verner, and co-pilot Tom Barclay. Taylor wanted to fly to New York with her husband, but stayed home with a cold after her pleas to come along were overruled by Todd. Just hours before the crash, Todd described the plane as safe as he phoned friends, including Joseph Mankiewicz and Kirk Douglas, in an attempt to recruit a gin rummy player for the flight: "Ah, c'mon," he said. "It's a good, safe plane. I wouldn't let it crash. I'm taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn't let anything happen to her."
His son, Mike Jr., wanted his father's body to be cremated after it was identified through dental records and brought to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but Taylor refused, saying he would not wantcremation. Todd was buried in Forest Park, Illinois, at Beth Aaron Cemetery in plot 66, which is part of Jewish Waldheim there. In his autobiography, Eddie Fisher, who considered himself to be Todd's best friend, stated:
There was a closed coffin, but I knew it was more for show than anything else. The plane had exploded on impact and whatever remains were found couldn't be identified....The only items recovered from the wreckage were Mike's wedding ring and a pair of platinum cuff links I'd given him.
In 1977, the remains were desecrated by robbers, who broke into Todd's coffin looking for a $100,000 diamond ring, which, according to rumor, Taylor had placed on her husband's finger prior to his burial. The bag containing Todd's remains was found under a tree near his burial plot. The bag and coffin had been sealed in Albuquerque after Todd's remains were identified following the 1958 crash. Todd's remains were once more identified through dental records and were reburied in a secret location