Liff died Feb. 25 after a long battle with a brain tumor. He was 52.
Liff, with his business partner Geoffrey Johnson, ran Johnson Liff Associates, one of the theater industry's most respected and successful casting agencies for three decades, having cast more than 60 productions including The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, The Producers, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin', Amadeus, Guys and Dolls and Contact, among many others.
Participants in Liff's memorial service, which is open to the public, will include performances by Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Luker, Anne Runolfsson, Randy Graff, Judy Kuhn, Doug Webster, Willy Falk, Liz Callaway, Cristiana Pegoraro, Cady Huffman, Norm Lewis, Emily Skinner, Lauren Kennedy; and tributes by Biff Liff, Martha Smith, Geoff Johnson, Susan Stroman, Cameron Mackintosh, Frank Vlastnik, Billy Rosenfeld, Ken Yung and Ursala Liff.
Less than two months before Liff's death, Johnson-Liff, the casting office which has been a major force on Broadway for three decades, closed its doors Dec. 31, 2002. The firm's two partners, Geoffrey Johnson and Liff, together with their many associates over the years, cast and recast more than 60 Broadway shows, and scores of touring productions, including some of the biggest hits in theatre history. Liff had a reputation for being kind to actors, treating them respectfully in auditions and going the extra mile when he believed in them. Actress Cady Huffman thanked Liff in her Tony Award acceptance speech for her work in The Producers. He had liked her in The Will Rogers Follies, cast her later in Steel Pier and remained loyal to her work, selling her talent to Mel Brooks, who trusted his judgment.
Members of the acting and theatre community told Playbill On-Line Feb. 26 there are times when casting directors create a cold and negative atmosphere, but that this was not the environment on Liff's watch.
Colleague Tara Rubin, a casting director who started as an assistant at Johnson-Liff 15 years ago and now runs her own office, told Playbill On-Line: "Vinnie loved actors and he had a great passion for casting, a great passion for the theatre. And he had an incredible memory."
Along with Johnson, Liff taught Rubin the tricks of the trade, she said. "He used to tell me that it's much easier to say 'no' than to say 'yes' and he always was looking for a reason to say yes," Rubin explained. "I think the loving care he took with each individual was important."
Rubin said Liff immersed himself in theatre from an early age, reading Theatre World volumes when most boys were swapping baseball cards or reading comic books.
One of the duties of the job that Liff embraced was the "open call," a chore not all casting directors relish. In the early days of Les Miz and Miss Saigon, Johnson or Liff would attend cattle calls in New York or around the country, hoping to find something special in the crowd.
"The nature of many of the projects that he worked on allowed him to cast a lot of people from open calls who might otherwise have been overlooked by a less vigilant eye," Rubin said. "An open call was an exciting day for him. If five people emerged from a day of 200 people, he felt he had a successful day."
There were times when he was casting Miss Saigon from an open call, Rubin said, and he would find an actress and place her in the ensemble knowing that she would have the stuff to graduate to the lead role of Kim.
"He would recognize a glimmer of talent, and know that, in a year, she could play Kim," Rubin said. "That's unusual to a long-running show—Daring to be bold enough to say to a producer or to yourself: 'You may not see it now, but I believe it's there.'"
"He was incredibly kind and caring about the business and everybody in it," said former business partner Geoff Johnson, who is still packing up the Johnson-Liff offices in Manhattan before he retires. "I'm not talking just actors, but the producers and the directors he worked with. I think he was very honest and he stood by his beliefs and had integrity. If he believed in an actor he would talk to a director and producer and push."
Johnson said he and Liff didn't like to use the word "discovered."
"We never say we 'discovered' someone, we just gave them an opportunity — that's what casting directors do," Johnson said. "And he worked very, very hard to give that opportunity."
Back when the office handled the original run of Grease, actors cast included Peter Gallagher and Patrick Swayze. Johnson-Liff also cast a young John Travolta in the national tour of Grease.
At a recent cocktail reception given by the producer Scott Rudin, who started out in the Johnson-Liff office, the actor Peter Gallagher gave tribute to Liff and thanked him for helping the actor through his first major musical audition, for Grease.
Vincent Graham Liff was born in 1950 in West Hartford, CT, and educated at Kalamazoo College, in Michigan. He interned at the New York Shakespeare Festival before being assistant casting director at Otto & Windsor casting, the first independent casting office in New York. Johnson Liff was founded in 1976.
Survivors include his father, brother, sister, four nieces, one nephew and his companion, Ken Yung. Liff's uncle is the famous agent, Biff Liff.