Norman Jewison, the multifaceted filmmaker who could direct a racial drama (In the Heat of the Night), stylish thriller (The Thomas Crown Affair), musical (Fiddler on the Roof) or romantic comedy (Moonstruck) with the best of them, has died. He was 97.
Jewison died Saturday at home — his family does not want to specify exactly where — publicist Jeff Sanderson announced.
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A seven-time Oscar nominee, Jewison received the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences in 1999.
Known for his ability to coax great performances out of his actors — 12 of his players were nominated for Oscars, while five of his features made the cut for best picture — the most distinguished film director in Canadian history often used conventional genre plots to take on social injustice.
Improbably, he got his start directing musical specials on television.
Jewison earned best director and best picture nominations for Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Moonstruck (1987); received another nom for helming In the Heat of the Night (1967), a winner for best picture; and added two others for producing the wacky Red Scare comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) and A Soldier’s Story (1984).
On leave from the Royal Canadian Navy, Jewison, then 18, started out hitchhiking in Chicago and eventually made it to Memphis, Tennessee, where he jumped on a bus during a hot day. As the naive Toronto native headed toward a seat in the back next to an open window, the bus started and then stopped, he recalled in a 2011 interview with NPR.
“The bus driver looked at me,” he said. “He said, ‘Can’t you read the sign?’ And there was a little sign, made of tin, swinging off a wire in the center of the bus and it said, ‘Colored people to the rear.’
“And I turned around and I saw two or three Black citizens sitting around me, and … a few white people sitting way at the top of the bus. And I didn’t know what to do, I was just embarrassed. So I just got off the bus and he left me there. I was left standing in this hot sun and thinking about what I had just been through. That this was my first experience with racial prejudice. And it really stuck with me.”
Years later, heeding the advice of Robert F. Kennedy, who thought America was ready for a film about racial injustice, Jewison took on In the Heat of the Night, which starred Sidney Poitier as a Black detective from Philadelphia and Rod Steiger as a racist police chief. Both have to work together to solve a murder in a Southern town.
Four days before the 1968 Academy Awards, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the Oscars were postponed for two days. Jewison attended King’s funeral, and though he lost out to Mike Nichols of The Graduate in the director race, In the Heat of the Night won five statuettes.
Racism also was central to two other Jewison films: The wartime-set A Soldier’s Story and The Hurricane (1999), the latter starring Denzel Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the real-life boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder.
Yet Jewison also had a flair for comedies, as seen with Moonstruck, based on the John Patrick Shanley play and starring best actress winner Cher. Focusing on an Italian American family in Brooklyn, Moonstruck was a box office and critical success.
Jewison also was behind such varied pictures as Send Me No Flowers (1964), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Rollerball (1975), F.I.S.T. (1978), … And Justice for All (1979), Agnes of God (1985) and Other People’s Money (1991).
Norman Frederick Jewison was born on July 21, 1926, in Toronto, where his parents ran a general store/post office. He developed an early interest in the arts, studying piano and music theory at the Royal Conservatory, and staged and appeared in shows and musical comedies in high school.
Following graduation, Jewison made his professional debut in a minstrel show, which he also directed and co-wrote, then served in Canada’s Navy during World War II. Back home, he graduated from the University of Toronto’s Victoria College in 1949 with a B.A. in general arts.
Jewison worked as a cab driver in Toronto and occasionally performed as a radio actor for the CBC. In 1950, he moved to London for a two-year work-study stint with the BBC.
The CBC called him back to work in the new medium of television, and Jewison wrote, directed and produced some of his country’s most popular shows and specials. He hired Reuben Shipp, a writer from Montreal who had been deported from the U.S. after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to work on the variety show The Barris Beat.
In 1950, CBS invited Jewison to New York to update the venerable TV musical Your Hit Parade. After he booked African-American singer Tommy Edwards, who had a hit with “It’s All in the Game,” to be on the program, he was called to a Madison Avenue meeting with a representative from Lucky Strike cigarettes, the show’s South Carolina-based sponsor.
“We’ve been doing Your Hit Parade on the radio and on television for many a year,” the exec told Jewison in an incident he recalled in his 2004 autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me. “We had Sinatra, rock ’n’ roll and soft stuff, but we never had a Black and, young fella, we ain’t about to start now.”
After an angry Jewison threatened to take this story to the newspapers, Lucky Strike caved and Edwards appeared on the show as scheduled. His integrity was evident, and big names wanted to work with him.
Jewison directed a 1960 special with the red-hot Harry Belafonte, the first on American television starring a Black performer; guided comeback star Judy Garland on a 1961 TV special and episodes of her CBS variety show; helmed The Million Dollar Incident, a comedy that saw Jackie Gleason kidnapped and held for ransom; and did The Broadway of Lerner and Loewe, with performances by Julie Andrews and Maurice Chevalier.
With a recommendation from Tony Curtis, Jewison left for L.A. and was hired to direct Universal Pictures’ 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), which starred Curtis, Suzanne Pleshette and Phil Silvers in one of the first films shot at Disneyland.
He received a contract from the studio and followed by helming the light comedies The Thrill of It All (1963), starring Doris Day and James Garner; Send Me No Flowers, with Day and Rock Hudson; and The Art of Love (1965), with Garner, Elke Sommer and Angie Dickinson.
When producer Martin Ransohoff fired director Sam Peckinpah from The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison was given the reins to the Steve McQueen-Edward G. Robinson drama. The Hollywood Reporter called his work “daring, imaginative and assured,” and he was on a roll.
He produced his first film (and directed, too) The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!, a wild spoof of Russian paranoia that starred Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner (who had written Thrill of It All and Art of Love).
After In the Heat of the Night, Jewison produced and directed the stylishly erotic The Thomas Crown Affair, starring McQueen and Faye Dunaway; produced The Landlord (1970), a racial dramedy directed by his former film editor, Hal Ashby; and produced and helmed Gaily, Gaily, starring Landlord star Beau Bridges.
He had met Kennedy in a hospital in Sun Valley, Idaho, when their sons were injured while competing in a ski race, and he was supposed to meet with the presidential candidate on the night he was assassinated in Los Angeles.
“I was very disillusioned,” Jewison told THR’s Kevin Cassidy in a 2011 interview. “JFK had been assassinated, Bobby had been assassinated, I had marched in Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta. This was 1970, so I packed everyone up in L.A. and went to England.”
Jewison spent the next seven years in Europe, making such films as the high-grossing musical Fiddler on the Roof, shot on location in Yugoslavia and at London’s Pinewood Studios, and Jesus Christ Superstar and the Gregory Peck starrer Billy Two Hats (1974), both filmed in Israel.
Jewison went on to direct and produce the James Caan violent action film Rollerball, the Al Pacino courtroom thriller … And Justice for All and the charming romantic comedy Best Friends (1982), starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn.
Jewison also continued to explore weighty issues, with the plot of Agnes of God, starring Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft, centering on the struggle between logic and the Catholic Church. His last film was the Nazi thriller The Statement (2003), starring Michael Caine.
Jewison served as producer of the 1981 Academy Awards, which were rescheduled after President Reagan was shot, and he earned an Emmy nomination in 2002 for directing the HBO telefilm Dinner With Friends.
Jewison returned to Toronto in 1978 and lived on a 240-acre farm in Ontario. He hosted a gala picnic for years at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In 1982, Jewison was made an officer of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian decoration, then set out to establish the Canadian equivalent of the American Film Institute.
“I got a phone call to visit the AFI in Beverly Hills,” Jewison told THR. “So I went up there and there’s a group of young filmmakers sitting on the floor and there’s John Ford with a bottle of whiskey. And he’s answering all their questions. I was just blown away. It was very exciting. So I thought, ‘Gee, if I could set up something like this in Canada, that would be great.'”
The result was the Canadian Film Centre, founded in 1988 in Toronto. “His spirit will forever be the heart of the Canadian Film Centre,” the organization said Monday.
Survivors include his second wife, Lynne St. David; his children, Kevin (and his wife, Suzanne), Michael (Anita) and Jenny (David); and his grandchildren Ella, Megan, Alexandra, Sam and Henry. Celebrations of his life will be held in Los Angeles and Toronto.
Said Jewison in his Thalberg acceptance speech:
“My one real regret about winning this prize is that, you know, it’s not like the Nobel or the Pulitzer. I mean, the Thalberg award comes with no money attached. If it did, if it did, I would share it with the Canadian Film Centre and the AFI, where the next generation of filmmakers are preparing to entertain the world in the new millennium.
“And my parting thought to all those young filmmakers is this: Just find some good stories. Never mind the gross, the top 10, bottom 10, what’s the rating, what’s the demographic. You know something? The biggest-grossing picture is not necessarily the best picture.”
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