Having recently read Ira Wade’s “Norman Jewison: ‘A Director’s Life’ (2021), I found myself marveling at the range and quality of Hollywood films Jewison directed. His formative years in Toronto also caught my attention. He grew up in the Beach(es) neighborhood and although he later lived in New York, Hollywood and London, he always considered himself a Torontonian and a Canadian.
What a story and what a life! Although fully Canadian, Norman Jewison directed 25 major films, many of which I have seen and still enjoy. His credits range from “40 Pounds of Trouble” (1962) with Tony Curtis to “The Statement” (2003) with Michael Caine. I will quote here a few other titles to refresh your memory: “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), “The Russians Are Coming” (1966), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), “Fiddler on the Roof” ( 1973), “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), “Moonstruck” (1987) and “The Hurricane” (1999).
How did a beach boy become the Hollywood director of so many memorable movies? In his own autobiography, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me” (2004), Jewison recounts his growth from childhood on Queen Street East to early television production in Toronto for the CBC, to organizing and the direction of these films in the stressful materialistic world, driven by the image of Hollywood.
He was born in 1927. Although his parents ran a haberdashery on the corner of Kippendavie and Queen St. East, the Jewisons’ roots were in agriculture – his Protestant ancestors had come from England and settled in the Rice Lake near Bewdley before moving to Toronto. His childhood years were characterized by two realities: depression and proximity to Lake Ontario. As a lively young boy, he had no trouble thriving in these difficult times; he loved boating and he worked in the family store while pursuing whatever opportunities were available to earn a few dollars. From his father, who had “a bit of a carnival barker in him”, he learned the trade of salesman. But, above all, he loved the world of daytime entertainment – vaudeville shows and Saturday afternoon movies at the Beach Theater. In fact, he loved to play; he often regaled his buddies with dramatizations of what he had seen on screen.
At Malvern Collegiate, he loved comic book reviews and plays, loving the applause and attention he deserved. Ham at heart, he loved to play death scenes. He cites a favorite memory: “I remember sitting down to dinner with my parents, my mother serving soup, and I would suddenly clench my chest, my eyes bulging, and I would fall from the chair onto the floor. I writhed there for a while, arms across my chest, making horrible sounds as my parents continued to talk, pouring the soup, [and] step over me to carry their plates to the kitchen.
His aunt Bea introduced him to literature and music, urging him to read a lot and memorize poems. His recitation for family and friends of Robert Service poems like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” earned him tearful applause. Later, with the war going on in Europe, he joined the sea cadets and then the navy, although he did not go overseas.
Back in Toronto, he enrolled at Victoria College (the University of Toronto) getting involved again in comedy reviews where he could be a screenwriter, producer and director. After graduation and an exploratory stay in England, he was offered an internship at the brand new CBC studio on Jarvis Street. It was the beginnings of live television in Toronto and he quickly rose through the ranks. As a young “floor director”, he experienced “an incredible adrenaline rush” on every live show, earning him the nickname “The Pixie of Jarvis Street”. Working with Wally Koster, Johnny Wayne, Frank Schuster, Robert Goulet and Knowlton Nash, he learned on the job. In all, he has directed more than 300 CBC programs. Workloads, time constraints and overworked egos didn’t phase him. But that was just the beginning.
When his agent suggested he try New York, he got in touch with CBS as the producer of their pop music show “Your Hit Parade.” There he made waves by signing a young black singer named Tommy Edwards whose song, “It’s All in the Game” was climbing the charts. However, the show’s sponsor, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, objected to the broadcast of a black man. Norman learned a crucial lesson in pushing back against corporate narrow-mindedness. He held on and the show went on.
Moving to CBS Studio 4, he began producing and directing popular hour-long specials for stars like Danny Kaye and Jimmy Durante. Working with Harry Belafonte (“Tonight With Belafonte”), he again ran into racial restrictions, but managed, with the support of the network, to rise to the challenge. The show went on and Belafonte won an Emmy. He also did a number of shows with Judy Garland.
It was while working with Judy Garland that he was approached by actor Tony Curtis who asked him bluntly, “When are you going to make a movie?” Curtis was looking for an inexpensive but capable director for his ’40 Pounds of Trouble’ property, a film about a gambler who gets stuck with a 4-year-old girl as part of an IOU.
Ready for a new challenge, Norman moved to Hollywood. Curtis’ film for Universal Studios was released in 1962, but Norman soon discovered he was under studio contract for additional films. After exploring his options, he chose to direct a Doris Day film, ‘The Thrill of it All’ (1963) for Universal – it was the first of three he was required to direct for them before he could start. to work independently and follow their own interests. Thus, it was not until 1965 that he was free to work with materials that he found stimulating and attractive. But now he had to sell both studio bosses and actors on scripts he wanted to do. Here, his sales skills were put to the test.
Married with children, Norman quickly found Hollywood an overly materialistic environment in which to work and live. The projects he was interested in were always sensitive to financial constraints and flashy egos. It refused to be ruled solely by commercial and budgetary interests. Although still able to make worthwhile films for Hollywood studios, he moved his family to London before returning to Toronto where, in 1981, he and Dixie bought a farm in the Caledon Hills.
From there he continued to take films with themes ranging from the Cold War and union politics, to racism in America, to issues of religious belief, to issues of justice and equity (see list in appendix) . Unsurprisingly, cowboy John Wayne considered him a Canadian commie, but most observers respected his moral sensitivity and his ability to bring out the best in actors. While committed to making his films entertaining, he sought out topics that brought his viewers deeper into serious issues and challenging dilemmas.
Two other points are worth mentioning. Now back in Toronto, Norman worked hard to establish the Canadian Film Centre, educating Canadian students in the art and business of filmmaking. It continues to thrive. Second, Trent University awarded him an honorary degree in 1985.
My colleague Lionel Rubinoff introduced Norman Jewison at Convocation, thanking him warmly “for the many hours of fun, excitement, suspense, controversy and thought” he has given us over the years. His range of accomplishments should make Canadians proud.
FEATURE FILMS BY NORMAN JEWISON (ONE FILMOGRAPHY)
“40 POUNDS OF PROBLEM” (1962) (Tony Curtis, Phil Silvers, Suzanne Pleshette)
“THE CHILL OF EVERYTHING” (1963) (Doris Day, James Garner, Arlene Francis)
“SEND ME NO FLOWERS” (1964) (Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall)
“THE ART OF LOVE” (1965) James Garner, Dick Van Dyke, Elke Sommer)
“THE CINCINNATI KID” (1965) (Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Ann Margaret)
“THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING…!” (1966) (Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters)
“IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT” (1967) (Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Lee Grant)
“THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR” (1968) (Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway)
“GAILY, GAILY” (1969) (Beau Bridges, George Kennedy, Hume Cronym)
“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) (Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey)
“SUPERSTAR JESUS CHRIST” (1973) (Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman)
ROLLERBALL (1975) (James Caan, John Houseman, Ralph Richardson)
FIST (1978) (Sylvester Stallone, Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle)
“…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL” (1979) (Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe)
“JUST FRIENDS” (1982) (Burt Reynolds, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Tandy)
“A SOLDIER’S STORY” (1984) (Denzell Washington, Howard E. Rollins, Jr.)
“AGNES OF GOD” (1985) (Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Meg Tilly)
“MOONSTRUCK” (1987) (Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello)
“IN COUNTRY” (1989) (Bruce Willis, Emily Floyd, Joan Allen)
“THE OTHERS’ MONEY” (1991) (Danny Devito, Gregory Peck, Piper Laurie)
ONLY YOU” (1994) (Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Bonnie Hunt)
BOGUS (1996) (Woopie Goldberg, Gerard Depardieu, Andrea Martin, Don Francks)
THE HURRICANE (1999) (Denzel Washington, John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger)
DINNER WITH FRIENDS (2001) (Dennis Quaid, Andie MacDowell, Greg Kinnear)
THE DECLARATION (2003) (Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton, Alan Bates, John Neville)