BORN: Toronto, Ontario • 21 July 1926
VJ rowing up a Methodist with a Jewish name in the east end of Toronto,” Norman Jewison said, “gave me a very Canadian outlook. I think I was more objective because I was Canadian. We look at things with a slightly cocked eye. It makes our films more sardonic.”
The most important and prolific Canadian film¬ maker, Jewison grew up in lower-middle-class Toronto, his father the owner of a small dry-goods store. After high school, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1944 and, using his Veterans Charter benefits, went to the University of Toronto following his discharge.
Taking his life’s savings of $140, in 1950 he went to London to scramble for work with the BBC as a script writer and bit-part actor until 1952, when he returned home to join the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He quickly made his name as the TV director for Wayne and Shuster, among others.
Impressed with his fresh approach to variety programming, New York called, and Jewison began to work for CBS, rejuvenating Your Hit Parade and building a reputation for directing specials for Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland, and similar stars.
Frustrated by TV’s ratings wars and the stress of working on live TV in “heart attack city,” Jewison moved to Los Angeles and carved out a place for himself in film. “Feature films are the literature of our generation,” he says. “They express the social conscience of a country; films are forever.”
Although his first directorial efforts included frothy Doris Day romances, he had his chance in 1965 to put his Canadian-formed social conscience on film with The Cincinnati Kid, a gritty film about pool hustlers that became a critical success. Then The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, perhaps the first Cold War comedy and certainly the first to humanize the Russians and denounce America’s patriotic extremism, topped the charts.
Even Pravda approved what Jewison called “my version of War and Peace” and, remarkably, so did the U.S. Senate. In the Heat ofthe Night, his next winner, explored contemporary racial tensions in the South in the guise of a thriller; the film received seven Academy Award nominations and won five.
The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King turned Jewison completely against America. He had remained a Canadian citizen throughout his time in the United States, but in 1970 he mailed his green card back to Washington and went to England to work and live.
When he began to direct and produce in Hollywood again, he was determined to get and keep artistic control over everything he directed. “I have always fought against ever having to work for someone else,” he explained. His independent streak and his eye for what an audience wanted were perhaps best seen in 1987’s wildly successful Moonstrucf Still, some Americans remember and resent Jewison’s constant carping about American politics.
“I wish Norman would shut up,” his Los Angeles agent complains.He s known as a Canadian here…all the anti-American state¬ ments he made in the 1960s really hurt him in this town.”Jewison had long had a 280-acre farm in the Caledon Hills north of Toronto where he raised Herefords and produced maple syrup, and in 1978 he returned to Canada to live.
He was the founder and co-chair of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies (now the Canadian Film Centre) in Toronto, a gift to his native land and to the promotion and improvement of the craft in Canada. But he was never a nationalist. Canadian corporate donors were stingy, and he refused to believe that he or anyone had to produce films glorifying Canada and Canadian heroes.
“The world is not interested in hearing about your heroes. They want you to entertain them, move them,” he argued. Nor did he apologize for working in Hollywood—money has no personality, he said bluntly—or for making Toronto streets look like New York: “Film is always pretending to be some¬ where else. A stage is a stage.”
Jewison admitted up front that he made his films for people to see. “If I were a ‘pure’ artist making movies only for me,” that would be one thing. “But I’m not a pure artist in that sense—I’m a storyteller and I make movies for an audience.” The audience, for Jewison, is always right, and the first Canadian to score huge commer¬ cial success has irrefutably demonstrated that one can educate and entertain at the same time.