Norman Jewison obituary: Director saw film as entertainment and a way to explore serious issues

Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck director was a confirmed liberal - a man of integrity who turned in his coveted green card in protest at the Vietnam War

Born: July 21st, 1926

Died: January 20th, 2024

The director and producer Norman Jewison, who has died aged 97, had a career dedicated for the most part to making films that, while entertaining, included sociopolitical content. His visual flair, especially in the use of colour, spot-on casting and intelligent use of music, enabled him to raise sometimes thin stories into highly watchable films.

He hit the high spot critically and commercially with In the Heat of the Night (1967), which starred Sidney Poitier as a northern US city police detective temporarily held up in a small southern town, and Rod Steiger as the local sheriff confronted with the murder of a wealthy industrialist.

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The film won five Academy awards – for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best editing, best sound and, for Steiger, best actor – and gave Jewison the first of his three best director nominations; the others were for Fiddler on the Roof, his 1971 adaptation of the Broadway musical, and the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987). In 1999 Jewison was the winner of the Irving G Thalberg memorial award from the academy for “a consistently high quality of motion picture production”.

The son of Dorothy (née Weaver) and Percy Jewison, he was born and brought up in Toronto, Ontario, where his father ran a shop and post office. Educated at the Malvern Collegiate Institute, Jewison studied the piano and music theory at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and served in the Canadian navy during the second World War. On discharge, he went to the University of Toronto, paying his way by driving a taxi and occasional acting.

Fiddler on the Roof, with a silk stocking placed by Jewison across the camera lens to provide an earth-toned quality, won Oscars for cinematography, music and sound

After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree, in 1950 he set off with $140 on a tramp steamer to the UK, where he landed a job with the BBC, acting and writing scripts. On his return to Canada two years later, he joined the rapidly expanding television industry, producing and directing variety shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Jewison was spotted by the William Morris talent agency and invited to New York, where he signed with CBS and was given the unenviable task of rescuing the once successful show Your Hit Parade, which was by then displaying signs of terminal decline. He revamped the entire production and took it back to the top of the ratings. He directed episodes of the variety show Big Party and The Andy Williams Show, and specials for Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason and Danny Kaye. On the Belafonte special, Jewison had white chains dangling above the stage, an image that displeased many southern TV stations, which refused to screen the show. This was the first indication of his stance on racism.

Success brought him to the notice of Tony Curtis, who had his own production company at Universal, and Jewison began a three-year contract with 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), starring Curtis. This was followed by the likable but light Doris Day comedies The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964) and The Art of Love (1965).

In 1965 he got out of his contract in order to make the first film of his choice, MGM’s The Cincinnati Kid, starring Steve McQueen (the Kid) and Edward G Robinson (the Man), and centring on a professional poker game between the old master and the young challenger.

In 1966 he made the beguiling but commercially unsuccessful comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, about a Russian submarine stranded off the coast of Cape Cod. This was at the height of the cold war and gained him a reputation for being a “Canadian pinko”, although it was nominated for a best picture Oscar.

In the Heat of the Night was followed by The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), in which McQueen and Faye Dunaway played thief and insurance investigator respectively and engaged in a chess game that evolved into one of the longest on-screen kisses, as the camera swirls around and around above their heads.

Fiddler on the Roof, with a silk stocking placed by Jewison across the camera lens to provide an earth-toned quality, won Oscars for cinematography, music and sound, and a nomination for Chaim Topol in his signature role of Tevye.

Moonstruck, a somewhat daft love story but a tremendous box office success, won the Silver Bear and best director for Jewison at the Berlin film festival

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), his adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, and Rollerball (1975), starring James Caan, were followed by F.I.S.T. (1978), a tale of union corruption starring Sylvester Stallone, and And Justice for All (1979), starring Al Pacino.

A Soldier’s Story (1985), based on the Pulitzer prize-winning play and including an early performance from Denzel Washington, dealt with black soldiers who risked their lives “in defence of a republic which didn’t even guarantee them their rights”.

Moonstruck, a somewhat daft love story but a tremendous box office success, won the Silver Bear and best director for Jewison at the Berlin film festival and was nominated for six Oscars, winning for best screenplay, best actress for Cher and best supporting actress for Olympia Dukakis.

Then came Other People’s Money (1991), a caustic and amusing comedy on the new world of corporate finance and takeovers starring Danny DeVito, and The Hurricane (1999), in which Jewison again worked with Washington, who played the real-life boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

In the early 1990s, Jewison had begun preparations for a film on the life of Malcolm X, and had secured Washington to play the title role, when Spike Lee gave his strongly expressed opinion that only a black film-maker could make this story. The two met, and Jewison handed over the film to Lee.

Jewison’s last film, The Statement (2003), starred Michael Caine as a Nazi war criminal on the run. He was also the producer on several films.

Jewison had returned to Canada in 1978, living on a ranch north of Toronto with his wife Dixie, whom he had married in 1953. There he reared Hereford cattle, grew tulips and produced his own-label maple syrup. In 1988 he founded the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto. He was a confirmed liberal, a man of integrity who turned in his coveted green card in protest at the Vietnam War and saw film not only as entertainment but also as a conduit for raising serious issues.

Dixie (Margaret Dixon) died in 2004. In 2010 Jewison married Lynne St David, who survives him, as do two sons, Kevin and Michael, and a daughter, Jennifer, from his first marriage.

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