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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Norman Jewison, filmmaker who spanned genres, dies at 97



Film director Norman Jewison at his production company’s offices in Toronto, May 5, 2011. Jewison, whose broad range as a filmmaker was reflected in the three movies that earned him Academy Award nominations for best director — the socially conscious drama “In the Heat of the Night,” the big-budget musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” — died on Jan. 20, 2024, at his home. He was 97. (Chris Young/The New York Times)

By Dennis Lim


Norman Jewison, whose broad range as a filmmaker was reflected in the three movies that earned him Academy Award nominations for best director — the socially conscious drama “In the Heat of the Night,” the big-budget musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” — died Saturday at his home. He was 97.


His death was confirmed by a spokesperson for the family, Jeff Sanderson. He declined to specify where Jewison lived, saying that the family requested privacy.


Jewison, whose career began in Canadian television and spanned more than 50 years, was, like his close friend Sidney Lumet and a select few other directors, best known for making films that addressed social issues. The most celebrated of those was “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), one of his earliest features and his first Oscar-winning film.


A story of racial tensions in the American South filtered through a murder mystery that brings together a Black Philadelphia detective (Sidney Poitier) and a white Mississippi police chief (Rod Steiger), “In the Heat of the Night” could not have been more timely: It opened weeks after racial violence had erupted in Detroit and Newark, New Jersey. It went on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor, for Steiger.


Poitier was among the many actors who had fond memories of working with Jewison. “He gives his actors room and keeps them as calm as he can, because it’s easier to speak with them when they’re calm,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “A director has to keep the actors on their toes while the camera’s running, but when the scene is done, they should be relaxing, nothing on their minds. There can’t be a constant level of seriousness. And with Norman, there’s always a lot of laughter.”


Jewison lost the best director award for “In the Heat of the Night” to Mike Nichols, who won for “The Graduate,” and he never did win an Oscar for directing. But his films, and the actors in them, garnered many Oscars and 46 nominations.


Jewison once said, “The movies that address civil rights and social justice are the ones that are dearest to me.” He attributed his predilection for such movies to his lifelong sense of being an outsider.


Norman Frederick Jewison was born July 21, 1926, in Toronto, where his parents, Dorothy (Weaver) and Percy Jewison, ran a dry-goods store below their apartment. From a childhood love of movies, radio shows and vaudeville, he developed an interest in writing and performing.


The family was Methodist, but because of his surname, young Norman was teased and bullied by schoolmates who assumed he was Jewish. A later formative brush with bigotry came while he was on a hitchhiking trip through the segregated American South in the 1940s. On the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, he was chastised by a driver for sitting in the back of a bus with the Black passengers.


“Traveling in the South,” Jewison wrote in an autobiography, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me” (2004), “I understood the meaning of being victimized even more than I had as a boy.”


After World War II, during which he served in the Canadian navy, he attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where he directed and acted in student theater productions. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 1949.


Like many filmmakers of his generation, Jewison came up through the ranks of television. He worked as a writer and actor for the BBC in London and as a director for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto before landing at CBS in New York, where he directed specials starring Judy Garland, Harry Belafonte and Danny Kaye.


He directed his first feature film in 1962, for Universal Studios: “40 Pounds of Trouble,” a comedy based on a Damon Runyon story and starring Tony Curtis. Under contract to Universal, he was paired with the studio’s biggest star at the time, Doris Day, for two more comedies, “The Thrill of It All” (1963) and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964).


Eager to prove his range, Jewison jumped at the chance to direct “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965), a drama with Steve McQueen as a Depression-era gambler, when the original director, Sam Peckinpah, was fired a few days into the shoot.


Jewison’s other 1960s films include “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), a satire of Cold War paranoia that was his first film to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture (although he was not nominated for best director), and “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), a romantic crime caper starring McQueen and Faye Dunaway. But the movie that sealed his reputation was “In the Heat of the Night,” which beat two other era-defining films, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” for best picture honors.


Jewison married Margaret Ann Dixon, a model, in 1953. She died in 2004. He married Lynne St. David in 2010. He is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Kevin and Michael; a daughter, Jenny Snyder; and five grandchildren.


In 1988, Jewison founded the Canadian Film Center, a film school and institution in Toronto. He received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work at the 1999 Academy Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Directors Guild of America in 2010. In 2011, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York presented a 15-film retrospective of his work.


“For me, films are about ideas,” Jewison told the Times on the occasion of the retrospective. “Every director should ask himself, ‘Why am I making this picture?’ And if you can’t answer that, you shouldn’t make it.”

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