When Norman Jewison received the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1999 Oscars®, it capped a career that richly deserved the recognition and acclaim that comes with this lifetime achievement award.
Born Norman Frederick Jewison in Toronto on July 21, 1926, he enjoyed a fairly typical upbringing in the staid era of “Toronto the Good.” He graduated from the University of Toronto and his first work in show biz was as an actor bothon stage and in radio. An early part of his training came during a stint at the BBC where he was part of a work/study program. He returned to Canada almost at the very start of television broadcasting where he began to come into his own. Jewison wrote, produced and directed some of the most popular programs, including drama, musicals and variety shows, during television’s so-called “Golden Age” at CBC-TV.
In 1958, he moved to the United States to direct the popular television music show, Your Hit Parade and from there went on to Tonight with Harry Belafonte. Here he made his first contacts with some of the biggest stars of the day including Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. Just four years after making the move south of the border he was ready to direct his first feature film Forty Pounds of Trouble starring Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. This light comedy led to an opportunity to work with Doris Day on two of her films, The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers. His next project marked a major change in direction. Shooting on The Cincinnati Kid had already started under the direction of the legendary Sam Peckinpah, but as often happens in Hollywood, things change and suddenly Jewison was asked to take over the film. The Cincinnati Kid starred Steve McQueen, and they would work together just three years later on The Thomas Crown Affair. Between those two films were two others that brought Jewison his first major recognition as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.
In 1966, Jewison added the title of producer to his film credits when he brought to the screen the remarkable Cold War comedy, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!. His first producer/director effort won the film an Academy Award® nomination for Best Picture. The very next year he produced and directed one of the most powerful movies ever made.
In the Heat of the Night, quite simply, changed everything. It was released at a time when the United States was going through one of its worst eras in a seemingly never-ending spiral of racial hatred – Martin Luther King would be assassinated just one year later. It captured the attention of the United States and the world. It focused, as no other film had to that time, the ongoing struggle between the races for the simple recognition that a black man could be equal to a white man. In this case, Sidney Poitier`s character was more than equal to the almost stereotypical red-necked southern sheriff played so masterfully by Rod Steiger. Steiger won Best Actor and the film won Best Picture on its way to winning a total of five Academy Awards that year. Norman Jewison had come a long way in five short years of feature film making.
But he was not going to rest on his newly won laurels. Ahead were such well crafted movies as Fiddler on the Roof, nominated as Best Picture, Jesus Christ, Superstar, Agnes of God and A Soldier`s Story, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. A few years later, Jewison brought Moonstruck to the screen and it brought another Academy Award nomination as Best Picture while Cher won the Best Actress Oscar, Olympia Dukakis won for Best Supporting Actress and John Patrick Shanley won for Best Screenplay. In late 1999 The Hurricane opened to excellent reviews and there was a lot of Oscar buzz at the time, but when the Academy Awards were announced only Denzel Washington was nominated.
With his extensive background in television, it should have come as no surprise that he would return to the small screen at some point in his career and his Dinner with Friends in 2001 was a hit on the US network, Showtime. Next came The Statement. A superb production of the Brian Moore novel, the film featured some of Canada’s finest actors.
Norman Jewison has been blessed with 45 Academy Award nominations and he has walked away with 12 Oscars. The Irving Thalberg Award has been bestowed upon such film making greats as Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Jewison added some important personal awards to his collection too. In 1981 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1991 was promoted to a Companion of the Order of Canada, which is Canada`s highest civilian decoration. A year later he was given the Governor General`s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement. These awards were, in part, recognition of his efforts at helping the Canadian film industry. After returning to live in Canada in the late-1970s, he was the driving force behind the creation of the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies, now called the Canadian Film Centre, which is located on the sprawling estate of the late industrialist E.P. Taylor in Toronto.
In 2004, he published his autobiography. Aspiring directors will learn little of his technique or ability to hold the diverse elements of film production together when the very process is designed to self-destruct without notice, but the book does contain behind-the-scenes glimpses as his career unfolds and provides details on how projects came together and some of the difficulties he faced bringing different stories to the screen. What is clear is that he loves his work. It is also clear that he loves his family. And it is especially clear that he had a special and abiding love for his wife, Dixie, who passed away in November of 2004. Finally, it is also clear that he has a deep love for the country of his birth and that he enjoys being based here, although he remains deeply rooted in the international film making community. Titled This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me, anyone interested in film, and Canadian filmmakers in particular should have this book in their library.
In 2005, Jewison had started work on two new projects. Then came Hurricane Katrina. As a result of the destruction of so much of New Orleans, and the anticipated delays in getting the city back on its feet, he was forced to shelve plans for what would have been his 25th feature, Bread and Tulips. A remake of a five-year-old Italian romantic comedy, the story follows an under-appreciated New Jersey housewife who is accidentally left behind on the family vacation, and ends up in New Orleans where she finds a new romance. The original Italian movie was set in Venice, which New Orleans began to resemble due to the flooding following the hurricane. The script for Bread and Tulips was written by John Patrick Shanley who also wrote Moonstruck. Jewison was also reported to be working on a project which is a political satire and, more or less, an update of his comedy The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!. Titled High Alert, no production date has been set pending what may happen to Bread and Tulips. In 2006 several sources stated that he would start work that year on a film titled Accordion, but as this is written, in October 2009, there are still no signs of any of these projects going into production.
On January 30, 2010, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) honoured Norman Jewison with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Motion Picture Direction. In the Guild’s 73-year history, only 32 directors have received the honour.
Also see: Norman Jewison’s Filmography
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection. The digital photo of Norman Jewison at the Canadian Film Centre is © 2013 by Ralph Lucas and is used with permission. This biography is Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without prior written consent. For more information about copyright, click here.