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Terence Heffernan – Biography

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Thanks to the series Mad Men, non-baby-boomers and those boomers born late in the era had a chance to learn a little about what life was like in the halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s. Particularly the bar scenes. The hard drinking, hard smoking days and nights of easy, no-guilt sex. If you were born just after World War Two at the very start of the baby-boom, then you might have been lucky enough to catch some that period and live some of that life. Terence Heffernan, born late in 1941, came into his own when he was just 24 and got to enjoy the 1960s and ’70s and all that life had to offer thanks to his talent with a typewriter.

An item from the October 3, 1966 edition of the Toronto Star begins with the words, “Last year, Terry Heffernan’s income from his writing rounded out to a good $1,000.” The article, by Lotta Dempsey went on to chronicle Heffernan’s life at that point just as his career as a screenwriter was about to begin.

Born in Montreal, Terence Heffernan’s father had played hockey for the beloved Montreal Canadians back when the league boasted 6 teams and the “Habs” seemed to own the game. In the early ’40s, Gerry Heffernan was one of the players in the Razzle Dazzle line with Pete Morin and Buddy O’Conner. He then became a successful insurance broker. There was enough money that the young Terry grew up in pretty good circumstances and was sent to school at Lower Canada College. In the Toronto Star article Heffernan admits, “I was terrible in English, failing all the time.”

If creativity is in the genes, Heffernan got his from his mother. Before she married, Kathleen Duggan had been a magazine writer in London, England. The family would vacation there during school holidays and when he turned 19 the would-be writer moved there. He had a number of menial jobs in the restaurant business including counting bags of pre-cut French fries before they got shipped around the city. He also worked in various coffee houses. A year later he was back in Montreal where he completed a play titled Blossom Hill which was set in London and dealt with drugs. It was 1961.
Terence Heffernan, screenwriter,
Photo of Terence Heffernan donated to the Northernstars Collection.

He did his best to live a normal life, whatever normal means. He left Montreal to live in Toronto because “I’m a little weak for Montreal. I know too many people and waste too much time,” he confessed. On April 28, 1966 he married the actress Mary Bennett of the Canadian Players and hoped to write for the CBC drama series Festival. It was there that one of the directors on the series read one of his scripts and intrigued with what she had read asked if he had anything else. The next thing he took down to the CBC production offices—then located on Jarvis Street in Toronto–was titled A Great Big Thing. It turned out to be just that.

The script had been read by Festival Producer Eric Till who immediately spotted its potential as something more than a CBC drama. Nothing happens overnight but things moved quickly with this script. New York-based Argofilm picked it up and signed American star Reni Santoni to play the lead character of Vinny Shea. The synopsis reads, in part, “a 23-year-old Canadian wanders aimlessly throughout his wasted life.” Shot in Montreal it was Till’s debut as a feature film director and the cast of Canadian actors included Gerard Parkes, Roberta Maxwell and Leon Pownall.

In the Toronto Star article, Lotta Dempsey had asked Heffernan how much he got when he sold his Blossom Hill play to Montreal’s Shoestring Theatre. “I won’t tell you,” he replied, “but I just got 55 times as much for the script of A Great Big Thing.” It screened out of competition on June 23 at the Berlin Film Festival and began its theatrical run in 1968. The San Francisco Chronicle review of the film described the many vignettes the character
A Great Big Thing, original screenplay,
This original screenplay for A Great Big Thing was
donated to The Northernstars Collection.
Vinny Shea inhabits as “rather incredible and whimsical adventures.” In its review of the film, Variety noted that in handling the character of Vinny Shea, director Eric Till had managed “to create a feeling of understanding for the youth’s frustrations and weaknesses.” It concluded “As a whole the film is never tiresome. It’s probably one of the few festival films this year which doesn’t have a nude, bed or love scene.”

With A Great Big Thing, Heffernan had built a solid foundation for his career, but it seemed as if the architect had no idea how to build the rest of the house. That’s not to say he was a failure. Anything but. He enjoyed a number of successes, but there seemed to be some deep personal flaws. Flaws he seemed to embrace. For example he was often described as “Montreal’s answer to Brendan Behan,” the outrageous Irish playwright and hard drinker. Quoted in an article by Alan Hustak in the Montreal Gazette in 1998, film producer Pierre Sarrazin said, “You had to be able to take his insults, and ideally return them. But few could keep up with him. He was out of control with his own smarts.”

In addition to his four produced screenplays, Heffernan also contributed to the scripts for The Black Stallion, which starred Mickey Rooney as well as the Robbie Benson feature, Running Brave about Olympic champion Billy Mills. When the Northernstars Collection received a large donation of material about Terence Heffernan, two of the items were original screenplays. One was his first, A Great Big Thing and the other was for the as yet unproduced Maggie, which carries the typed notations “First Draft” and “copyright 1985.”

His most successful film should have been Mahoney’s Last Stand, released in 1972. Heffernan had moved to a farm near Toronto in 1971. It is thought the reason for the move away from the city was the same as the move from Montreal to Toronto. The script was either written there or completed there. It quickly sold and production began on September 1 of that year. Depending on which report you read from that time, the budget was either $500,000 or $650,000, which is a significant amount of cash when you consider Don
This foster for Mahoney’s Last Stand was scanned
from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, released in 1970, was made for a paltry $87,000. Shot on the Studio City backlot in Kleinberg, Ontario, Mahoney’s Last Stand, released in the United States as Mahoney’s Estate, was directed by Harvey Hart. It was distributed by Nat Taylor’s International Film Distributors. Costars included Alexis Kanner (The Ernie Game) and US actors Sam Waterston and Maud Adams. Diana Leblanc also appeared in the film. A sign that no expense was spared can be found in the soundtrack for the film. The thirteen tracks, mostly instrumentals, were composed by former Faces bandmates Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. Recorded in London, England in 1972, the soundtrack was released as an album in September 1976, the same year Wood joined The Rolling Stones. Quoted in the Montreal Gazette article, Pierre Sarrazin said this about Mahoney’s Last Stand: “He wrote a wonderful, surreal script, which was made into a not-too-wonderful film.”

If the move away from the city was meant to heal or calm Heffernan’s demons, from some accounts that effort failed. He and Mary Bennett divorced in 1975 and whatever his output, only two of his scripts went into production. Heartaches in 1981 and Change of Heart which he co-wrote with Don Shebib eleven years later. Both films were directed by Shebib.

In the last years of his life, living in Thailand, Heffernan met and fell in love for a second time. Although they never married, the couple legally adopted her child and according to a reliable source, he loved the little girl, walking her to school each day.
Terence Heffernan, screenwriter,
Photo of Terence Heffernan © 1967 Mary Bennett. Donated to the Northernstars Collection. Used with permission.

In the small stack of photos that came with the generous donation of the scripts, the album, and various newspaper clippings, almost every photo of the man shows him holding or smoking a cigarette. He died of lung cancer at the McCormack Hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand on January 13, 1998. He was just 55-years-old.

In Allan Hustak’s “Appreciation” published by the Montreal Gazette on February 20, 1998, Don Shebib is quoted as saying “Terry was the only person I ever met that I could apply the word genius to.” He went on to say, “… his sense of dialogue, of comedy and character was brilliant — unequalled. I’d put him at the top of any list of the 10 best screenwriters in the country.”

Also see: Terence Heffernan’s filmography.

Northernstars logo imageThis biography was written for Northernstars.ca by Founder and Publisher, Ralph Lucas © 2016. It may not be copied without prior written approval. Click here for more information about copyright.