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Harry Rasky – Biography

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Born in Toronto, Harry Rasky was the seventh of eight children of Louis and Pearl (born Krazner) Rasky. His family emigrated from the town of Desha near Kiev just after the First World War and landed at Ellis Island In New York. An immigration clerk split their surname, Poberregesky (which means “beside the stream”) in two, giving half the men in the family the name Pober and the other half Rasky. Rasky grew up on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto and was educated at the Regal Road Public School and Oakwood Collegiate. He graduated from the University of Toronto in 1949, and first was a reporter in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, for The Kirkland Lake News. He then became a news editor/producer for CHUM radio in Toronto, 1950, and news editor/producer for CKEY (1951–52). He was the sole reporter/producer on CBC-TV’s inaugural “News Magazine” on September 8, 1952, when the notorious Boyd bank-robbing gang escaped Toronto’s Don Jail. Harry Rasky was there when the police cornered the fugitives in a barn north of the city, and his footage became the first news item broadcast on the English-language network. He was just 24 years old at the time.

He went on to co-create CBC-TV’s documentary/news department and later moved to New York City. From 1957 throughout the 1960s, he produced freelance documentaries and current affairs programs for every major US network, then in 1967 he formed Harry Rasky Productions. He won an Emmy Award for ABC’s Hall of Kings, an impressive film made about Westminster Abbey in London, England, with James Mason and Lynn Redgrave providing commentary. In 1970, his documentary, Upon this Rock, about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with commentary by Orson Welles, Ralph Richardson and Dirk Bogarde among others, won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

He returned to Toronto and entered into a long-term arrangement with CBC-TV. Beginning with The Wit and World of George Bernard Shaw in 1972, and ending with Prophecy in 1995, he delivered one documentary per year at a set fee. He became known for his lavish and loving biographies of famous people such as the great Russian painter Marc Chagall, Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love (1975), an Oscar nominee for best documentary, the Montreal poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, The Song of Leonard Cohen (1981), and on the opera star Teresa Stratas, Stratasphere (1983). His innovative films were often dubbed “Raskymentaries” for their unique blending of narration, music, poetry, documentary, and fiction-film elements. His critics dismissed them as merely the works of a “creative producer,” lacking originality or a point of view.

Harry Rasky won hundreds of awards and citations throughout his long career, including ACTRA Awards for Tennessee Williams’ South (1973) and Next Year in Jerusalem (1974), an award for outstanding directorial achievement in documentary/actuality for Homage to Chagall from the Directors Guild of America, a Genie Award nomination for Being Different (1981), the Margaret Collier Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, and he was a Member of the Order of Canada. He received a honourary degree from the University of Toronto in 1982 and he wrote an autobiography, Nobody Swings on Sunday, which was published in 1980.

Rasky died after suffering a heart attack while he was in hospital recovering from hip surgery as the result of a fall at his home. Mark Starowicz, then head of CBC`s documentary programming unit said of Rasky, “He was one of the two or three most important documentary filmmakers Canada ever produced.”

Also see: Harry Rasky’s filmography.

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