Norman Jewison, director of Moonstruck, In the Heat of the Night, dead at 97

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Norman Jewison, the acclaimed and versatile Canadian-born director, whose Hollywood films ranged from Doris Day comedies to social dramas, has died at age 97.

Jewison died “peacefully” Saturday, publicist Jeff Sanderson confirmed to CBC News. Additional details were not immediately available.

The frequent Oscar nominee and Toronto native was known for stirring up controversy with his introspective films, addressing civil rights issues and religion in works such as In the Heat of the Night and the film adaptations of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

“I have tended to show humanity as fallible, sensitive, befuddled, misled but redeemable, rather than mindless, relentlessly violent,” he wrote in his 2004 industry-themed autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me.

“I want people to recognize themselves in the movies I make. I don’t enjoy no-brainer action movies.”

WATCH | Norman Jewison offers advice to prospective Oscar winners: 

Oscar advice from Norman Jewison

Revered Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison advises this year’s Oscar nominees to ‘enjoy the ride.’

Movies dealt with racial issues

Jewison directed and produced over 40 films and television shows during his career, including the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair, The Cincinnati Kid, A Soldier’s Story, Moonstruck and The Hurricane. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Jesus Christ Superstar.

He became particularly fascinated with documenting racial injustice on film when he travelled through the southern U.S., after leaving the Canadian military, and witnessed the overt segregation of white and Black cultures.

“I couldn’t understand why a country would ask young men to go and fight and die for America and then when they came home they had to sit on the back of the bus,” he told attendees at a Toronto event on the Black experience in film in February 2010. 

This eye-opening journey would inspire several of Jewison’s most famous films, particularly 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, which follows two police officers who try to solve a murder while coping with their personal prejudice toward each other. It became famous for, among other things, showing an African American man slapping a Caucasian on screen. 

“I don’t think I would have had the courage to make Monster’s Ball if I hadn’t seen In the Heat of the Night,” Precious director Lee Daniels told the Toronto Star in February 2010.

“When you understand the statement that was made at the time by a very young Jewison, made without even thinking about it, it was so candid and made with utter truth.”

The film took home five Academy Awards, including best picture and the best actor prize for Rod Steiger. Jewison also received a best director nomination. 

He had similar Oscar success with Fiddler on the Roof, the film movie critic Pauline Kael called “the most powerful movie musical ever made.” The film garnered an impressive eight nominations, winning five.

WATCH | Norman Jewison recounts his early career, gives advice for the future: 

Some advice from Norman Jewison

Canadian television director Norman Jewison talks about his early days in show business and offers some career advice for youth.

Jewison got his start in television working in London at the BBC in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He moved back to Canada in 1951 to work as an assistant director, and then a director, at the newly launched CBC television network. 

After about seven years at the CBC, Jewison headed to New York City to work for CBS. It was there he would work on The Judy Garland Show and meet actor Tony Curtis, who suggested that Jewison move on to feature films. 

He moved to Hollywood later that year and directed Curtis in 40 Pounds of Trouble, his first feature. He remained an active member of the film community ever since. 

Although he did not begin working in the film industry until he was 36, and received just one Academy Award himself (the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999) Jewison’s films and actors were nominated for 45 Academy Awards. Oscars went to Steiger, Olympia Dukakis and Cher.

“Thank you for one of the greatest, happiest, most fun experiences of my life,” Cher wrote on X. “Norman Jewison lives on through his work.”

J.A. Bayona, the Spanish director behind A Monster CallsSociety of the Snow and The Impossible, posted his own message of appreciation, calling In the Heat of the Night “one of the best social dramas ever made.” 

“[He was] the most un-Hollywood Hollywood person I ever met,” added fellow Canadian director Barry Avrich in an interview with CBC News.

Avrich explained that when he first moved to Toronto to pursue filmmaking, he asked to meet the only two Canadian filmmakers he knew who continued to work in Canada: David Cronenberg and Norman Jewison. Both, he said, agreed to meet and mentor him.

“His life lesson was: ‘Always choose controversial and yet commercial topics,’ and that’s always been my my path going forward,” Avrich said. “He had advice, he had stories, and he was always there to help Canadians.”

Founded Canadian Film Centre

In terms of that advice, Avrich was referring primarily to Jewison’s work on the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), which he founded in 1988. The charitable organization began as a film program, but evolved into an all-encompassing training and mentorship program designed to aid younger and less experienced Canadians to break into the industry. 

Especially toward the end of his life, it stood as a testament to his drive to support the next generation of Canadian talent. 

“Norman was loved for his creative spirit, his infectious energy and his distinct voice. For his commitment to social justice, for pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and advancing the art of storytelling,” a CFC spokesperson was quoted as saying in a press release shared with CBC.

“His legacy will live on through his timeless films and the countless individuals and organizations he has inspired, and will continue to inspire, for generations to come. His spirit will forever be the heart of the Canadian Film Centre.”

Jewison has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Canada’s counterpart in Toronto. 

He also received recognition outside the film community, including two appointments from the Order of Canada, a 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal for his arts activism, and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his military service.

In 2001, a Toronto park was named after him, and in 2023, Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel payed tribute to the director by renaming its screening room after him.

Served in Royal Canadian Navy

Jewison was born in 1926 in Toronto to Dorothy Irene and Percy Joseph Jewison. He was raised in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood and lived in the city until 1944, when he left to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy. 

He returned in the late 1940s to complete his Bachelor of Arts at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. He was named chancellor of that college in 2003 and served until 2010. 

Jewison called many foreign locales home, including Hollywood, New York City, Israel, Germany and Yugoslavia. But after 1978, he lived mostly on a farm in Caledon, Ont., with his wife, model Margaret Ann Dixon.

Dixon, whom he married in 1953, died in 2004. The couple had three children together, Kevin, Jennifer and Michael, all of whom followed their father into careers in the film industry. Jewison remarried in 2010, wedding Lynn St. David. 

A smiling man and woman pose in front of a photowall, with the words "TIFF," "Bell," "Visa" and "Ontario" visible on it behind them.
Jewison and his wife, Lynne St. David-Jewison, arrive on the red carpet at the Third Annual Charity Gala during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Sept. 3, 2014. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

“I measure my life by my films,” Jewison told the National Post in December 2009. “Each one is different. Each has its own reason for being. There’s no difference between comedy and drama, it’s only about believability.

“If you believe what’s happening on the screen, you’ve got them. Make something special, people will carry it around in their heart for the rest of their life.”


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