Norman Jewison, Canada’s most distinguished and celebrated film director, was born in Toronto in 1926. He attended Kew Beach School, and while growing up in the 1930s displayed an aptitude for performing and theatre. He served in the Navy (1944–1945) during World War II, and after being discharged travelled in the American South, where he confronted segregation, an experience that would influence his later work.
Jewison attended Victoria College in the University of Toronto, graduating with a B.A. in 1949. As a student he was involved in writing, directing and acting in various theatrical productions, including the All-Varsity Revue in 1949. During the summer he worked as a waiter at the Banff Springs Hotel, as well as doing local theatre production. Following graduation he was determined to work in show business, preferably as an actor, and ventured to Hollywood and New York in search of opportunities.
Finding the employment prospects in the United States dim and the cost of economic survival high, Jewison came back to Toronto to drive a taxi for a living, but maintained his ambitions by acting and writing during the summer. After seeking Canadian television production work but finding it unavailable, he moved to London, England, where he worked sporadically as a script writer for a children’s show and bit part actor for the British Broadcasting Company, amid supporting himself with odd jobs. Out of work in Britain in late 1951, he accepted an offer to be a production trainee for CBC-TV in Toronto.
When CBC went on the air in the Fall of 1952, Jewison was an assistant director. During the next seven years he wrote, directed and produced a wide variety of musicals, comedy-variety shows, dramas and specials, including the The Big Revue, Showtime and The Barris Beat. In 1953 he married Margaret “Dixie” Dixon, a former model. They would have three children—Michael, Kevin and Jennifer—who would all pursue careers in the entertainment world, sometimes working on a Jewison film.
His reputation for high quality work was established, and in 1958 Jewison was recruited to work for CBS in New York, where his first assignment was Your Hit Parade, followed by The Andy Williams Show. The success of these shows led to directing specials featuring performers such as Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason, and Danny Kaye. The television production that proved pivotal to Jewison’s career was the Judy Garland “comeback” special that aired in 1961, which included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and led to a weekly show that Jewison was later called in to direct. Visiting the studio during rehearsal for the special, actor Tony Curtis suggested to Jewison that he should direct a feature film.
Norman Jewison’s career as a film director began with the comedy Forty Pounds Of Trouble (1962), starring Curtis. The next three films he directed, including two with Doris Day, The Thrill Of It All (1963) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), were also light comedies done under contract for Universal Studios. After The Art Of Love (1965), Jewison was determined to escape from the genre and tackle more demanding projects. His breakthrough film proved to be The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a drama starring Steve McQueen, now considered one of the finest movies made about gambling. This triumph was followed in 1966 by the acclaimed satire on Cold War paranoia, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, which was the first film Jewison also produced, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Continuing the string of successes was one of the films that have become closely identified with its director: In The Heat Of the Night (1967), a crime drama set in a racially divided Southern town and starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while Jewison was nominated for Directing. As a follow-up he directed and produced another film with McQueen, using innovative multiple screen images in the crime caper The Thomas Crown Affair. From that point Jewison would produce all feature films he would direct, often with associate Patrick Palmer, and would also act as producer for films directed by others, beginning with his former film editor Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (1970).
After the completion of the period comedy Gaily, Gaily (1969), Jewison, having become disenchanted with the political climate in the United States, moved the family to England. At Pinewood Studios northwest of London, and on location in Yugoslavia, he worked on what would become one of the top grossing films of all time, the musical Fiddler On the Roof (1971, re-issued 1979), which would win two Oscars and be nominated for five others, including Best Picture and Directing.
Jewison’s next project was the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), based on the record album produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It was filmed in Israel, where Jewison also produced the western Billy Two Hats (1974), starring Gregory Peck. Superstar, controversial for its treatment of a sacred subject, was followed by another movie that sparked critical debate— this time the violence in Rollerball (1975), set in the near future where corporations ruled the world and entertainment centred around a deadly game. The next film he directed, the labor union drama F.I.S.T. (1978), also provided some turmoil, this time around the script adapted by star Sylvester Stallone.
In 1978 Jewison returned to Canada, settling in the Caledon area in Ontario, and establishing a farm that would produce prize winning cattle. Operating from a base in Toronto, as well as one maintained in California, he directed high profile actors Al Pacino in …And Justice For All (1979), and Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn in the romantic comedy Best Friends, as well as producing The Dogs Of War (1981) and Iceman (1984). During this period Jewison also acted as producer for the 53rd Annual Academy Awards (1981), which was slated to air the day President Ronald Reagan was shot, and had to be rescheduled.
Revisiting the theme of racial tension that had characterized In The Heat Of The Night, Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984), based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His subsequent film was also based on an acclaimed play. The provocative Agnes Of God, set in a Quebec convent, starred Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly and Anne Bancroft; it received three Academy Award nominations.
Jewison’s next film proved to be one of the most popular romantic films ever made. Moonstruck (1987), starring Cher, was a box office hit that garnered three Academy Awards, including Cher as Best Actress. It also competed for the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as providing Jewison with his third nomination for Best Directing. During this period he became the force behind a project that had long been of interest: the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies was incorporated in 1986. Renamed the Canadian Film Centre, it began operations in 1988. As founder, Norman Jewison has continued his efforts for the Centre in many capacities.
For the next decade Jewison continued to direct feature films released by major studios: In Country (1989), a drama concerned with Viet Nam veterans and the daughter of a war casualty; Other People’s Money (1991), a social comedy about greed in the 1980s; Only You (1994) a romantic comedy set in Italy; and Bogus (1996) a fantasy about a young boy and his imaginary friend. He also served as producer for the film January Man (1989), and executive producer for the Canadian movie Dance Me Outside, and branched back into television both as a director and producer, including the series The Rez.
The Hurricane (1999) was Jewison’s third film to explore the effects of racism, telling the story of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had been falsely convicted for a triple murder in New Jersey during the mid-sixties. Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Carter. In 1999 Jewison’s work was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he was bestowed with the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement.
The Thalberg award was one of many honours Jewison has been awarded, including Honorary Degrees from Trent, Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, and being made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1992. In addition, he has received numerous tributes at Canadian and international film festivals and retrospectives, and been given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame. A park in downtown Toronto was named after him in 2001.
Norman Jewison has continued directing and producing; his latest film to be released was the thriller The Statement (2003), based on a novel by Brian Moore, and starring Michael Caine. In recognition of his contributions to the arts, as well as his sustained support, he was installed as Chancellor of Victoria University in 2004. That same year his autobiography This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me was published, expressing the enthusiasm, conviction and creative passion that have sustained a rewarding career.
Norman Jewison died in Los Angeles in 2024.