Norman Jewison's 50 Years In Film: A True 'Superstar' For a half-century, the director has merged social issues with crowd-pleasing entertainment. As he is honored by the Film Society at Lincoln Center, Jewison looks back at his incredible range of movies, from In The Heat of the Night to Moonstruck, from Fiddler on the Roof to Jesus Christ Superstar.
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Norman Jewison's 50 Years In Film: A True 'Superstar'

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Norman Jewison's 50 Years In Film: A True 'Superstar'

Norman Jewison's 50 Years In Film: A True 'Superstar'

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GUY RAZ, host:

This week, the Film Society in New York mounts a retrospective on the work of Canadian director Norman Jewison. He's the man behind more than 25 movies, including "In the Heat of the Night," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Moonstruck."

We called him up in Toronto, where he lives, to talk a little about the pivotal moments in his life and career, and one of the earliest happened in the late 1940s. Jewison was on leave from the Canadian navy, and he decided to visit the American South. And one day, in Memphis, he hopped on a bus headed out of town.

Mr. NORMAN JEWISON (Film Director): And I got on the bus, and it was a hot, hot day. And I saw a window open at the back. So I headed to the back of the bus. And the bus started, and then it stopped.

And the bus driver looked at me. He says, can't you read the sign? And there was a little sign, made of tin, swinging off a wire in the center of the bus. And it said: Colored people to the rear.

And I turned around and I saw two or three black citizens sitting around me, I guess, and a few white people sitting way at the top of the bus. And I didn't know what to do. I was just embarrassed.

So I just got off the bus and he left me there. And so I was left standing in this hot sun and thinking about what I had just been through, that this was my first experience with racial prejudice. And it really stuck with me.

RAZ: It stuck with him so much that Norman Jewison's filmography would be defined in part by his depictions of racial injustice.

Early in his career, he landed a gig as the director of a variety show on CBS. It was called "Tonight with Belafonte." And it was the first TV program to feature an almost entirely black ensemble: singers, dancers and of course, Harry Belafonte.

And believe it or not, just that fact was enough to make it controversial. More than two dozen TV stations took the first episode off the air even before it ended.

Mr. JEWISON: They threw chains across the transmission lines in Birmingham, Alabama. I mean, there was a lot of people who didn't want this show to be on the air. Again, I felt: Gee, you could make a picture about that, race relations in America. And I guess that was the gestation of "In The Heat of the Night."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) In the heat of the night.

RAZ: "In the Heat of the Night" came out during the height of the civil rights movement, in 1967. It's the story of an African-American detective from Philadelphia who heads to a small town in Mississippi to investigate a murder.

Sidney Poitier played that detective, Virgil Tibbs, and in the film, Tibbs encounters racism and suspicion at every turn and mostly from his fellow police officers.

(Soundbite of film, "In the Heat of the Night")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You're pretty sure of yourself, ain't you, Virgil? Virgil, that's a funny name for a (BEEP) that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (As Virgil Tibbs) They call me Mr. Tibbs.

RAZ: The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But shortly before it came out, Norman Jewison was nervous. He was unsure if America was ready for it.

That was until he received some encouragement from Bobby Kennedy.

Mr. JEWISON: And he looked at me, and he said: This could be a very important film, Norman. Timing is everything in politics and in art and in life itself.

Now, when I think back on it, Bobby Kennedy was the only person who told me that I was making an important picture. And Bobby Kennedy was right. The timing of the film was about what was happening in America at that moment. And people could relate to that.

RAZ: Though Jewison was Canadian, he was living in the U.S. at the time. But by the early 1970s, he decided to leave.

Mr. JEWISON: JFK was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I had just lost my faith in America. So I thought, well, this is a good time to leave. So I just cut my ties and sent back my green card and I left.

RAZ: He moved his family to London, and it was there where he happened to see the stage version of "Fiddler on the Roof."

(Soundbite of song, "If I Were a Rich Man")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As Tevye) (Singing) If I were a rich man, (unintelligible). All day long I'd (unintelligible) if I were a wealthy man.

RAZ: Jewison would go on to direct the film version, still one of his biggest box office hits. But it almost didn't happen, or at least that's the way he remembers it.

Mr. JEWISON: Well, I got a strange name, Jewi-son.

RAZ: And when studio executives were looking for a director, they contacted Jewison. So he met with them, including a man named Arthur Krem(ph).

Mr. JEWISON: And I thought: Oh my God, they think I'm Jewish. What am I going to do? And I guess I've got to tell them. And so they said: What would you say if we asked you to produce and direct "Fiddler on the Roof"? And I said: What would you say if I told you I'm a goy?

And I watched the reaction. Their faces revealed some sort of shock. But Arthur Krem just looked at me, and he put his fingers together, and he said: Why would you think that we wouldn't want you to make "Fiddler on the Roof"? We don't want a Yiddish Seventh Avenue production.

RAZ: Jewison jokes that he is probably the only director who could tell the story of Tevye the milk man and also the story of Jesus Christ.

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Jesus Christ superstar, do you think you're what they say you are?

RAZ: On the heels of Fiddler's success, Jewison was asked to direct the film version of "Jesus Christ Superstar." So the first thing he did was head to the holy land.

Mr. JEWISON: We walked the same ground as Christ did, from the caves of (unintelligible) to the open deserts of the Negev. We went all over.

RAZ: Jewison would go on to make 13 more features, including "A Soldier's Story" and "The Hurricane," both with Denzel Washington, and also one of the most popular romantic comedies of all time, "Moonstruck," starring Nicholas Cage and Cher.

(Soundbite of film, "Moonstruck")

CHER (Actress): (As Loretta Castorini) Snap out of it.

RAZ: Today, at 84, Norman Jewison is still working. He's trying to get funding for his next project. It's an English-language adaptation of an Italian film called "Bread and Tulips."

Mr. JEWISON: And now I've got to convince everybody that I'm not too old to do another picture.

RAZ: That's director Norman Jewison. He spoke to us from the CBC Studios in Toronto. This week, the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York will mount a retrospective on his career. The series is called "Norman Jewison: Relentless Renegade."

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