Norman Jewison, Canadian-born director whose films included In the Heat of the Night and Moonstruck – obituary

Jewison at work on Moonstruck
Jewison at work on Moonstruck - Alamy

Norman Jewison, who has died aged 97, was a Canadian-born Hollywood film-maker of eclectic taste who was as comfortable with comedy as with musicals and melodrama.

His most popular films were the Oscar-winning racial drama In the Heat of the Night (1967) and the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) – which also won a slew of Academy Awards, for Cher, Olympia Dukakis and its scriptwriter John Patrick Shanley. Jewison himself, however, never won an Oscar, losing out in 1967 to Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and, 20 years later, to Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor).

Jewison was regarded as a dependable technician who, like Clarence Brown in Hollywood’s golden age, could turn his hand to almost anything. But audiences (and Academy voters) never looked to him to surprise. It was bad luck that when his best films opened, his contribution was overshadowed by flashier work from the new wonderkids Nichols and Bertolucci.

As an artist, however, he set his sights high. “Even though I know it is a futile and impossible task,” he said, “I still want to change the world. Well, a little bit.” But except for In the Heat of the Night – in which Rod Steiger’s bigoted Southern sheriff reaches a kind of respect for the black detective (Sidney Poitier) he initially mistakes for a killer – these aspirations were never fully reflected in Jewison’s films.

Jewison and Steve McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Jewison and Steve McQueen, star of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) - Alamy

Taking his work as a whole, it was an artisan’s portfolio – some good, some indifferent, but mostly anonymous. Despite the credits to so many of his movies, “A Norman Jewison film” was hard to identify. Which is perhaps why, in 1967, In the Heat of the Night was named best film in the Oscar stakes and Rod Steiger best actor, but Jewison was passed over.

He was born on July 21 1926 in Toronto, the son of a third-generation Canadian shopkeeper and his English wife. Norman showed early promise as a child actor, and from the age of six was reciting all 11 verses of The Shooting of Dan McGrew at Masonic lodge meetings. He was educated at the Malvern Collegiate Institute and, after brief service in the Canadian navy towards the end of the war, completed his studies at Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, from which he graduated in 1949.

That was when he first discovered “that I definitely wanted to change the world”. “Since no one else was particularly interested,” he added, “I began driving a cab in Toronto.” He tried for a job in Canadian television, but was advised by CBC that he would stand a better chance in Britain. So he cashed in his savings of $140 and booked a passage on a Greek freighter bound for London.

For two years he lived from hand to mouth as an actor-writer in an unheated flat in Bayswater, picking up occasional work from the BBC. This London interlude added only a few lines to his CV, but they stood him in good stead back in Canada. In 1952, CBC offered him a full-fledged traineeship.

He made his mark swiftly within CBC, producing a stream of top variety shows, and was soon signed to a three-year contract. Transferred to New York, his greatest success was in rejuvenating a once popular show, Your Hit Parade. By rethinking the production he recaptured its old audience, causing it to top the ratings once more.

Over the next four years, Jewison mounted a stream of spectacular television shows dedicated to a single personality – Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte and others – and staged elaborate variety programmes such as The Fabulous Fifties and The Broadway of Lerner and Loewe. Several of these shows were nominated for Emmy awards; in 1960, he won for The Fabulous Fifties.

Crackling: Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier on the set of In the Heat of the Night
Crackling: Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier on the set of In the Heat of the Night - United Artists/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

His growing reputation in television caught Hollywood’s eye and in 1961 he was invited to sign a seven-year contract with Universal. In the event, he made only four films for this studio – all inconsequential though commercially successful.

The first was 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), a version of the Damon Runyon story Little Miss Marker with Tony Curtis, followed by two Doris Day matrimonial comedies, The Thrill of It All (1963) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), opposite James Garner and Rock Hudson. The fourth, The Art of Love (1964), was the most contrived, with Garner persuading his painter friend Dick Van Dyke to play dead so as to acquire posthumous fame. Instead, Garner is charged with murder.

Escaping from the Universal contract, Jewison went freelance. His first job was to take over The Cincinnati Kid (1965) at MGM from Sam Peckinpah. Set in the Depression era, it was influenced by Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, culminating in a tense poker game between the up-and-coming Steve McQueen and the veteran Edward G Robinson, similar to the pool contest between Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason in Rossen’s film. Many felt that Jewison’s did not match up, though it was an improvement on the vacuous comedies he had been forced to make for Universal.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Send Me No Flowers
Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Send Me No Flowers - Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Switching to United Artists, he made another comedy in 1966, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Filmed at the height of the Cold War, it was a satire imagining what might happen if a Russian submarine lost its bearings and fetched up on a beach in New England. A full-scale Soviet invasion is immediately suspected. Both the US Senate and the Russian newspaper Pravda endorsed its eventual message that Americans and Russians are the same under the skin – a sure sign that it was ruffling no feathers.

In the Heat of the Night, which followed in 1967, remains Jewison’s best film. The central conflict between Poitier’s dapper Virgil Tibbs and the gum-chewing Steiger crackles with a mixture of antipathy and curiosity; Haskell Wexler’s cinematography made the film look wonderful, and it had a sultry soundtrack by Quincy Jones.

Jewison never capitalised on the kudos it brought him, however. In Hollywood, an overnight success can, for a time, make whatever he wants, but, in 1967, Jewison lacked the courage. Rather, he made The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), an empty caper movie with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, shot in a flashy, split-screen format that once seemed chic but is now dated. “A glimmering empty film,” observed one critic, “…stunning on the surface, concave and undernourished beneath.”

James Caan in Rollerball: intended as a dystopian vision of a corporate society inventing a deadly game, but Jewison made it an engrossing spectacle
James Caan in Rollerball: intended as a dystopian vision of a corporate society inventing a deadly game, but Jewison made it an engrossing spectacle

Gaily, Gaily (1969), based on an autobiographical novel by Ben Hecht about his early years as a journalist in Chicago, was followed by two film versions of Broadway musicals – Fiddler on the Roof (1971), which Pauline Kael called “absolutely smashing”, and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

After 129 minutes of Rollerball (1975), starring James Caan, few were any the wiser about the rules of the game – a gladiatorial version of ice-hockey played with steel balls and motorcycles – but the matches were filmed in bold, visceral style, making the bloody game so engrossing that sports promoters contacted Jewison with proposals for a real-life league. This disturbed him, as he had intended the film as a dystopian vision of a corporate society where the taking of human life had become entertainment. But he could not help wanting to please an audience.

Jewison’s subsequent work included a 1978 trade union melodrama unofficially based on Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters called F.I.S.T. (Federation of Interstate Truckers), a legal melodrama with Al Pacino (And Justice for All, 1979), and a study of racial prejudice, A Soldier’s Story (1984), less persuasive than In the Heat of the Night.

The neo-noir Agnes of God (1985) was based on a play about a nun (Meg Tilly) who believes that she has undergone a miraculous conception like the Virgin Mary. On screen it seemed over-schematic, with Anne Bancroft’s knowing Mother Superior pitted against Jane Fonda’s chain-smoking, agnostic journalist.

Moonstruck (1987) came out of the blue – a soufflé that Jewison had never achieved before. A romantic comedy, with Nicolas Cage as a one-armed, Puccini-loving Italian-American baker smitten by his brother’s fiancée (Cher), it struck chords that made it one of the most popular films of its year.

The toughest hearts were melted. “Jewison doesn’t go for charm,” wrote Pauline Kael. “He goes for dizzy charm.” Oscars showered upon it, but not on its director. A 1994 attempt to repeat the formula, Only You, with Marisa Tomei, proved woefully inadequate.

Jewison , right, directing Denzel Washington in The Hurricane
Jewison , right, directing Denzel Washington in The Hurricane - Getty Images

Of Jewison’s later films, In Country (1989) was an attempt to pay tribute to American lives lost in Vietnam, but despite praising Emily Lloyd, critics found much of the script toe-curling, notably the scenes in which her teenage character discovers her dead father’s letters home and concludes: “You missed ET; you missed the Bruce Springsteen concerts; you missed everything.”

In 1999 he made The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington, who gives a gripping performance as the boxer wrongly convicted of murder, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

The last film he directed, in 2003, was The Statement, scripted by Ronald Harwood from a novel by Brian Moore, about Pierre Brossard, a Vichy France Nazi collaborator pursued decades after the war; it was based on the case of Paul Touvier. Michael Caine won praise for his depiction of Brossard, but the film itself failed to come alive.

Norman Jewison married, first, in 1953, the former fashion model Margaret Ann Dixon, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. She predeceased him in 2004 and in 2010 he married Lynne St David.

Norman Jewison, born July 21 1926, died January 20 2024

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