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Norman Jewison, prolific director of films including 'In the Heat of the Night' and 'Moonstruck,' dies at 97

Norman Jewison
Norman Jewison in Los Angeles 2017. The director of such films as "In the Heat of the Night" and "Moonstruck" has died at 97. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)

Norman Jewison, a prolific and much-honored producer-director whose films ranged from the romantic comedy “Moonstruck” to the drama “In the Heat of the Night,” which won a best picture Oscar in 1968, has died.

Jewison, who also directed Doris Day comedies and the quirky 1966 “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” died Saturday at his home, publicist Jeff Sanderson confirmed to The Times in a statement. He was 97.

"Norman Jewison was a vibrant force in the motion picture industry for more than four decades," the statement said. A cause of death was not revealed.

Jewison produced or directed more than 40 films, starting with a light Tony Curtis comedy, “40 Pounds of Trouble,” in 1962 and ending with the 2003 thriller "The Statement."

Among the other films he produced and directed were the popular 1968 caper flick “The Thomas Crown Affair,” with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway; two well-regarded 1970s musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”; 1975's futuristic “Rollerball,” starring James Caan; 1979's “And Justice for All,” starring Al Pacino; “Best Friends,” a 1982 romantic comedy with Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn; “Agnes of God,” a 1985 religious mystery starring Jane Fonda; the 1989 post-Vietnam War melodrama “In Country”; “Other People's Money,” a 1991 comedy-drama with Gregory Peck and Danny DeVito; and “Only You,” a 1994 film about romantic destiny starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.

“Moonstruck,” released in 1987, may be his most popular film. But he viewed his three films about racial prejudice as his most important.

Besides “In the Heat of the Night,” which starred Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, they were “A Soldier's Story,” the 1984 film that was nominated for best picture and gave a breakthrough role to Denzel Washington, and 15 years later, “The Hurricane,” which also starred Washington.

Born July 21, 1926, in Toronto to shopkeepers, Jewison studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and Malvern Collegiate Institute in Toronto before serving in the Canadian navy during World War II. While on a 60-day leave, he hitchhiked around the southern United States during the Jim Crow era, witnessing segregation up close for the first time. At one point, he was thrown off a bus for sitting in the section reserved for Black passengers.

“I barely missed witnessing a lynching in one town,” he told The Times in 1985. “I didn't know then I would ever make films, but all this stayed with me.”

Seeing racial discrimination in the South also struck a chord from his youth when he was mistaken for being Jewish because of his name. (He was born into a Protestant family.) He said he took pride in being beaten up alongside his Jewish friends.

After the war, he earned his bachelor's degree at Victoria College at the University of Toronto and began acting on stage and radio while driving a cab. He later moved to London where he wrote and acted for the BBC, returning to Toronto to direct TV programs for the CBC in Canada and later CBS in New York.

For CBS, Jewison directed “Your Hit Parade” and a handful of musical variety programs with such stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Andy Williams, Danny Kaye and Harry Belafonte.

He had won three Emmy Awards by the time he made “40 Pounds of Trouble,” starring Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. The job had come about after Curtis observed Jewison directing a rehearsal of a Garland TV special that also featured Curtis' friend, Sinatra.

“You do nice work, kid,” Curtis told Jewison. “When are you gonna make a movie?”

Jewison, telling this tale in his 2005 autobiography, “This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me,” said that when he balked, Curtis added: “Movies, television. It's all just cameras.”

“40 Pounds” led to a contract with Universal, for which Jewison made two romantic comedies with Doris Day — “The Thrill of It All” and “Send Me No Flowers.”

But he considered “The Cincinnati Kid,” which he took over when Sam Peckinpah was fired, the first movie that was really his. The film, which starred McQueen and Edward G. Robinson, was released in 1965 and earned Jewison positive reviews.

Jewison's next film was his first big hit: “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” a 1966 Cold War comedy starring Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint and Alan Arkin about a Russian submarine that lands off the New England coast. The film took American audiences by surprise with its human and comic take on people usually portrayed as dour enemies. “Russians” — the sixth film Jewison directed and the first he produced — earned him a best picture nomination.

“If ‘The Cincinnati Kid' was the film that made me feel like a filmmaker, ‘The Russians Are Coming' was the film that gave me a strong anti-establishment reputation,” Jewison wrote in his autobiography.

The following year brought the first of Jewison's major films about race relations: “In the Heat of the Night.” Producer Walter Mirisch, who wanted to make a film of the story based on a novel by John Ball and a script by Stirling Silliphant, initially balked when Jewison expressed an interest in directing “Heat.”

“He thought it was too small for me,” Jewison said in an interview years later, chuckling at the memory. “But I was absolutely passionate about making the film.”

Mirisch finally acceded, but he also imposed a tight budget. Jewison economized by having his cinematographer use a hand-held camera instead of fancier equipment. He also renamed the place in which the story takes place “Sparta, Miss.,” allowing him to make use of signage in Sparta, Ill., the small town not far from the Mississippi River where “Heat” was actually filmed.

Illinois and not the Deep South became “Heat's” location because Poitier refused to film south of the Mason-Dixon line. Earlier that same year, Poitier and Harry Belafonte had been forced into a car chase in rural Mississippi, and Poitier “had no desire to expose himself again to white Southern hospitality,” Jewison said.

Though the film explored the ugliness of racism, it also served as “an entertaining, somewhat messed-up comedy-thriller,” critic Pauline Kael wrote in Harper's. She suggested that both Black and white audiences understood and enjoyed the racial humor of “the fast-witted, hyper-educated Black detective explaining matters to the backward, blundering Southern-chief-of-police slob.”

Jewison was proud that the film put onto the screen the first Black movie character “to walk out in a $500 suit and be smarter than anyone else in the picture." But he seemed almost taken aback by the film's popularity.

“It was about Black-white relations, and that was the middle of the civil rights movement,” the still-mystified Jewison said in an interview nearly 40 years later. Nominated for seven Oscars, “Heat” won an Academy Award for producer Mirisch for best picture and Steiger for lead actor as well as Oscars for writing, film editing and sound. But though Jewison was nominated for direction, he lost to “The Graduate's” Mike Nichols.

After bringing to the screen two Broadway musicals — “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), which was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture, and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) — Jewison returned to racial themes with “A Soldier's Story.” The film is a melodramatic tale featuring Washington, who had appeared in the off-Broadway production of “A Soldier's Play,” as the outspoken recruit who kills his master sergeant.

Jewison's third in the trilogy of race-related films was “The Hurricane” (1999), with Washington as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder. At its release, Washington, who was nominated as lead actor for the role, said that until then he hadn't fully appreciated how good a director Jewison was.

"There's a simplicity about [it]," Washington told the New York Times. "He knows what he wants. He's a real actor's director.”

“Hurricane” completed the trilogy that represented Jewison's most socially conscious side. He once said that although he hoped his work wasn't “message-y,” he believed that films “should bring people together and not throw them apart.” His political views sometimes led him to make dramatic personal statements. In the early 1970s, Jewison left the United States in disgust, moving to London.

“I was losing my sense of humor,” Jewison told the New York Times in 1999. “I had marched. The Vietnam War was going on. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Reagan was governor. Nixon was president. I handed in my green card and moved.”

It was while he was in Europe that he made “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Rollerball.”

“And then I got over it,” he said of his anger at the United States. “It wasn't the American people I was angry at, it was the times and the leadership.”

He moved back to Canada in 1979. Eight years later, “Moonstruck” became a surprise hit.

Jewison loved John Patrick Shanley's script for “Moonstruck,” which was full of “verbal cascades” for the film's stars, Cher and Nicolas Cage. He also loved the idea of “la luna” — the full moon shining over Manhattan and Brooklyn.

“But what really interested me is the central idea of betrayal, which, now that I think of it, has figured in a lot of my films,” Jewison told the L.A. Times in 1987. Cher's Loretta betrays her fiancé by falling in love with his brother; Loretta's mother (Olympia Dukakis) betrays Loretta's father (Vincent Gardenia) by encouraging a local professor to kiss her goodnight.

“And all of this seems to be out of the characters' control,” Jewison said with delight.

“Moonstruck” won a lead actress Oscar for Cher, a supporting actress award for Dukakis and a writing Oscar for Shanley.

In 1998, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Jewison with its highest award: the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given to a producer. In 1988, Jewison helped form the Canadian National Center for Film Studies in Toronto, the Canadian equivalent of the American Film Institute.

After leaving England, Jewison kept a home in Malibu but primarily lived at Putney Heath, a 200-acre farm in Caledon Hills northwest of Toronto that supports commercial cattle and maple sap operations. His wife of 51 years, Margaret Dixon, who was known as Dixie, died in 2004. He is survived by his wife Lynne St. David-Jewison, three children and five grandchildren.

The statement said celebrations of Jewison's life will be held in Los Angeles and Toronto at a later date.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.