Norman Jewison Remembered: A Versatile Social Chronicler Who Always Resonated With the Moment

Norman Jewison made movies that mattered.

“Timing is everything,” the director told me the one time we met. I’d been enlisted to host a long Q&A with Jewison at the American Cinematheque — and I was more than a little intimidated.

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From “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” in 1966 to “Other People’s Money” in 1991, Jewison had an astonishing quarter-century run behind the camera, directing movies that impacted the culture when they came out (none more than “In the Heat of the Night”), a great many of which are still watched today. Turns out, this legendary talent couldn’t have been sweeter.

Jewison liked to tell the story of how he met Bobby Kennedy before making the landmark Sidney Poitier picture (Jewison was old school, always referring to projects as “pictures”). He and Kennedy crossed paths while on vacation skiing, where both of their kids wound up in the hospital.

Still developing “In the Heat of the Night” at the time, Jewison found himself explaining the plot to RFK: A Black detective from the big city goes to Mississippi to investigate a murder, butting up against the racist attitudes everywhere in town, including among the local cops. (Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his role; Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

Kennedy listened to the director’s pitch and then spoke the line Jewison repeated to me all those years later: “Timing is everything.” It was 1967. The Civil Rights struggle was in full swing. And both Kennedy and Jewison believed that the picture could make a difference.

So many of Jewison’s movies did. The director started in television, helming TV movies and specials (most notably, 1962’s “The Judy Garland Show”), before Tony Curtis gave him a break that led to a contract at Universal. Jewison lucked into working with Steve McQueen on “The Cincinnati Kid” (he took over after Sam Peckinpah was fired from the project), and went on to direct some of the biggest stars at the height of their fame: Burt Reynolds (“Best Friends”), Jane Fonda (“Agnes of God”), Sylvester Stallone (“F.I.S.T.”).

The timing worked more to his favor when Jewison bet on actors the industry was skeptical about. He essentially discovered Alan Arkin on “The Russians Are Coming,” convinced Cher to play an Italian widow in “Moonstruck” and insisted on Denzel Washington for “A Soldier’s Story” (still a powerful statement in African American representation a decade and a half after “In the Heat of the Night”).

Jewison had a remarkable instinct for casting, but also an appreciation for the texture of a community, embracing the ethnic details that made his characters so specific. Jewison insisted on shooting on location as much as possible, filming “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Israel and “Fiddler on the Roof” in Eastern Europe, as close as he could get to Russia.

Jewison was not Jewish — though he got that a lot, on account of the name. Truth be told, he was a Protestant kid from Toronto, and he demonstrated a kind of conscientious civility throughout his career that’s more consistent with our northern neighbors. Jewison was soft-spoken in life but ever the activist in his work.

Even the least issue-driven of his films, 1975 smash-’em-up special “Rollerball,” makes a political statement. Watching it now, you see Jewison anticipating a culture run by corporations, where televised bloodsports serve to distract the masses. Set in 2018, it’s among the more prophetic science fiction films of its time.

Still, Jewison preferred to make movies firmly grounded in the present, punching against the system — from his loosely fictionalized Hoffa portrait, “F.I.S.T.,” to the image of Al Pacino frothing at the mouth and screaming “You’re out of order!” in “… And Justice for All.”

Like fellow social chroniclers Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kramer, Jewison worked across genres, minimizing his personal imprint on the material (except in the style-forward case of “The Thomas Crown Affair”) in favor of the characters and their concerns.

For all its breadth, his filmography is best summarized by a slap and a kiss: that history-making instant where Poitier’s character hit back in “In the Heat of the Night” and the scene where a one-handed Nicolas Cage flips the kitchen table and embraces Cher in “Moonstruck.”

Those two films landed at precisely the right moment, going on to become timeless.

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