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Eberts worked with many famous actors, such as Kevin Costner – seen here, during his time as a producer.
Eberts worked with many famous actors, such as Kevin Costner – seen here, during his time as a producer.

Jake Eberts Film producer, 71

Jake Eberts, co-founder of Goldcrest Films, brought out the best in people Add to ...

Duddy Kravitz he wasn’t.

Tall, bespectacled and unassuming, Jake Eberts, the financial wizard behind such classic films as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Dances with Wolves, A River Runs Through It, The Name of the Rose and Driving Miss Daisy, was a family man who eschewed the limelight and the glittering trappings of celebrity. His authenticity was his trademark. Married to the same woman for more than 40 years, Eberts wore a Timex watch and drove a rented Toyota Camry to high-powered meetings with studio moguls.

“He wasn’t defined by his watch or his car or any other thing,” said his widow, Fiona Eberts, recalling one of her husband’s favourite expressions: “Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you, because they aren’t.”

Of the more than 50 films for which he took the helm as producer or executive producer, more than half won Academy Awards, including four for Best Picture. Yet little attention was paid in his native country when Eberts died of cancer in Montreal in early September. The silence was partly because great swaths of the entertainment world were in a tizzy about the Toronto International Film Festival, partly because (although he had a home in the Eastern Townships and an apartment in Montreal) he primarily worked and lived abroad, and mostly because he was the antithesis of a schmoozer.

His life was celebrated in early November in the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in downtown Montreal. Close to 1,000 people joined former premier Jean Charest, former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston, assorted film icons including actor Donald Sutherland and scores of financial, social and legal heavyweights to mourn Canada’s most successful and least known producer.

The traditional service, complete with choir, homily, rousing renditions of Jerusalem and Morning Has Broken was capped by soprano Constance Hauman’s soaring performance of Amazing Grace, projecting that funeral chestnut into the towering arches of the vast Gothic-style church. Before kilted piper Cameron Stevens led mourners out into the cold rainy afternoon, they listened to a reading of If by Rudyard Kipling, said to be Eberts’s favourite poem, and an appreciation in which Tony Stikeman described his brother-in-law as a curious, imaginative child who wished he could have an eye on the end of his finger to increase his investigative powers and a mouth on top of his head so “he could put his porridge in his tuque and not be late for school.”

Beset with a pronounced stutter, Eberts had speech therapy as a child along with some prophetic advice from his father: practise telling jokes and stories. “Little did we know … Jake would become one of the most excellent storytellers of all time, not just in conversation, but in film,” observed Stikeman.

An accidental film producer who trained as a chemical engineer, a banker and a venture capitalist before he found his métier, the soft-spoken Eberts, says programmer, writer and York University film professor Seth Feldman, was the epitome of an independent producer whose organization was “small enough to do interesting things and big enough to both attract big-name talent and convince the studios to distribute their product.”

His business model, based on “exquisite taste, formidable financial muscle coupled with a large amount of daring, made him a seriously creative executive producer who would back directors and their ambitious projects,” says Helga Stephenson, former director of TIFF and now head of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. “He loved stories, he loved creative people, he loved his independence. He wanted to make meaningful movies and he did.”

Instead of technically innovative and edgy social commentaries, Eberts opted to work time and again with directors and actors he trusted, such as Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman, and to produce morally uplifting films based on true stories in which characters struggle against adversity and hope triumphs over despair. Content to let others be cutting edge, Eberts was interested in audiences and stories, and that’s where he made his mark, with a long list of absorbing narratives about the human condition, including Local Hero, The Killing Fields, and A Room with a View.

Close friend Denys Arcand told The Montreal Gazette that Eberts “felt that cinema should be used to better mankind … a lofty standard in an age where movies are being adapted from comic books.”

Added his wife and collaborator, producer Denise Robert: “He was such a smart and eloquent man, yet he was also such a humble man and such a generous man … he brought out the best in everybody.”

John David Eberts was born in Montreal on July 10, 1941, the third of six children born to Edmond Eberts and Elizabeth (Toppy) MacDougall, an anglophone, middle-class couple. When Eberts was four, his father’s job with the Aluminum Company of Canada shifted the family to Arvida, Que., a company town north of Quebec City built around Alcan’s aluminum smelter.

“I saw few films as a boy,” Eberts wrote in his 1990 memoir (co-written with journalist Terry Ilott) My Indecision is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films. Instead, he played sports and explored the lakes and mountains of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region.

At 12, he began boarding at Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, near Sherbrooke, and from there went to McGill University. After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering in 1962, he worked in the Montreal office of L’Air Liquide, and was soon transferred to France, where he worked on the design of gas-liquefaction plants.

“Before I was 21,” he writes in My Indecision, I had been promoted to start-up engineer, responsible for putting those new plants into service,” and that included inspecting a new sewage system in Stockholm.

Bored by his job and its finite earning potential, he applied to Harvard Business School. He was “captivated by the world of balance sheets, leverage, leasing and venture capital,” but even though he graduated with a “good” MBA degree in 1966, he couldn’t find a job on Wall Street and ended up as a financial analyst with Cummins Engine Company, a diesel-engine manufacturer in Columbus, Ind. After one very humid summer, sweating through dinner every night with his boss and the man’s two unmarried daughters, the French-speaking Eberts escaped to Brussels as head of Cummins’ European marketing operation. That’s where he met British-born Fiona Leckie. They married in 1968, about the time he was finally offered a job on Wall Street with Laird Inc.

Raising a family in New York didn’t appeal, so they moved to London. He spent the early 1970s leapfrogging from one disastrous venture-capital scheme to the next, falling ever deeper into debt. He admitted to being “seriously depressed” in My Indecision, when a man named Dimitri de Gunzberg of Bankers Trust International approached him about an even more unlikely prospect: raising money for an animated film based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, Watership Down, about a group of rabbits, with their own mythology, language and culture, who seek a new home when their warren is overrun.

Why this venture worked when so many others had failed was due to a happy conjunction of Eberts’s natural talent for picking good stories and his dearly won financial acumen. It took three years to make the film, which was co-written, directed and produced by Martin Rosen, and featured the voices of John Hurt, Sir Ralph Richardson and Zero Mostel.

By 1977, Eberts had joined forces with film producer David Puttnam to form Goldcrest Films, an independent production company. Often credited in the British media with saving the local film industry, Goldcrest, with backing from the Pearson Publishing conglomerate, made more than a score of audience- and Oscar-pleasing films. One of their early successes was Chariots of Fire, the unlikely tale of two religiously observant British runners, Harold Abrahams, a Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Methodist, who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Fiona Eberts thought the story sounded like a yawn when her husband first talked about the script, and admits she wasn’t much impressed with the film itself until they added the music, which “elevated” it to a “completely different category.” Chariots of Fire won four Academy awards, including Best Original Score and Best Picture.

Goldcrest won back-to-back Best Picture awards when its next film, Gandhi, was released in 1982 and picked up eight Oscars. Directed by Richard Attenborough, and starring the largely unknown actor Ben Kingsley, Gandhi is a biopic of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the London-trained lawyer who fomented a non-violent nationalist movement that led to independence from British imperial rule in 1947 and the partition of India and Pakistan.

A perpetual lone wolf, Eberts walked away from Goldcrest in December, 1983, because the firm was crawling with suits, bogged down with meetings and keen to diversify into television. He joined Embassy Pictures in 1984, but returned about 18 months later to try to save the company following a disastrous series of investments in mega-budget, box-office failures, including Revolution, The Mission and Absolute Beginners. It didn’t work, as he and Ilott explain with fascinating candour and scrupulous detail in My Indecision.

Meanwhile he had formed Allied Filmmakers, which was linked to Pathe Films, and began working on a panoply of award-winning films including Driving Miss Daisy, starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, which won four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress. Australian director Bruce Beresford said in an e-mail message that the film “had been rejected by production groups all over the world” and wouldn’t have been made without Eberts’s investment.

Eberts also worked with Kevin Costner on Dances with Wolves (seven Oscars including Best Picture) and Robert Redford on A River Runs Through It, and soon became a member of the board of the Sundance Institute. As the appetite for his kind of story based on naturalistic films waned, the multi-tasking Eberts, renowned for his incessant thumb-typing on his BlackBerry and his ability to juggle several projects simultaneously, returned to his cinematic origins with animated films (including James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run) and a new medium for him – documentaries.

As chair of National Geographic Films, he distributed March of the Penguins. With English narration by Morgan Freeman, the film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2006 and a slew of other awards.

He also began making documentaries with the Canadian invented and pioneered IMAX technology. Journey to Mecca (narrated by Ben Kingsley) is a film about Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan who made a pilgrimage from his home in Tangier to Mecca and later dictated his reminiscences in a famous travel book called The Rihla. That led to Jerusalem, another IMAX film that follows three teenagers, a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian, over the course of a day in the city which is home to three of the world’s primary religions. That film is set for release in 2013.

And then Eberts, a man who was athletic, abstemious and in touch with his own spirituality, fell ill. What appeared to be a detached retina in November, 2010, turned out to be a very rare melanoma of the eye. Despite aggressive treatment, the cancer metastasized to his liver. His wife cared for him at home until his failing systems precipitated his transfer to palliative care at the Jewish General Hospital four days before he died on Sept. 6, 2012, surrounded by family. He was 71.

“It is really, really hard, but I had 44 great years and I can’t be greedy,” she said. ‘He had a wonderful life well lived … and there wasn’t anything left unsaid or undone.”

Or as his friend Paul Desmarais Jr., co-chief executive officer of Power Corporation, suggested at a private reception following the memorial service, Eberts was not only an example of how to live, but how to prepare for death.

Jake Eberts leaves his wife, Fiona, his two sons, Alexander and David, daughter Lyndsay, five siblings and his extended family.

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