Think of John Kemeny as the greatest producer Canada didn’t know it had – a man whose films were nominated for all kinds of international awards but was loath to promote himself because he saw his job as being behind the scenes. Tall and thin, with dark hair and a sad mien, he simply wasn’t interested in small talk, glad-handing or getting his name into the social pages. Publicity was the domain of others, he thought. He had budgets to balance and quality films to make.
“John was a no-nonsense man who rarely betrayed his emotions,” said his friend and former business partner Robert Lantos. “It was his calling card, to look strict and severe, but he had a soft heart and he was very committed to a sense of ethics in both the business and his personal life.”
From the National Film Board’s Bethune to the Oscar-nominated Atlantic City, from the critical and box office success of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to Murderers Among Us, the HBO movie about the life of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Kemeny’s varied projects were a far cry from a childhood spent in Hungary during the Great Depression, the Second World War and postwar Soviet rule. Born in Budapest on April 17, 1925, he was the only child of Ferenc Kemeny, a shopkeeper, and Margaret Schon, a homemaker. Although Kemeny was raised Jewish, he remained a steadfast atheist all his life. At the same time, he was always open about and proud of his roots, especially in the face of ignorance and intolerance directed, not so much at himself, but toward people in general.
Kemeny, who died Nov. 23 at his home in Sedona, Ariz., at the age of 87 after a brief battle with cancer, learned the craft of film in Budapest. He had trained as a film editor and was working in film distribution and promotion when Hungarians rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956. After Soviet troops crushed the revolution, he left Budapest in 1957 in search of a place where there was freedom of expression, where he could work without fear of someone looking over his shoulder or worse, where censorship was not used to tamp down sentiments that went against the official line. He landed a job at the National Film Board in 1959, where he produced more than 80 films, both documentaries and fiction, over a 12-year period. They included Bethune, directed by Donald Brittain, about the Canadian doctor with communist sympathies who became a hero in Spain and China, and a portrait of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-born community organizer whom director Peter Pearson called a “loveable quixotic apostle of the impossible,” full of contradictions and inconsistencies.
Pearson and Kemeny butted heads constantly during the making of Saul Alinsky Goes to War over characterization, direction and the fact that the NFB had not obtained the activist’s permission to “trash” him. Indeed, they fought so much, the director figured it would be the last time they would ever work together. But Kemeny surprised him, choosing him soon after the documentary was completed to helm a feature film called The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar, with a cast that included Margot Kidder and Kate Reid. It would end up garnering eight Canadian Film Awards, including film of the year.
“(John) lurked forever on the precipice of eternal sadness,” recalled Pearson, who would go on to become the executive director of Telefilm Canada. “He was the kind of man who Samuel Beckett could have been referring to when he wrote the line, ‘His birth was the death of him.’”
He was a producer’s producer, uncompromising, a man who gave his all to his projects and expected the people he hired to do the same. Budgets had to be balanced, projects had to come in on time and he had to be hands-on, leaving nothing to chance if he could help it. Only once did a project’s costs balloon out of control – the shoot for 1984’s Louisiana, which was plagued by flooding, accidents, insurance problems and, worst of all, the death of a stuntman when a car explosion went awry. Kemeny knew that it wasn’t always possible to control people, Mother Nature or acts of God – and he never forgot the pain of telling the stuntman’s family what had happened.
That didn’t mean Kemeny avoided risk if he could. Rather, he took ones calculated to give him more artistic freedom. It’s why he left the NFB in 1972 and it’s why his first project afterward was the The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which helped cement actor Richard Dreyfuss’s career. It’s why he entered into a partnership with Lantos at Alliance Pictures and it’s why he moved to Hollywood, where the film production company he had begun with Denis Héroux signed an agreement with Columbia Pictures that resulted in movies such as Ice Castles and Shadow of the Hawk.
Later, the two men worked with France in co-productions that included Quest for Fire and Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.
Kemeny’s final professional chapter was making highly regarded movies for HBO; besides the Wiesenthal biopic that starred Ben Kingsley, there was The Josephine Baker Story, which won five Emmys, including one for Lynn Whitfield in the title role.
One of Kemeny’s biggest career disappointments was having to let the option lapse on the feature film version of Bethune, despite pouring much of his own money into the project and working for years with director Ted Kotcheff, various actors and screenwriters and government bureaucrats.
That paled next to the loss of his daughter, Judi, who died of lung cancer when she was only in her 30s. Married three times, Kemeny had just celebrated his 48th anniversary with Margaret, whom he met in Hungary at a dinner party with friends. It was love at first sight for the 39-year-old producer with distinguished wings of grey at his temples and the vivacious woman 15 years his junior. After five days, they knew they wanted to spend their lives together and he returned home to break things off with his wife. The couple was rarely apart after that; Margaret even travelled with him on film shoots, waiting up with a hot plate of food for him when he walked through the door.
Upon his retirement 16 years ago, they first settled in Sedona, with its red sandstone cliffs and glorious light. But they missed Europe and wanted to live somewhere warmer. They tried Spain and then Hungary, where they lived until politics forced them to return to the United States. Kemeny had left the first time because of a repressive left-wing regime, but the rise of ultraright nationalist movements such as Jobbik disturbed him just as much. He detested the party – Hungary’s third largest, which has stated its purpose is the protection of Hungarian values and interests and has openly expressed its antipathy to Muslims, Jews, Roma, homosexuals and any other group that does not fit into the fold. After he determined that the U.S. was a better place to live, he and Margaret had to reapply for green cards that they had let lapse. Just weeks after they settled into their new home earlier this year, Kemeny was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His son, George, from his brief first marriage, was with him at the end.
Lantos said he and several others are lobbying, among other arts organizations, the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences to include Kemeny in its in memoriam segment next year.
“John should get the recognition he deserves,” he said. “He would claim not to care. He would say, ‘Spend your time doing something more useful and valuable because I’m dead already.’ But I know that he wouldn’t really mean it.”