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Ted Kotcheff, the most famous Canadian filmmaker you’ve never heard of

Director Ted Kotcheff at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Ted Kotcheff, the most famous Toronto-born film and television director you may not have heard of, loves telling stories. Stories about a Montreal hustler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). A Vietnam vet not welcome back in America (First Blood). Dudes on a tear with a corpse in tow (Weekend at Bernie's). Victims of violent crime (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which he executive-produced for 12 years). He also loves telling stories about making those stories, so it was a logical leap for him to write a memoir, Director's Cut: My Life in Film, and to come to Toronto late last month to chat about it.

What's surprising (and impressive) is how energetic Kotcheff is at 86. He walks with a cane, but he sure gets around. He insists he'll direct one more feature, if he can hustle up the dough. His memory is letter perfect. He clearly spent years polishing his yarns. When he tells you one, it's usually word for word from his book. And don't try to stop him – if he starts in, he's going to land the punchline. Here are some examples.

The time he almost froze to death

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Kotcheff was two years old, living with his Bulgarian-immigrant parents in a Toronto Cabbagetown slum. He hadn't learned to speak English. His parents had no work, no money for coal. One bitterly cold night, his mother found him blue and barely breathing. Her screams woke his father, who ran 12 blocks for a doctor. His uncle, who cursed the chilly establishment as "son of a beetch Canadians," dashed to the nearest park and chopped down two spruce trees.

"If you were Bulgarian and did something illegal, you were sent back to Bulgaria," Kotcheff says now. "But that was a risk he took for me."

The adults threw the spruce into their potbellied stove and heated a pot of water. The doctor arrived and took Ted's temperature: 84, two degrees above death. He plunged the boy into the pot. When Kotcheff hit the boiling water, he said his first English word: Beetch! "My uncle was so pleased," he says.

This is what sticks in Kotcheff's memory, though: Two years later, his playmates next door were evicted because their family couldn't pay the $2-a-month rent. "I remember thinking, at four, 'What sort of world would do that?'" Kotcheff says. "It shaped me, made me compassionate about other people's stories."

At 22, Kotcheff got a job at the CBC, at the dawn of the television age. Within two years he was directing live televised dramas – mainly, he chuckles, because no one else was around. Two years later, in 1957, he moved to London, where his flatmate ("decor by Charles Dickens, furniture by Sally Ann," Kotcheff loves to say) was a fledgling novelist named Mordecai Richler.

When Richler fell silent

Richler was "a witty, funny man," Kotcheff says, but when he was in mid-book he could become uncommunicative. At one party of about 20 people, he sat by himself on a windowsill. "Everyone kept looking over at him," Kotcheff recalls. "The whole room was tilted toward him. His silence outweighed 19 conversations." On the way home, Kotcheff asked Richler what he'd been thinking about. "I was rewriting Hamlet," Richler replied. "I gave it a happy ending."

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Richler kept a strict writing schedule; his novels "poured out of him," Kotcheff says. After typing the last page of Duddy Kravitz, Richler pulled it from the typewriter and handed the manuscript to Kotcheff. Richler wrote a film script, Kotcheff directed it (with Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy), and it became the first Canadian film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

"Mordecai had a corrugated surface, but underneath he was a wonderful, sensitive man," Kotcheff says. "No one has ever loved me the way Mordecai loved me."

Nick Nolte's underwear

In Kotcheff's 1979 film North Dallas Forty, Nolte plays a carousing football player. As he disrobed for a locker-room scene, Kotcheff saw with horror that his underwear was streaked with skid marks. Nolte had put them there; he thought they were in character. "My leading man will not have skid marks!" Kotcheff railed. He refused to shoot until Nolte changed. Nolte called him a sellout.

Finally, Kotcheff summoned him to set. "I'll give you underwear that has holes in it, and we can see your bum through the holes," he said.

"Kotcheff, you're an effing genius," Nolte replied.

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"But that was Nick," Kotcheff says now. "Certain stars don't want to do anything unsympathetic or untoward. Nick never held back."

How Stallone fixed the ending

In the script of First Blood, which Kotcheff and Stallone worked on together, John Rambo was a Vietnam vet whose struggle to find his place in the American Midwest became a suicide mission. "The statistics were horrifying," Kotcheff says. "In 1980, 1,000 Vietnam vets per month tried to kill themselves, and over 300 succeeded. Per month. That was our starting point."

In Rambo's final scene, he was to grab someone's gun barrel, pull the trigger and blow himself away. "It was very moving, wonderfully acted," Kotcheff says. Afterward, Stallone pulled him aside. "He said, 'Ted, we've put this character through so much. And now were going to kill him? The audience is going to hate us.'" Kotcheff agreed, and despite the producers' objections, shot an alternate ending.

At the first test screening, with the suicide, audiences revolted. Kotcheff pulled his happy ending out of his pocket, recut the film, and a franchise was born.

Arguing with the Academy

Kotcheff's parents were theatre people, liberals who thought "any form of racism, sexism or religious bias was a horror," he says. "They sent my brother and me to Jewish camps every summer, to make sure we'd never be anti-Semitic." Kotcheff joined the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as soon as he could, and has proudly cast Oscar ballots for 40 years. So, two years ago, when the #OscarsSoWhite controversy arose and the Academy scrutinized older members, he phoned the head of the organization to object.

"I was furious," he says now. "I objected to the suggestion that we were anti-black. I'm not a racist. I know half the members of the Academy, and none of them are racist. I know that's not PC. But I'm irreverent by temperament."

The untold story

While writing his book, Kotcheff examined his filmography, and realized he was attracted to characters who didn't understand their own motivations. "The pictures were voyages of discovery," he says. "I said to myself, 'Ted, you must be uncertain about who you are.'"

I wait for the punchline. And wait. Finally, I ask: "So? Did you figure out what motivates you?"

"I may have," Kotcheff replies, grinning. "But I'm not going to tell you." That's one story he's keeping for himself.

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