Film producer Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, died this afternoon of liver cancer at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. He was 78. There will be a private family funeral with a public celebration of his life at a later date.
Tall and lanky, with a grizzled beard and an ear to ear grin, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat festooned with shiny pins and badges and an outré t-shirt, he appeared to be the epitome of louche. In fact, he was a family man, with kids and grandchildren, who remained married for more than 50 years to the girl he met in high school. He was also a genial and supportive father figure to many fledgling producers and directors in the Canadian film business.
"He was unconventional in his ideas and his dress, but he wasn't unconventional in his living habits and his loyalties," said film and television producer Ted Kotcheff, who has known Mr. Cohl "longer than anybody," dating back to summer camp north of Toronto in the mid-1940s.
A lawyer who made serious money in real estate deals in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Cohl was seduced by the movie business after a chance visit to the Cannes International Film Festival, and spent the next 40 years schmoozing backers, stars and directors. A co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, he was also a film and television producer, with credits on movies such as Outrageous! and the television series The Scales of Justice. "He was there in the Canadian film business from the beginning and he dedicated his life to it," said Mr. Kotcheff in a telephone interview from California. "He was the very heart and soul of the Canadian film industry and the most lovable man that I have ever met, hands down."
Murray (Dusty) Cohl was born on Euclid Street in Toronto on Feb. 21, 1929, the year of the great stock market crash on Wall Street. His father Karl was a Communist who worked as a house painter, a union organizer and ultimately an insurance agent, while his mother Lillian sold bed linens at Eaton's, according to Brian D. Johnson in Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 years of Festival Fever.
An only child, he attended Charles G. Fraser elementary school and Camp Naivelt (New World) a Bolshevik Jewish summer camp north of Toronto, from the age of five. It was at camp that he shed his hated first name and acquired the nickname Dusty. Another camper, named Harris Black, was called Blacky and the kids decided that Murray Cohl (pronounced coal) should be Dusty, probably as in coal dust.
"He was my camp counsellor," said film and television producer Ted Kotcheff who attended Camp Naivelt from 1943 thru 1945. "He was my boyhood hero." What Mr. Kotcheff loved about Dusty were the same qualities that have always captured people's affections: "He was so full of good humour and intelligence, and he was a born non-conformist. Even back then he was unconventional in his dress, which appeals to young people."
Dusty let his t-shirt hang outside his shorts while the other counsellors were all tucked in. "He had his own style," said Mr. Kotcheff, who also has a much darker memory from those days: Seeing his hero "ejected" from camp in the summer of 1945, after a "Kangaroo Court" found him guilty of being an "anarchist Trotskyite" - at age 16. "He always saw that as a very amusing incident in his life, but that was Dusty. He was dedicated to following his own vision of things; he was an original."
After public school he went to Harbord Collegiate from 1941-47. That's where he met Joan Cairn, although she says she knew of him from Camp Naivelt. He asked her to dance, she told a family friend, felt very comfortable in his arms and knew that he might be "the one." After high school, he went to the University of Toronto, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1950. The following year, on Dec. 23, 1951, he and Joan married - they celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary late last year - and eventually had three children, Robert, Karen and Steven.
After the U of T, he entered Osgoode Hall Law School, coming first in his class one year and graduating with a law degree in 1954. For most of the next 20 years Mr. Cohl worked as a zoning and real estate lawyer, putting together land parcels and property developments in Toronto and Florida. He was "tremendously successful" according to his close friend, film producer Barry Avrich, but retired from the business "at the top of his game" when people starting referring to him as "the King of Real Estate."
In 1964 he and his wife Joan were holidaying in the south of France and she suggested they visit Cannes. By chance they found a parking place in front of the Carlton Hotel, ordered a drink on the terrace and "saw and felt the pulse of the action" of the annual film festival, which just happened to be on at the same time. "I was like a kid falling into Disneyland," he said later. It was another four years before they made it back to Cannes, but from then on they were regulars at the International Film Festival, schmoozing critics, producers and stars from a table on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel.
In 1973 he met William (Bill) Marshall, a Glaswegian who had immigrated to Canada as a teenager and attended the U of T for a couple of years before finding a job marketing soap for Proctor & Gamble and delving into public relations with a partner named Gil Taylor. Wanting to make movies, he formed the Film Consortium of Canada with Henk van der Kolk, a Dutch architect turned producer, with whom he made films on contract for the Ontario government. Mr. Marshall was also the communications whiz who helped propel David Crombie into the Mayor's office in 1972 and then worked as his executive assistant.
Bored with politics, Mr. Marshall was thinking of getting back into film when Mr. Cohl approached him about Pinocchio's Birthday Party, a children's film he was helping to produce. Both men have claimed credit for the idea of launching a film festival in Toronto, but what is certainly true is that they both embraced the concept as enthusiastically as seals sliding down water slides.
In 1974 they visited a number of film festivals to make contacts. At the Atlanta Film Festival, they went to a party celebrating the Canadian films being screened including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, directed by Mr. Kotcheff and adapted from the novel by Mordecai Richler. Mr. Kotcheff remembers walking into a reception for the Canadian film contingent, twigging to something familiar about another guest, whose back was turned, and yelling "Dusty." He recognized him from the back of his neck even though he hadn't seen him since Camp Naivelt days 30 years earlier, because "I loved this man." The two men embraced and immediately began making jokes about anarchist Trotskyites.
The following May, Mr. Cohl and Mr. Marshall went to the film festival in Cannes, rented a suite in The Carlton Hotel, ensconced themselves in the bar on the terrace and started schmoozing. "Dusty was the only person I knew in Canada who had actually been to Cannes in those days," Mr. Marshall recollected in a telephone interview.
"There were only about six of us making movies," he said. "We wanted a film festival [in Toronto]"because foreign people might come and we'd get to sell our movies. Henk [van der Kolk]was the managing director and I was the executive director because I had to look at all the movies people sent us and Dusty was the accomplice." Instead of being the guy driving the getaway car, his role as an "accomplice" was to schmooze and in Mr. Marshall's estimation there was nobody better at talking, bringing key people together and creating an undercurrent of excitement about a project.
They announced the Toronto International Film Festival at Cannes in May 1976 and launched it at the Ontario Place Cinesphere in Toronto that October on a budget of about $500,000 of which about half was in goods and services and some public support from then Secretary of State John Roberts (obituary, April 3, 2007) and Jim Coutts, principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Unlike Cannes which is largely an industry festival, they wanted theirs to cater to the movie going public and use crowds as a draw to attract media and industry. The first year they wantonly courted Warren Beatty through his Toronto cousin, but he failed to show. Unexpectedly, Jeanne Moreau and Dino de Laurentiis did. And they had a bit of luck by screening Cousin, Cousine, which was later nominated for three Academy Awards. In 1978, they defied the then powerful defunct Ontario Censor Board by showing an uncut version of In Praise of Older Women, based on Stephen Vizinczey's bestseller and almost caused a riot by handing out 4,000 passes to a screening at a cinema that only seated 1,000. The overflow crowd engendered one of the slick talking Mr. Marshall's more elusive qualifiers. "We're not oversold. We're just over-attended." But after three years Mr. Cohl and Mr. Marshall retreated and Wayne Clarkson became the first of several professional managers of the burgeoning festival.
In addition to TIFF, which has long been one of the top film festivals in the world, Mr. Cohl put his "accomplice" skills to work, co-producing feature films such as Outrageous! and The Circle Game and was a consulting producer on The Last Mogul, Rush: Grace Under Pressure Tour, Guilty Pleasure, The Extraordinary World of Dominick Dunne and Bowfire. He was also executive producer of series The Scales of Justice, which began on CBC radio in the 1980s and was aired on CBC television from 1991 - 1995. Hosted by lawyer Edward Greenspan, it featured docudramas based on real cases in Canadian Criminal law.
He also worked with his cousin, rock promoter Michael Cohl, famous for organizing tours for The Rolling Stones, on a pay television concert series on cable television in the 1980s called First Choice Rocks. Less successfully the two Cohls worked with basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain in an attempt to bring an NBA franchise to Toronto.
In 1990, Mr. Cohl started The Floating Film Festival, an almost annual luxury Caribbean cruise featuring films programmed by the critics such as Roger Ebert, Richard Corliss and George Anthony, world premieres and a showcase tribute to a film legend. The FFF or The Floater, combined the best elements of "the smallness of Telluride, the warmth of Toronto and the glamour of Cannes," according to Mr. Cohl. It even had its own emblematic t-shirt depicting an art deco style cruise ship flying a flag with a cowboy hat, inspired by the black Stetson that invariably adorned Mr. Cohl's head. The 10th edition of the FFF, which will sail from Los Angeles on February 25th, is dedicated to Mr. Cohl's memory and features a tribute to actress Gena Rowlands.
He was also a member of the founding board of Canada's Walk of Fame in 1998, which celebrates the achievements of music, arts and sports celebrities with an annual televised special and by encasing their names in a slab of cement on the sidewalks in the entertainment district. In its ten years, the Walk of Fame has inducted more than 100 Canadians, including Wayne Gretzky, Karen Kain, Gordon Pinsent and Kiefer Sutherland.
Mr. Cohl was invested into the Order of Canada in May 2003 for "his pride in Canadian talent" and his "desire to celebrate our achievements." He was diagnosed with liver cancer late last fall.