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He also founded the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto, a professional talent development hub, so Canadian actors, writers, directors, producers and others could learn to tell their own stories without having to join the exodus to Hollywood

There’s a story Norman Jewison liked to tell about how he realized his life’s work might help change the world. In December, 1966, the Canadian-born filmmaker was on a ski vacation with his family in Sun Valley, Idaho, when his eight year-old son, Michael, broke his leg in a downhill race. In the hospital waiting room, Mr. Jewison ran into Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose son, Joseph, had also injured himself skiing.

Depending on which version of this story Mr. Jewison was retelling, what happened next took place either in that waiting room or at the senator’s New Year’s Eve party a week later.

Mr. Jewison began to tell Mr. Kennedy about the film he had recently finished shooting, In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier, the biggest Black box office star of that era, played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective who, while passing through a small Mississippi town, is taken in for questioning in the murder of a white businessman: racial profiling before the toxic practice had a name. He is cleared, but stays in town and forms an uneasy détente with the local sheriff, a gruff redneck played by Rod Steiger, to solve the murder. Mr. Jewison’s film sought to capture America’s tumultuous social climate during the civil rights era, presenting an unsentimental argument against racial prejudice while also illuminating its deep and obstinate roots.

Hearing him tell the story, the senator became animated. “‘This could be a very important film, Norman!’” Mr. Jewison said Mr. Kennedy had insisted.

It was, the filmmaker explained in an interview years later, “the first time anybody said what I was doing was going to be important.”

If that seems unlikely – Mr. Jewison’s previous feature, the Cold War satire The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, had been praised on the floor of the U.S. Senate and screened at the United Nations – it is true that Heat was his first film widely acclaimed for its seriousness of purpose. It proved a potent distillation of everything he had been working toward for more than a decade, and would serve as a calling card for the rest of his career.

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Sidney Poitier, star of In the Heat of the Night, works alongside director Norman Jewison as cinematographer Haskell Wexler looks on.United Artists

Over the course of that extraordinary career, which stretched from the early 1950s into the new century, Mr. Jewison became the most prolific filmmaker ever to emerge from Canada. His 24 theatrical features, which included Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball, A Soldier’s Story, … And Justice For All, The Hurricane, Agnes of God, and Moonstruck, received more than 40 Academy Award nominations and won 12 Oscars. Together they displayed astonishing range, from light romantic comedies to rousing musicals, slick capers, seething dramas, thrillers, farces, and even a violent sports-and-sci-fi cautionary tale: popular entertainments that had social effect in a turbulent age, when films regularly helped set the agenda.

Perhaps just as consequentially, after establishing himself as a power player in Hollywood, Mr. Jewison returned home to live in the country of his birth, basing his production company here and becoming the godfather to generations of creators by founding the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) in Toronto, a professional talent development hub for actors, writers, directors, producers, and others.

And though, to his chagrin, he never made a film about the Canadian experience, he believed fervently that Canadians should be able to tell their own stories without having to join the exodus to Hollywood – that a confident, homegrown film industry was essential for the country’s sense of self. Shortly before the CFC opened its doors in 1988, The Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott observed that Mr. Jewison had, over the previous three decades, “minted a golden coin: American chutzpah on one side, Canadian civility on the other. In his films, he has used it to purchase a podium from which to teach Americans entertainingly something about themselves. In Canada, he is committed to spending it on a centre that he hopes will confirm for a new generation of Canadians who want to earn the same coin that there can be – and must be and will be – a here here.”

Mr. Jewison died at his home in Malibu, Calif., on Saturday at the age of 97, according to his public relations representative Jeff Sanderson. He leaves his second wife, Lynne St. David-Jewison, as well as his children, Kevin, Michael and Jennifer, and their families.

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Filming Jesus Christ Superstar in Bethlehem in 1972, Mr. Jewison demonstrates how he wants an actor to wash the feet of the title character, played by Ted Neeley.The Associated Press

Mr. Jewison gestures to guests at a Canadian Film Centre barbecue in 2009. Mr. Jewison set up the CFC hoping it could be a northern version of the L.A.-based American Film Institute. Pawel Dwulit/The Canadian Press
Mr. Jewison, who directed the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof, point out Marc Chagall's The Fiddler at an Art Gallery of Ontario gala with his wife, Lynne St. David-Jewison. Tom Sandler/The Globe and Mail

Norman Frederick Jewison began entertaining audiences even before he was out of grade school. Born July 21, 1926, to Dorothy and Percy Joseph Jewison in his grandmother’s house in the Beach district of Toronto, he grew up a few blocks away, in the apartment above his father’s dry goods store on Queen Street East. As a child, he would plunk down a dime at the Beach Theatre on Saturday afternoons and thrill to the latest adventure pic from Hollywood, then gather the neighbourhood kids in the Kew Beach Public School playground, charging them two cents a head to watch him re-enact the rollicking tales.

“I played all the parts, made all the sound effects, played horrific scenes of violent death – gunned down by the law, taking an … arrow in my back, whirling as the shots hit, and falling, hand clutched to my heart,” Mr. Jewison recalled in his 2004 memoir, This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me.

He learned quickly how to craft a tale: which details to tease out, which to hold back for dramatic effect, reading the audience’s reaction and adjusting on the fly. That canny showmanship proved invaluable when, years later, he would pitch studio executives, performing what he dubbed “my dance” – that is, “the art of selling, of convincing people to give you millions of dollars to make your dream.”

In 1946, after a brief stint in the Canadian Navy, Mr. Jewison spent two months hitchhiking through the U.S. in his dress uniform – the better to invite free hospitality – when he boarded a bus outside Memphis, Tenn. He made his way to the back and was promptly accosted by the driver for sitting in the section for “coloured persons.”

Rather than move seats, Mr. Jewison stormed off the bus, writing later that the experience so galled him that it helped ignite his desire to make films such as Heat and A Soldier’s Story.

Mulling a future in journalism, he enrolled in Victoria College at the University of Toronto. But the lectures from such luminaries as Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye were, he acknowledged later, wasted on him: He was too busy writing, directing and acting in campus musical revues. Still, he managed to graduate, becoming the first person in his family to earn a university degree.

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A CBC test pattern from the 1950s, when Mr. Jewison came to work there.CBC Archives

After cutting his teeth with the BBC in London, Mr. Jewison joined a trainee program for the nascent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in September, 1952, served as a floor director for the debut program of its new English-language television service. He established himself as a gifted director of variety, music and comedy programs; married the artist and model Margaret Ann (Dixie) Dixon; and settled into a comfortable life not far from his childhood home. But he felt CBC executives (and, frankly, Canada itself) were unappreciative of talent, maybe even burdened with an inferiority complex, so when the U.S. broadcast network CBS offered him a job in 1958, he uprooted the family – Dixie and their two young sons, with a daughter to follow – to New York City, directing such fare as Your Hit Parade and The Andy Williams Show.

Then, a breakthrough with material that felt personally meaningful: In late 1959, Harry Belafonte tapped Mr. Jewison to direct Tonight With Belafonte, the first U.S. television special dedicated to a single Black performer. It featured spirituals, slave songs and ballads, and a racially integrated cast. The experience, Mr. Belafonte said, “was unique for me because of Normy’s ability to adapt himself to the world of Negro art … he’d ask about the meaning and submeaning and sub-submeaning of the words of the songs.”

The program became, as Ira Wells wrote in the definitive biography, Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life, “one of the most culturally momentous hours of American television.”

He signed with Universal Pictures and moved his family to California. The contract obligated him to direct seven films, but after four fluffy romantic comedies (including a pair starring Doris Day), he was straining under the corporate control and wrested himself free. “George Stevens [the director of the 1939 classic Gunga Din] once told me, ‘See all those studios out there? They are the enemy! We are the artists! So you must fight for what you believe in!’” Mr. Jewison told The Globe and Mail in a 2016 interview. “I became a kind of a monster for the studios, because I’ve always believed in total freedom of expression.”

That freedom paid dividends. The first feature Mr. Jewison developed as a producer, The Russians Are Coming, about a comical crisis that erupts when a Soviet submarine runs aground off a tiny Massachusetts island, was praised by The New York Times as a “rousingly funny – and perceptive – motion picture about a desperately unfunny world situation,” and nominated for four Oscars, including best picture. It won the Golden Globe for best picture (comedy or musical).

The film possessed a generosity of spirit both onscreen and off. While shooting in the small coastal town of Fort Bragg, Calif., Mr. Jewison invited the locals to the nightly screenings of the previous day’s raw footage. So-called “dailies” are normally seen only by the cast and select crew – and sometimes, depending on a filmmaker’s level of confidence in a project, not even by them – but, as Mr. Wells wrote, Mr. Jewison felt the move would make the townsfolk, “more responsive to his directing in the panic scenes requiring hordes of extras.”

He became known for his masterful handling of talent: actors, writers and others whose egos needed careful stroking. While developing In the Heat of the Night, he assured the writer Stirling Silliphant that his first draft was so good that he would shoot it without revisions. When Mr. Silliphant seemed hesitant – even he knew the script wasn’t perfect – Mr. Jewison began to suggest a few changes he might make: just a few tweaks, here and there. Before long, Mr. Silliphant had overhauled much of the script: Mr. Jewison’s goal from the outset. “Few directors have that panache, that sensitivity,” Mr. Silliphant observed, according to Mr. Wells’s biography. “He handled me beautifully.”

Heat, which opened in August, 1967, made the director an even hotter commodity: He was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and began to help out on Senator Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But Mr. Jewison had little time to revel in his own success. In April, 1968, three days before that year’s Academy Awards, where Heat was up for seven Oscars, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A devastated Mr. Jewison rushed to Atlanta to attend the funeral, marching the four miles of the procession next to Mr. Kennedy.

Two months later, he was waiting at the home of another filmmaker for Mr. Kennedy to drop by after that day’s Democratic primary. Shortly after midnight, an assassin gunned down the senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel: Mr. Kennedy died the next day.

Mr. Jewison uprooted the family again, this time to London. “You can only go through so many assassinations and then you lose your equilibrium,” he told The Globe in 2016. “And when they killed JFK and then they killed Martin Luther King, and then they killed Bobby, I thought, ‘Gotta’ get out of here. Just gotta’ get out of here. I don’t want to be here, there are guns everywhere, this is a violent country and they even slay their heroes.’”

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The Globe reports on the killing of senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968, which would have a deep impact on Mr. Jewison.

He bought Sean Connery’s old house on Putney Heath and began preparing to make Fiddler, a film adaptation of the smash Broadway musical about Tevye, a poor milkman in turn-of-the-century Russia who is struggling to hold onto traditional values in the face of changing times and violent pogroms. Mr. Jewison spent months studying Russian Jewish life and the works of Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer whose short stories formed the basis of the film. He had seen first-hand how hatred could tear a society apart. He wanted to capture the hard-won joy of village life – as precarious as a fiddler on a roof – and the heartbreak when that life is shattered.

On set, he was a spry, bearded, bespectacled, ball cap-wearing pixie, as seen in the 1971 National Film Board documentary, Norman Jewison, Filmmaker, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Fiddler on location in Yugoslavia. “He has this lust for life. That’s very much what’s going on in Fiddler, or the pageantry and excitement of Jesus Christ Superstar,” John Patrick Shanley, the writer of Moonstruck, told The Globe. “He’s sort of Zorba the Filmmaker.”

He would kibbitz with the crew, cajole performers, and occasionally shed a tear in reaction to a scene playing out in front of him. In the NFB doc, the actor Topol, who played Tevye, explained with a smile that, “somehow, he gives everyone the feeling that it’s the actor’s idea how to do [a performance]. Although, if you check it carefully, he really feeds you the ideas, with little remarks, with smiles. With very little talk, he’ll let [the actor] come to what actually Norman wants to happen.”

When it was released in the fall of 1971, The New Yorker’s influential critic, Pauline Kael, declared Fiddler to be, “the most powerful movie musical ever made. … You come out shaken.” The film received eight Oscar nominations, including best director and best picture, and won three. Years later, Mr. Jewison would recall with pride how he sat next to Golda Meir at Fiddler’s premiere in Jerusalem and watched the steely Israeli prime minister wipe away a single tear during one of the film’s emotional moments.

He befriended Israeli politicians, who helped ease the production in that country of his next musical film adaptation, Jesus Christ Superstar, which depicted the final seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But much of the goodwill evaporated when Jewish organizations became concerned the rock opera would be dangerously antisemitic and lay the blame for Jesus’s death on the Jewish priests.

Mr. Jewison was combative, insisting that his good intentions, and his love of the Jewish people as demonstrated with Fiddler, were enough to ensure that he could not possibly make a film that would inspire hatred. In a letter to a concerned Israeli politician, he insisted that, “as a creative filmmaker,” he would not bow to what he saw as “hysterical and untrue charges from a fanatical group.”

It was not the first time he was unable to grasp why his social justice bona fides wouldn’t grant him a pass, why a marginalized community might feel harmed by his art.

Some years earlier, Mr. Jewison had tried to make an adaptation of The Confessions of Nat Turner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Styron based on the true story of a slave who led a bloody revolt in 1831 which killed dozens of white people. But an organization of high-profile Black artists, led by the actor Ossie Davis, objected to several distortions in Mr. Styron’s book, including a homosexual encounter and the character’s lust for white women, and wrote an open letter calling on members of the community to withhold their participation in a project they believed would be, “a flagrant libel against one of our greatest heroes.”

In time, Mr. Jewison gave up on the project, just as he also eventually dropped a biography of Malcolm X that he desperately wanted to make, after the director Spike Lee insisted Mr. Jewison could never fully grasp the reality of being Black in America and was, therefore, unqualified for the job. (Mr. Lee’s own Malcolm X project came out in 1992.)

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Mr. Jewison arrives at Toronto's York Theatre with Jane Fonda for the TIFF premiere of their 1985 film Agnes of God.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

In 1978, Mr. Jewison moved his family back to Canada, settling on a farm in the Caledon Hills, northwest of Toronto, which he dubbed Putney Heath, though he maintained an L.A. office and home in Malibu. He was invested as an officer of the Order of Canada in 1982 and as a companion 10 years later.

He broadened his critique of the status quo, making the pro-union drama F.I.S.T. with Sylvester Stallone; the operatic Al Pacino courtroom drama … And Justice For All, which lampooned the very idea of American justice; A Soldier’s Story, a murder mystery that waded into the thorny territory of Black prejudice against other Blacks; and Hurricane, about the wrongly imprisoned Black boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter.

And he explored other elements of life which fascinated him: mysteries of faith with Agnes of God and the whimsies of love in Moonstruck, an offbeat romantic comedy which became one of his biggest box office hits.

Mr. Jewison also began lending a hand to younger Canadian filmmakers, both informally – writing a cheque, sitting in on an editing session, offering office space – and formally, as a producer. In 1987, when he learned the family of the tycoon E.P. Taylor would be donating their 22-acre Windfields Estate to the City of North York, he convinced them and the city’s mayor, Mel Lastman, that it would make an ideal location for the Canadian Film Centre. He envisioned the conservatory as this country’s equivalent to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where aspiring filmmakers could learn from mentors with real industry experience, and develop their projects for the market.

Mr. Jewison worked his Rolodex, forming a board of some of the most powerful people in Canadian business, who were only too eager to meet the showbiz pals he brought in to share their experience with residents. The CFC opened its doors the following spring, around the time Mr. Jewison was sitting in the audience at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, applauding the actresses Cher and Olympia Dukakis, and the writer John Patrick Shanley, for taking home Oscars for their work on Moonstruck.

Almost 2,000 residents have now passed through the CFC – its alumni list is a who’s who of Canadian film and TV talent working in this country and beyond its borders – helping to spawn hundreds of projects.

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Mr. Jewison celebrates after winning the Irving Thalberg Award at the 71st Oscars in 1999.Reed Saxon/The Associated Press

Over the course of his career, Mr. Jewison was nominated for seven Academy Awards – four as a producer of best picture nominees and three for best director, including two for Moonstruck – but didn’t win any. Still, in March, 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed on him one of the industry’s highest honours, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, whose other laureates included William Wyler, Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Steven Spielberg. Introduced by Nicolas Cage, the male lead in Moonstruck, Mr. Jewison sauntered onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to the theme of Fiddler’s If I Were a Rich Man, arms in the air and hips swivelling jauntily, like a prancing Cossack, as Hollywood royalty rose to their feet and applauded.

“My one real regret at winning this prize is that – you know, it’s not like the Nobel, or the Pulitzer – I mean, the Thalberg Award comes with no money attached!” he said, to laughter from the audience. “If it did, I would share it with the Canadian Film Centre and the AFI, where the next generation of filmmakers are preparing to entertain the world in the new millennium.”

His eyes grew misty. “My parting thought to all those young filmmakers is this: Just find some good stories. Never mind the gross, the top 10, the bottom 10, ‘What’s the rating?’, ‘What’s the demographic?’” The audience erupted in applause. “Just tell stories that move us to laughter and tears, and perhaps reveal a little truth about ourselves.”

“And as for myself,” – he looked out and smiled – “I hope to see you again next year!”

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Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include Norman Jewison's Order of Canada investitures, and to clarify the number of Academy Award nominations he received.

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