Donald Shebib directed, produced, co-wrote and edited the 1970 film Goin’ Down the Road with the goal of telling a meaningful, realistic Canadian story in an era when homegrown cinema barely existed in this country. Inspired by a cousin who travelled from Atlantic Canada to Ontario to seek a better life, he initially considered shooting a documentary about labour migration but later realized he had the makings of a road trip movie.
In Mr. Shebib’s landmark film, two buddies from Nova Scotia drive to Toronto in an old Chevy in search of work, but run into a series of setbacks that lead them to head back on the road.
“He really had a vision,” says Jayne Eastwood, who played Betty in the film and its 2011 sequel, Down the Road Again. “He wanted to tell stories that meant something, but he knew how to spin it so it was fun to watch.”
The poignant, raw but also funny film is considered among the best Canadian movies ever made, and was the first to become a hit domestically and in the United States, proving that this country could produce successful mainstream films. (It was chosen as a masterwork by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada in 2000.)
“He started it all,” Ms. Eastwood says. “He was revered by everyone in the industry.”
Mr. Shebib died on Nov. 5 at age 85 as a result of complications related to cancer treatment. He directed movies and TV shows, and began his career making documentaries, many of them for CBC TV’s The Way It Is. (He co-wrote Goin’ Down the Road with screenwriter William Fruet, whom he knew from that show.)
His skills as a documentarian allowed him to pivot while filming a scene for the movie in Allan Gardens in Toronto. Ms. Eastwood recalls the homeless people in the park were interacting with the actors, who starting improvising. “It was all very much encouraged by Don. He wanted that ambience,” she says.
Mr. Shebib’s deft direction impressed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who wrote of the film, “There is scarcely a false touch. The Canadian Don Shebib is so good at blending actors into locations that one has to remind oneself that this is an acted film and not a documentary.”
Gail Harvey, a friend and fellow film director, agrees. “What I loved about his work was it was raw and it was real.”
Mr. Shebib could do all the jobs on set. “He knew how to edit film and do it all. That inspired me in everything I do,” says his son, Noah, a record producer known by the nickname 40. “He was driven by technical ability paired with storytelling.”
He chose his casts carefully and then trusted the actors to do their job. “He knew he had hired the people he wanted, he didn’t over-direct us,” Ms. Eastwood says. “I don’t recall ever getting any notes from Don. It just kind of worked.”
“He was irascible,” says actor Art Hindle, who appeared in Mr. Shebib’s 2022 film Nightalk. The pair would throw a football on set between takes. “I call him the lovable curmudgeon.”
Noah Shebib echoes this observation. “He was honest, truthful and to the point. He was a very loving man but he was also very realistic. My father didn’t sugar-coat much.”
The elder Mr. Shebib was best known for the two Goin’ Down the Road movies, the first of which won best original screenplay, best feature film and best performance by a lead actor, shared by co-leads Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley, at the 1970 Canadian Film Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards). His other films include Between Friends (1973), Running Brave (1983) and The Ascent (1994).
He also directed episodes of numerous TV shows, many of them Canadian, including The Edison Twins, Danger Bay, Night Heat, Lonesome Dove: The Series, The New Addams Family and Wind at My Back.
Donald Everett Shebib was born in Toronto on Jan. 27, 1938, the son of Moses (Morris) and Mary Alice (née Long) Shebib, and eventual elder brother to Mary (now McGill). His father was from Nova Scotia, the child of Lebanese immigrants, and his Newfoundland-born mother was of Irish heritage.
Young Don collected comic books and, once the family got a television, loved watching CBC TV. He was athletic, and a talented quarterback who played semi-pro ball on several teams into the 1960s. Mr. Hindle says he and Mr. Shebib both tried out for the Toronto Argonauts on different occasions.
Mr. Shebib studied sociology at the University of Toronto and then went to the University of California, Los Angeles, for film. After graduation, he notably worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the crew of his 1963 film Dementia 13.
But Mr. Shebib decided to return to Canada. Noah says director Norman Jewison urged his father to reconsider. “He said, please come to LA and make films, we need you here,” he recalls. “But he wanted to stay, he wanted to tell Canadian stories.”
Mr. Shebib remained in Toronto and moved in with actress Dorothea (Tedde) Moore, with whom he raised Noah and their daughter, Suzanna, plus stepchildren Zoe Carter and Chaunce Drury. (He and Ms. Moore no longer lived together later in life but always referred to each other as life partners.)
Over the years, his work earned additional Canadian Film Awards, such as best feature length documentary for Good Times, Bad Times in 1969 and best editing for Second Wind in 1976. The Directors Guild of Canada gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017.
Mr. Shebib never stopped working and sending ideas to trusted colleagues such as Ms. Harvey. “He worked up until the day he died, developing scripts and films. My father was never going to retire, that’s not who he was,” Noah says.
Outside of work, he played football until an injury ended that in the 1980s, and then focused more on golf. (Noah says his father shot 90 a week and a half before his death.) He continued to watch football, preferring NCAA games, but also following the CFL and NFL.
Part of his love of golf entailed refurbishing old clubs, many of which he used on the course. “He liked meticulous things,” his son says. He cultivated a large stamp collection and made intricate model airplanes.
Mr. Shebib leaves the legacy of jump-starting the Canadian film and television industry. Says Mr. Hindle, “He was a master filmmaker and storyteller. He was a legend in Canadian film.”
Mr. Shebib leaves his life partner, children, their spouses and five grandchildren.