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Director Norman Jewison, known for 'Moonstruck' and 'Fiddler on the Roof,' dies at 97


Canadian-born movie director Norman Jewison died on Saturday. He was 97. Jewison's broad palette ranged from the racial drama of "In The Heat Of The Night" to the musical "Fiddler On The Roof" to the romantic comedy "Moonstruck." Fred Wasser has this appreciation.

FRED WASSER, BYLINE: Norman Jewison started out in television. He was producing and directing a special when he caught the attention of Tony Curtis. You do nice work kid, said Curtis - when are you going to make a movie? Later that year, he was directing Curtis in the 1962 comedy "40 Pounds Of Trouble." Other comedies with Doris Day, James Garner and Rock Hudson followed - all studio assignments. But in short order, Jewison was making his own films - 1965's "The Cincinnati Kid," starring Steve McQueen, and his spoof of Cold War-era politics, "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" with Alan Arkin.


ALAN ARKIN: (As Rozanov) We must have boat - even now may be too late. This is your island. I make your responsibility. You help us get boat quickly. Otherwise there is World War III, and everybody is blaming you.

WASSER: Director Norman Jewison was born in Toronto. He served in the Canadian Navy during World War II. As he told NPR in 2011, he was on leave toward the end of the war, only 18 years old and in uniform, when he got on a bus in Memphis, Tenn.


NORMAN JEWISON: It was a hot, hot day, and I saw a window open at the back. So I headed to the back of the bus, and I sat down with my bag by the open window. The bus driver looked at me, and I could see his face in the mirror. He says, you trying to be funny, sailor? He says, can't you read the sign? And there was a little sign, and it said colored people to the rear.

WASSER: Jewison looked around and saw he was the only white passenger in the back of the bus.


JEWISON: You know, it's hard to believe. I mean, I was just a kid, but I was kind of shocked. I thought, well, the only thing I can do is get off the bus.

WASSER: Jewison said it was his first experience with racial prejudice.


JEWISON: It really stuck with me, and I guess that was the gestation of - when I later became able to make movies, I think that was the gestation of "In The Heat Of The Night."

WASSER: "In The Heat Of The Night" won the 1967 best picture Oscar. Rod Steiger plays a small-town Mississippi police chief. Sidney Poitier plays a visitor to the town accused of murder.


SIDNEY POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) I was visiting my mother. I came in on the 12:35 from Brownsville. I was waiting to go out on the 4:05.

ROD STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Yeah. In the meanwhile, you just killed yourself a white man, just about the most important white man we got around here, and picked yourself up a couple of hundred dollars.

POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) I earn that money 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Colored can't earn that kind of money, boy. Hell, that's more than I make in a month. Now, where did you earn it?

POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) Philadelphia.

STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Mississippi?

POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) Pennsylvania.

STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Just what do you do up there in little old Pennsylvania to earn that kind of money?

POITIER: (As Detective Virgil Tibbs) I'm a police officer.

LEONARD MALTIN: This film caught lightning in a bottle, I think.

WASSER: Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin remembers seeing "In The Heat Of The Night" when it was new.

MALTIN: By casting Poitier and Steiger as adversaries who have to work together, have to find some way to work together in a Southern town, it just set things up so perfectly for character development against a backdrop that certainly all Americans could relate to.

WASSER: Norman Jewison followed "In The Heat Of The Night" with the hit thriller "The Thomas Crown Affair," starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, but his biggest hit came in 1971.


CHAIM TOPOL: (As Tevye, singing) If I were a rich man, yabba deeba deeba deeba deeba deeba deeba dum (ph).

WASSER: By this time, Jewison had a successful track record, and United Artists approached him to direct "Fiddler On The Roof." It took him a minute to figure out why.


JEWISON: Well, I've got a strange name, Jewison. If you look at it closely, it kind of looks like I'm the son of a Jew. And I thought, oh, my God, they think I'm Jewish. What am I going to do? - because how can you direct "Fiddler On The Roof" if you're not Jewish? So I guess I have to tell them.

WASSER: But he got the job anyway. "Fiddler" earned three Oscars and five nominations. It was as different from any of Jewison's previous films as it could be, but Leonard Maltin says that's what makes Jewison worth remembering.

MALTIN: You can't easily pigeonhole Norman Jewison because he didn't want to be pigeonholed. There is no one identifiable Norman Jewison kind of film. The same man who made "Moonstruck" made "Fiddler On The Roof" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" and a couple of good Doris Day movies back in the '60s and "A Soldier's Story." Those are all Norman Jewison films.

WASSER: Norman Jewison's movie career spanned more than 40 years, and in 1988, he founded the Canadian Film Center to encourage the next generation of filmmakers. For NPR News, I'm Fred Wasser.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES' SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fred Wasser