This article was originally published in 2013
When Ted Kotcheff walks into a room, people pay attention.
At the age of 82, the filmmaker who made The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz nearly 40 years ago still exudes power and confidence, his strong resonant voice and piercing eyes contributing to his formidable presence.
Kotcheff is part of a golden age of directors who emerged in Toronto during the early days of CBC-TV in the mid-1950s. Arthur Hiller (Love Story), Paul Almond (the first 7-Up doc; Act of the Heart) and Harvey Hart (Bus Riley’s Back in Town) were three others. All had to leave Canada in the late ’50s and early ’60s, along with indie Toronto director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File), for a simple reason. There was no Canadian feature film industry here at the time.
Kotcheff remembers it well. “That time at the CBC, when I was directing plays for television, was a glorious period in my life.” After being told by a friendly CBC executive, “Ted, you’re a terrific talent and you better get out of here – pit yourself against the best in America or London,” the resolute young Torontonian left for England.
There he directed terrific writing talents – Alun Owen, who wrote the Beatles’ irreverent hit A Hard Day’s Night, black comedy genius Harold Pinter and the Nobel Prize winning novelist and playwright Doris Lessing. “I worked both in the theatre and in film, which is why I came to England,” remembers Kotcheff.
All that time, Kotcheff was preparing to come back to Canada. He wanted to take the country by storm – and he did. While living in England, Kotcheff had become the best friend of another expatriate Canadian, the novelist Mordecai Richler. When they were living as roommates in London, Richler gave him his latest novel to read in manuscript. “I read it,” recalls Kotcheff, “and I said when I finished, ‘Mordecai, not only is this one of the greatest Canadian novels ever written, one day I’m going to come back to Canada and make it.’ And we both started to laugh at the absurdity of such an idea.”
The novel was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Fourteen years later, a now vastly experienced Kotcheff was able to come to Michael Spencer, the first executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) and get the money to make the film. Working with a script by Richler and shooting in the Montreal locations where the upstart Jewish entrepreneur Duddy would have made his fortune, Kotcheff directed a dream cast including the young Richard Dreyfuss in the titular role, Micheline Lanctot as his Quebecois girlfriend and Jack Warden as his dad. An instant classic, it won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin film festival and the Canadian Film Award.
Emboldened by the success of Duddy, Kotcheff prepared an adaptation of another best-selling and critically acclaimed novel by Richler, St. Urbain’s Horsemen. But despite Duddy‘s nearly $1-million-dollar box office take – huge in 1974 – investors shied away from the directing-writing duo.
“My spirit was broken,” remembers Kotcheff. “I was sitting there, saying, ‘I know this is my homeland and this is where I should be making films, but what I am I going to do?’ That’s when my agent told me that ‘[Hollywood producers] Peter Bart and Max Palvesky loved Duddy Kravitz and wanted me to do a film, Fun with Dick and Jane.’ I said reluctantly ‘Alright, I’ll go down.’”
Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) became a big hit, as did 1978′s Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? and 1979′s North Dallas Forty. Kotcheff’s hope of making Canadian films faded as he became a successful Hollywood director.
In speaking with Kotcheff, who made sure to use Canadian crews while shooting First Blood, the original Rambo movie, in B.C., the dream of making Canadian dramatic features has never died.
“Had Canada been ready to embrace Ted Kotcheff earlier, our cinematic history might have been a very different story,” reflects Helga Stephenson, executive director of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. “Ted’s enthusiasm, brains and talent infuse everything he touches and lights up the room as he fills it with tales of history combined with his own rich story.”