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Norman Jewison: The Star’s Status Symbol

Behind the camera on the highest-priced movies and TV shows now being made is a young director only a few years out of the CBC.


 

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NORMAN JEWISON, an even dozen years away from driving a Diamond cab on the night shift in Toronto, is at work in Hollywood these days directing his second movie The Thrill of It All. This is a three-million-dollar comedy starring Doris Day. the biggest female box-office draw in the business. As soon as the picture is completed Jewison will direct his first Broadway show, a new musical comedy by Meredith Willson, the author of The Music Man. Before Jewison went to Hollywood in 1961. he had established himself in New York as the highest-priced director of the highest-priced musical variety shows in all television. As a former Canadian colleague, Ross McLean, says, "Having Jewison as director became a star's status symbol.”

Since 1952, when Jewison was first hired by the CBC, he has succeeded far more spectacularly than any other television director on either side of the border. This includes a number of men quite as creative and capable as Jewison is. And it raises the question again of what, in addition to real talent, it takes to make the big big time in show business.

In the interesting case of Norman Jewison, what it has taken is luck and charm. His luck is demonstrable and he has a very special kind of charm, compounded of truly monumental self-confidence and equally great friendliness which, in combination, enable him to handle performers with exceptional ease. In Jewison's rise as a director, luck and charm have probably been fully as important as talent.

One form of Jewison luck, his former Toronto TV colleagues maintain, was his marriage to his wife Dixie, a tiny brunette Toronto model. Dixie, a determined young woman, is credited with pointing her husband's talents toward the places where they would be most likely to be conspicuously recognized and handsomely rewarded — New York and Hollywood.

It's likely that success won't change Norman Jewison, since he has been running his career with the psychology of success from his first professional days. He seems to have been born with unconquerable scrappiness, irrepressible cockiness and an overflowing belief in his own instincts. He radiates a take-it-or-leave-it attitude which contrasts amusingly with his slight physical presence. On a movie set, surrounded by grave, middle-aged technicians and assistants, he looks like the messenger boy who just arrived with the hot coffee. He dresses with dash and an informality which somehow proclaims his status: his denim pants fit beautifully, his sweaters are hand-knit in Rome and as only a man who is very sure of himself could do, he goes to work in white sneakers. Jewison breezes through life, a thirty-five-year-old Peter Pan, forgetting his wallet, his script, even forgetting where he parked his Jaguar to which he has, in any case, forgotten the keys. Someone always takes care of him.

HOW TO HANDLE BIG STARS: LOOK YOUNG AND DEFENSELESS

On the job Jewison almost explodes with exuberance and enthusiasm. His ex-secretary. Barbara Geist, recalls that he had an “almost hypnotic effect” on the casts and crews of his television shows even though “he was a great one for getting there late and then keeping everybody working around the clock.” A performer at heart, Jewison acts out every part in the script “with such delight and love that everyone connected with the show would get wildly excited.” He has, at most times, a joyous quality which makes even television executives relax. Jewison's former boss at the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York remembers that “it was a good idea not to have a hockey stick or a puck in your office when he arrived because no matter what the crisis was, you could be required to defend your goal for an hour before talking business.”

There is general agreement among people who have worked with Norman Jewison that no other director anywhere can get as much out of a star in co-operation, effort and performance. Perry Lafferty, producer of many of the television shows Jewison directed, says, “He does no ritual dances around the performers. He realizes that the bigger the stars, the more scared they are. He has a childlike directness in his way with them — like a kid who gets a bead on a lollypop and goes after it. And the stars get courage from working with someone like Norman who is marching right up the centre of the street.”

Jewison can be as tough as anyone in the business when necessary, but with his short stature he looks so young and defenseless that he never seems to represent any sort of threat — a great advantage in dealing with people as insecure as most entertainers. He says, “They see me and I look like a Canadian newsboy. But performers need a father figure, someone to lean on, and believe me, it doesn't take them long to start leaning.”

Jewison takes frank delight in telling stories which show how his charm works — the mechanics are never concealed, presumably because the charm itself is real, not manufactured for the occasion. For example, when he directed a Judy Garland television special that co-starred Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, he was informed that Sinatra only rehearsed by the side of his own swimming pool. Jewison was determined to get him out to the inconveniently located sound stages at Burbank. "I was ready to quit if Frank wouldn't come. I called him and just explained the problem — for a half hour or more. Eventually he agreed, but only if I’d have the rehearsals catered by Romanoffs. Why not? I'll swing that way. Just before I hung up I said, ‘Oh, and by the way Frank, bring Dean, will you?’ Did he? Of course!”

In addition to sweet talk, Jewison has a way of withdrawing his moral support at a crucial moment in an argument — like a superior nanny — which is amazingly effective with show business people. “Judy Garland can be the most amusing, intelligent dame you ever met and then suddenly she’ll be a seven-year-old. I'll tell her, ‘Now you're being a child — I don't even want to talk to you any more.' I had no problems with her because I know how to handle her.”

Sometimes his technique is a little more elaborate. Doris Day always looks at the daily rushes of her pictures, a practice to which Jewison is firmly opposed since he knows that she is notoriously neurotic about the way she is photographed. “Doris,” I said, “look at the rushes if you feel that insecure about them — go on, look. How do I feel about it? You’re talking about me? Oh, I'll be terribly, terribly upset, of course... it’s never happened to me before... not with Judy or Belafonte or Gleason or Julie Andrews... but if you must, you must. But how can you stand to do it on top of all the other work you have to do? What a responsibility! Gosh!” The picture has been in production for many weeks, and so far Doris Day hasn't seen a foot of film.

Charming and lucky Norman Jewison was brought up in modest circumstances on Queen Street East in Toronto. His family, strong Methodists of Protestant Irish stock, owned a small dry goods store where, after school, Norman helped sell girdles and ladies’ stockings. He went to Malvern Collegiate and then to normal model school, to which his adored maiden aunt, a schoolteacher, paid his tuition. He served in the navy as an ordinary seaman and, on navy credits, he graduated from Victoria College at the University of Toronto. From the age of six, when he first learned to recite all eleven verses of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, Norman, a born ham of the most relentless sort, had pounced on every opportunity to sing, dance, act, write and direct any school theatrical production going.

Trying to break into television in 1950, he took the advice of CBC executive Stuart Griffith who told him to go to London to look for work. There Jewison lived meagrely on his own rabbit stew for two years — he tells, with Dickensian relish, that he was once reduced to stealing a stray turnip from the floor of a green-grocer’s — and eventually got a few odd jobs at the BBC.

One man's war of independence

On his return to Toronto Griffith hired him for a CBC training program. Ross McLean, who was involved in the same program and now admires Jewison’s work, remembers that “it was not too easily perceived then what Norman had to offer beyond a wild abundance of energy. It was a fantastic sideshow to watch him working in the control booth. From the beginning to the end of the show his whole little body would vibrate while he gurgled, babbled, whistled, screamed, jumped up and down and spoke every performer's lines. But at no time was I conscious of any special talent or taste or tidy results from him. He didn't seem ambitious — there just wasn't that much direction to what he was doing. No one perceived that Norman was going anywhere.”

Those early days of Canadian television were the perfect training ground for future directors, since everyone learned how to do everything and a director's job involves a multitude of complex techniques. He must be able to work constructively with the scriptwriter. decide on casting, tell the set designer and lighting man what effects he wants, put the show together physically in rehearsal and “call" each carefully planned camera shot from the control room while the show is actually going on. In the six years Jewison worked for the CBC he directed, and eventually produced, many shows with moderate success.

But he wasn't happy. He had frequent battles with the CBC brass, about whom he is still outspokenly bitter, over the amount of control he insisted on exercising over his shows. Jewison is a ferociously, in fact a fanatically, independent man. Before he had any recognition or reputation to speak of he found it impossible to tolerate the slightest infringement on his rights as creative boss of a show. As an example, he resigned a choice job as director-producer of the Sunday night Showtime when General Electric, the sponsor, wanted to make suggestions about the show and the CBC wouldn’t back up Jewison’s refusal to listen to them.

“By 1958, when I was doing The Barris Beat, I felt there was no leadership at the top of the CBC. The executives were afraid of anything that smacked of good showmanship or theatricality. And I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t even really care.”

It was at this stage of his career that the Jewison luck began to function. Larry Auerbach, an agent at the William Morris office in New York, one of the two largest talent agencies in the world, saw some tapes of The Barris Beat. This was a short-lived variety show Jewison directed and which, at that time, was only broadcast locally in Toronto. Auerbach spotted Jewison's work, put together an eighteen-minute kinescope of some of the best numbers, and asked Jewison to come down from Canada for job interviews.

At that particular moment a CBS program vice-president named Mike Dann was in what seemed to be an impossible bind. The Hit Parade program had just moved to CBS after ten years at NBC and there wasn't a good musical variety director available in New York. Auerbach showed The Barris Beat kinescope to Dann and in fine, fairy-tale tradition Dann decreed, "Send for that man." Jewison, as it happened, was waiting in Dann's outer office. Dann hastily called in a quorum of other vice-presidents and then summoned Jewison.

"In walked what appeared to be a seventeen-year-old pixie in blue jeans, wearing sneakers and an open shirt and needing a haircut. We couldn't believe our eyes. We were terrified at giving such a big assignment to such a young boy (Jewison was then thirty) but we were desperate."

This particular Hit Parade assignment was a startling stroke of luck for a totally unknown Canadian director. and enabled Jewison to move into American television under the best possible conditions. The Hit Parade had been doing so badly that any change at all could only look good. But, far more important, CBS gave Jewison its finest team to work with. The producer of the show. Perry Lafferty. is a highly respected television veteran, a calm, cool, polished professional who ran the over-all operation perfectly and backed Jewison up at every turn. In addition Jewison asked for and got the services of top Canadian talent: writer John Aylesworth. and music arranger Jack Kane. His CBS technicians, from the cameramen to the grips, were the best in the business. This entire team did twenty-six successful weeks of Hit Parade and then went on to do a twelve-week Andy Williams summer program. These two series were what really established Jewison's name in television; all his future success stems from them. Perry Lafferty says today: "Norman got great credit and so he should, but perhaps he got more credit than he really deserved since the shows were team efforts." (To be accurate. Jewison didn't do all twenty-six Hit Parades. After the tenth show he suddenly announced, “I'm tired," and he and Dixie took off for Algonquin Park in mid-northern Ontario, which is Jewison's idea of paradise regained. After four exhausting days of camping, tramping and portaging a canoe through the wilderness -— "Dixie can portage a mean canoe or more than her own weight in gear," Jewison admiringly observes — he returned refreshed to Manhattan.)

Barbara Geist, Jewison's secretary for the Hit Parade and many other shows, says that in the beginning he had difficulties with the crew. "He started in acting like a big shot director, but they showed him it didn't work that way. They wouldn't take a bad shot when he called it. But he learned fast."

Lafferty adds: "When Norman arrived from Canada five years ago he was much more than five years younger than he is now. In the beginning I rode him unmercifully. In television all you have to work with is time: you've got to get the most out of your rehearsal hours, but he was lazy, he didn't do his homework, he didn't lend himself too well to planning in advance — although his results were splendid. We had Western Union get him out of bed at six thirty to get him to the studio on time. When I'd tell him he couldn’t rehearse a number any longer he used to scream and holler. "You've got me nailed down here. I can’t do it,’ and I'd answer, "You’ve got to!' I got to him by his sense of humor — I'd just kid him and pretty soon he’d start laughing."

A memorable TV debacle

Jewison's next CBS assignment, The Big Party, was the turning point of his career, not because he did such a good job but because he walked out on it. Sponsored by Revlon, it was the most expensive and highly touted production of the season, in which just plain folks like Tallulah Bankhead and Rock Hudson got together and entertained their just plain friends like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis. Disaster struck early in the person of one Mort Green, whose job it was to relay the "suggestions" of Mr. Revson, the president of Revlon, to Mr. Jewison. Mr. Revson expects the same obedience to his suggestions as did the King of Siam some hundred years ago. Unable to function, furious, frustrated, embroiled in a dozen skirmishes, Jewison resigned before the first show even went on the air, although it was then too late in the season for him to expect to get another good assignment. The show was one of the most memorable debacles in all television history. Perry Lafferty, who remained with The Big Party for the full thirteen hideous weeks, says. “There were ninety-two chiefs and no Indians. It frightened Norman, and from one point of view it was much easier for him to leave than to stay."

Freed of The Big Party by good sense, Jewison went onward and upward by good luck: as a free agent, he could now make his break into television "specials” — lavish productions in which the sponsor often spends as much as half a million dollars on a single show. Only a few days after he left The Big Party Jewison was interviewed by Harry Belafonte, who was looking for a director for his first television appearance. Belafonte says, "I saw a spark of imagination in Normy’s work. I felt that, of all the directors I'd considered, he was the one who would best be able to take a live image, put it through a mechanical device and retain its strength and the artistic level."

Belafonte picked Jewison in the teeth of his sponsor, Mr. Revson of Revlon Incorporated. “I loved the rebel in Normy. I find that very sympathetic to my own emotional point of view.” The show, which won several awards, was, for Belafonte, "the happiest experience I've had in television. It was unique for me because of Normy’s ability to adapt himself to the world of Negro art. It was amazing how he knew, better than anyone, how to light that beautiful black face of Odetta's, how he'd ask about the meaning and submeaning and sub-submeaning of the words of the songs."

The Belafonte show set Jewison up in the TV-special trade; he did several more, including The Fabulous Fifties, produced by Leland Hayward. But frequently Jewison lost juicy assignments because of his refusal to work when he couldn’t call the turns. David Susskind, who was producing an Art Carney special, wanted Jewison to direct. He turned down the job because he couldn’t also produce it.

"Susskind's directors do all the work and then he comes along in the last three days and takes all the credit," he said later. "He doesn't pay well either — who put him on the throne?” Jewison missed a chance to direct Ingrid Bergman in a dramatic show when he demanded that CBS bring the British playwright John Mortimer over from England for two weeks of rewriting. CBS declined. "I refuse to get involved in something that isn't right — I don't care who's in it." Jewison says.

A conflict over script changes brought about his biggest loss, that of a very close friendship and a good working relationship with Danny Kaye, whose TV special he had directed. The executive producer of the show, the redoubtable Sylvia Fine, who is also Mrs. Danny Kaye, edited the tape of the show after it had been edited to Jewison’s satisfaction, causing him to make a formal complaint against her to the Directors’ Guild. Very few people in show business have ever dared to go to the mat with Sylvia Fine.

In spite of these setbacks Jewison turned down far more shows than he accepted ("A Connie Francis special — that’s special?") and he refused to do any more weekly series since he had decided that he couldn't get the kind of perfection he wanted without wildly expensive weeks of planning and rehearsal, luxuries which don't exist in television outside of specials. At the peak of Jewison's television reputation he went without work for an eight-month period when no specials were available on his terms. Mike Dann of CBS says. "I offered him over half a dozen projects when I knew he needed work and money, but he didn’t accept. There are other directors who have as much integrity but they are a lot richer and older."

During this dry period Jewison received constant encouragement from his agent, Larry Auerbach, and from his wife Dixie ("She'd live in a room." Jewison acknowledged. Since the Jewisons have three children, aged two. four and six, it was probably fortunate they never quite reached that degree of austerity.)

Jewison’s attitude turned out to be as astute as it was hazardous. His name was associated only with top-notch shows but he had, to a degree, priced himself out of the market and his career was standing still. Finally, in I960, he asked CBS to release him from his contract since many of the shows he might want to do were scheduled for NBC.

As a freelance, Jewison has turned down many lucrative offers, including the Garry Moore, Perry Como and Andy Griffith series. He directed only four big shows, the Danny Kaye special, a second Belafonte special, the much applauded Judy Garland special and a star-filled extra-special called The Broadway of Lerner and Loewe. During this period he made eighty thousand dollars but there is no doubt that he could have earned considerably more if he had chosen to. Now his strategy of excellence is beginning to pay off. Last spring he was signed to direct his first movie, Forty Pounds of Trouble, starring Tony Curtis, solely on the strength of the Judy Garland special. Since it had long been plain that there weren't going to be enough specials on television to keep him working steadily, Hollywood was the obvious step. Today, while he works on the Doris Day picture for Universal-International, two other studios. Metro and Columbia, are after him for other films and his first Broadway musical will be on the boards sometime next fall.

Charming, lucky, talented Norman Jewison. On one page of his personal, leather-bound copy of the script of his current movie he has doodled these words: Hapi, Happi, Happy, HAPPY. Smar, Smart, SMARRT.

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