Norman Jewison: Thalberg Memorial Award Recipient Dead at 97

Director Norman Jewison (right) and star Topol as Tevye on the set of Fiddler on the Roof. As seen in Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen. A film by Daniel Raim. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber.

Norman Jewison, an Oscar-nominated director who directed four Best Picture nominees, has passed away at 97 years old.

Jewison never won an Oscar for directing but the Academy honored him with the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in a 1999 ceremony. Among his directing accomplishments were The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, A Soldier’s Story, Moonstruck, The Hurricane, Dinner with Friends, and more.

He served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War 2 prior to traveling through the American South. No doubt that this would influence his storytelling on films such as In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story. After going to college in Toronto, he would later move to New York and work for Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, directing 40 Pounds of Trouble. In starting his own production company, Simkoe Productions, Jewison would direct a pair of films for Universal-International Pictures. He would breakthrough with The Cincinnati Kid and branch away from directing comedies and focus on more serious fare. Funny enough, the first film he produced was a Cold War satire: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! His final film, The Statement was released in 2003.

The filmmaker previously published his memoir in 2004, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me. Interestingly enough, his memoir sparked Daniel Raim into making Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen. Raim told me in an interview that both Jewison and production designer Robert Boyle had said that Fiddler on the Roof was there favorite film to work on.

Here’s part of what I wrote in my review of the documentary:

Despite his last name, Norman Jewison is not Jewish. He makes note of this when it comes to the story of how he ended up directing the musical. Jewison reflected on a screening in Israel when he sat next to Golda Meir. The late prime minister was crying even though she tried to hide it from the filmmaker. That’s how powerful the film is. It’s a film that’s representative for so many Jews–the pogroms and having to leave Jewish shtetls. The experience had such an impact on Jewison that he ended up having a Jewish wedding although I’m not sure he ever converted.

Even though he is not Jewish, he still experienced antisemitism in school. This is in spite of the fact that the Jewison family were Protestants. Can you imagine what kind of things people would do to him just for thinking that he is Jewish?!? I don’t even think I want to know. But still, it’s not easy right now. Just the mere act of holding a Shabbos dinner is enough for some people to protest. I usually watch Fiddler on the Roof around December 24-25 when I have nothing else to do. I didn’t do that this past year just because of the terrible increase of Jew-hatred in the days, weeks, and months following October 7. Think about what it meant for Jewison to not be Jewish, still experience antisemitism, and direct one of the best films ever made about the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.