Norman Jewison obituary: award-winning director of In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck and The Thomas Crown Affair

Nominated for the best director Oscar in three separate decades, Jewison was a master storyteller whose work showed both visual flair and a strong feeling for injustice.

24 January 2024

By David Parkinson

Norman Jewison in Paris in 1988 © GARCIA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Bobby Kennedy once told seven-time Oscar nominee Norman Jewison, who has died at the age of 97, that timing is everything. Had he been around in golden age Hollywood, the versatile Canadian might now be ranked alongside such heroes as William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann. A master storyteller with a confident visual sense, it seemed there was nothing that Jewison could not do. But he was at his peak when the studio era was fading, and the critics feting the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls of New Hollywood didn’t always recognise the aesthetic acuity behind his intellectual integrity.

Born in 1926, Jewison grew up in a Toronto general store and post office. As a boy, he would act out matinee movies and later participated in school productions before studying at the Royal Conservatory. Having made his professional debut in a minstrel show, Jewison served in the Canadian Navy before taking an arts degree. Following a short stint as a radio actor, he spent two years in London bit-playing for the BBC and writing for children’s programmes.

Returning home in 1951, he helped launch CBC’s television network by writing, directing and producing a range of popular shows. Lured to New York by CBS in 1958, he cajoled Your Hit Parade into booking Black performers, while three of his shows garnered Emmys, as he became renowned for specials showcasing talents like Harry Belafonte, Danny Kaye and Judy Garland, whose 1961 ‘comeback’ boasted Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as guests.

Tony Curtis was so impressed that he invited Jewison to direct 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), which was the first film to shoot in Disneyland. The energy of live television carried over into the Doris Day comedies The Thrill of It All (1963) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), but The Art of Love (1965) proved a romcom too far. When Sam Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jewison put himself forward and not only demonstrated that he could handle a difficult star like Steve McQueen but also that he could bring visual flair to the gambling drama’s pivotal poker sequences.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This dynamism would be more in evidence in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), which reunited Jewison and McQueen after Sean Connery had withdrawn. Using split screens and swirling cameras to inject pace into the teasing action rather than simply be modish, Jewison accepted, “we’ll be accused of placing style ahead of content, but I say the hell with that. People who say that understand neither style nor content. In the movies, style IS content.”

He had become accustomed to fighting his corner as a Protestant kid subjected to anti-Semitic bullying because of his surname. His sensitivity to injustice was further heightened by the racism he witnessed on a post-war road trip through the segregated Deep South, and he channelled this sense of moral outrage into In the Heat of the Night (1967). This Mississippi clash between Black city detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and bigoted small-town sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) was courageous for its inflammatory times. Indeed, less than a week before it won five Oscars, including best picture, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

Yet while Jewison was proud to have directed “the first African-American screen character to walk out in a $500 suit and be smarter than anyone else in the picture”, such was the dissent from the likes of James Baldwin that he dropped the idea of a biopic of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. He would later step aside in favour of Spike Lee adapting Malcolm X’s autobiography. But Jewison denounced racism again in A Soldier’s Story (1984) and The Hurricane (1999), which respectively earned Oscar nominations for Adolph Caesar and Denzel Washington.

Moonstruck (1987)

Back in Nixonian America, Jewison felt so discomfited by the socio-political atmosphere that he left for Europe following the underrated Ben Hecht memoir, Gaily, Gaily (1969). During his decade away, he courted controversy with the vibrant religion-themed musicals Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), as well as the violent anti-corporate saga Rollerball (1975). He would revisit the theme of society spiralling out of control in …And Justice for All (1979) and Other People’s Money (1991), and there was even an edge to Moonstruck (1987), the ebullient romcom set within Brooklyn Heights’ Italian-American community which echoed his perennial theme of betrayal, earning him Berlin’s Silver Bear.

In all, Jewison’s pictures amassed 12 Academy Awards from 45 nominations. Not bad for someone dismissed in certain quarters as a genre-hopping gadfly who dressed up banal plotlines with liberal ardour and tasteful gloss. Following his final feature, The Statement (2003), he justified his choices in his autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: “I have tended to show humanity as fallible, sensitive, befuddled, misled but redeemable, rather than mindless, relentlessly violent … I want people to recognise themselves in the movies I make.”

  • Norman Jewison, 21 July 1926 to 20 January 2024