Restored version of film by Ted Kotcheff, starring Richard Dreyfuss, will be unveiled in Toronto March 2. This is great news for one of Canada's best films. I can't wait for the DVD to come out to add it to my library's collection.
“My dream was to make films in and about Canada,” he said in an exclusive interview, recalling his game plan in the mid-1950s when as an aspiring young director of live TV drama for the CBC, he left Toronto, his hometown, and crossed the Atlantic to gain the experience he needed.
“I went to London because there was no film industry in Canada. My dream was to come home after I learned the film craft.”
Instead it turned out that Kotcheff was destined to enjoy a hugely successful career in London, Australia, Hollywood and New York, with only occasional bursts of glory in Canada. But in 1973, Kotcheff returned to Canada to make The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, based on the landmark novel by his dear friend Mordecai Richler.
Four decades later many people, regard it as the best English-language movie in the history of Canadian cinema and one of the two or three high points of Kotcheff’s career.
The tale of how close we came to losing it is harrowing, but there’s a happy ending. To help celebrate the Canadian Screen Awards, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television is set to unveil a sparkling new digital resurrection of Duddy on March 2.
Finally, after years of neglect, Duddy is about to have a comeback, so lovingly restored it is more of a knockout than ever. For that the country owes a debt of gratitude to Helga Stephenson, CEO of the academy, who responded to a public plea from Kotcheff by securing support from many partners, including Astral, Technicolor, Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board, the Directors Guild of Canada and the Cinémathèque québécoise.
Permission for the restoration was granted by producer John Kemeny (who represented the Duddy Kravitz Syndicate) shortly before he died; and by Alliance Films (recently taken over by Entertainment One), which holds Canadian rights to the movie.
“We owe our deepest thanks to our restoration partners and to the incomparable duo of Richler and Kotcheff who gave us this great classic Canadian film,” says Stephenson.
Kotcheff, born in Cabbagetown, the son of Bulgarian and Macedonian immigrants, isn’t Jewish and he served his own apprenticeship in Toronto rather than Montreal, starting as a stagehand in the early days of CBC Television. But Duddy is the movie he was born to make.
“Mordecai knew I had a deep understanding of the book,” he explains.
For years, before he got a chance to film it, Kotcheff had run into resistance from movie producers who were afraid of making a movie about a nervy young Jewish hustler who would stop at nothing to make himself into a somebody, lest they be accused of anti-Semitism, just as Richler had been when the novel came out.
But then the right moment for a movie came and all the details fell into place. The government-funded Canadian Film Development Corp. was willing to help fund it, and NFB veteran John Kemeny stepped in as producer. When the screenplay seemed a bit lackluster, Richler stepped in to rewrite it in six weeks. And the film was completed for the ridiculously low price of $900,000.
Yet even as he recruited wonderfully exuberant actors for key supporting roles — including Micheline Lanctöt, Jack Warden, Joseph Wiseman, Denholm Elliott and Joe Silver — Kotcheff worried that if he couldn’t find the perfect Duddy, the movie wouldn’t work.
The challenge was to find an actor who could make the audience care for Duddy despite the awful things he does.
“We needed someone who could grab the audience by the lapels and make people understand why he did what he did.”
It was getting late and Kotcheff was losing hope when his friend Lynn Stalmaster, a casting agent, said: “I know someone who was born to play this part. You’ve never heard of him.”
Enter Richard Dreyfuss, who had grown up in California.
“As soon as he opened his mouth it was electrifying,” Kotcheff said, the memory as vivid as if it happened the day before. “Richard had everything: the core of Duddy’s drive and obsession.”
This week from his home in San Diego, Dreyfuss recalled: “As soon as I read the script, I realized I was holding in my hands the greatest part ever offered to a young actor. I felt God was giving me a great opportunity.”
His dynamic performance — making Duddy at once a charming upstart and a ruthless punk — was key to making the movie a hit with critics, audiences and industry insiders, even Jewish community leaders who had once vilified Richler as a traitor.
The movie had a more generous spirit than the novel, and for many of us it was definitive and emotionally important because, unlike other Canadian films, it came close to the lives of those who grew up in this country as the children of immigrants, belonging to neither of its two founding nations.
But as the years rolled by, Duddy gradually lost its sheen and was in danger of fading away.
Here’s how it was saved. In the fall of 2011, shortly after celebrating his 80th birthday, Kotcheff was given a lifetime achievement award by the Directors Guild of Canada. Not long before that, he’d had the exhilarating experience of witnessing the triumphant resurrection of his great 1971 film Wake in Fright, about the Australian outback.
For years it was considered a lost film, until the negative was found in the vault of Pittsburgh warehouse in a box marked “For Destruction.” Relaunched with fanfare at the Sydney Film Festival in 2009, it was hailed as a masterpiece and has been in constant demand around the world, including Toronto, where it had a special slot at TIFF. This spring, it will finally have a theatrical run in Toronto.
So it was only natural that on accepting the Directors Guild prize in his hometown, Kotcheff lamented the neglect of Duddy. After all, it had not only been named Canada’s Best Film of 1974 but won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. The script won a prize as the year’s best from the Writers Guild of America and earned an Oscar nomination.
The film was also a box-office hit in Canada and the U.S. (where it was picked up by Paramount Pictures). More recently, the now defunct Audio Visual Preservation Trust of Canada recognized the movie as a masterwork, citing its unique cultural value, namely its vibrant portrait of Jewish life in Montreal.
“This is one of Canada’s seminal films but where is it,” Kotcheff asked on the podium at the Directors Guild dinner. “It needs to be seen, it needs restoring. What are we going to do about it?”
Among those in the room was Stephenson, who had recently taken over as CEO of the Canadian academy. Answering the call to action, Stephenson and her colleagues put together a team of partners to bring Duddy back from the place where neglected old films go to die. Many of those players contributed to the six-figure cost of the necessary work.
A key factor was that because the film was about Montreal and shot in Montreal, the Cinémathèque québécoise had preserved a negative. Early on it became clear the best approach was not to make another negative but to create a digital version.
Once the Cinémathèque released the negative, according to Stephenson, “Technicolor cleaned, repaired and scanned it over a period of a month.” Kotcheff, consulted at every stage, then spent a week working with the Technicolor restoration team in Toronto colour-correcting every frame and sweetening the audio.
The experience brought back vivid details of how major the making of this movie was in his life and career.
“I had been living with the goal of making this movie for years before I got a chance to do it,” says Kotcheff.
In 1958, he was sharing a flat in London with his best friend, Richler, while Richler was writing a novel about a relentless young Jewish hustler from the streets of Montreal. When the manuscript was finished, Richler asked Kotcheff to read it.
“This is the best Canadian novel ever written,” Kotcheff told Richler. “Someday I am going to go back to Canada to film it.”
He had to wait 15 years. After filming Duddy, Kotcheff planned to live in Canada and make films about Canadian stories. But he couldn’t raise enough money to make the movie he hoped to do next, based on Richler’s novel St. Urbain’s Horseman.
Meanwhile, because of Duddy’s success in the U.S., Kotcheff was getting offers from Hollywood, where he wound up living and making major studio movies including Fun With Dick and Jane, First Blood, North Dallas Forty and Weekend at Bernie’s.
Since the late 1970s, Kotcheff and his second wife have made their home in Beverly Hills, raising two children, while making frequent visits to Toronto where they have family and close friends.
In 1984, he returned to Montreal to film another Richler book, Joshua Then and Now.
Then in the early 1990s, Kotcheff segued from the big screen to the small and began a run as executive producer of the hit NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, taking his leave in 2011 after 12 seasons and nearly 300 episodes. Is he retired? Not exactly. He has a major movie project in the works that he hopes to direct.
But Duddy will always rank as Kotcheff’s greatest work and the one closest to his heart.
After a private screening for friends and family, Kotcheff declared this new digital version better than the original print.
“We brought out the original glory of Duddy, the magic that made the film such a success. And I have to say my faith in Canada has been restored by what has just happened.”
Dreyfuss said he is itching to make a sequel in which we would see Duddy in his 60s and learn how his life turned out.
When he heard this, Kotcheff, alluding to his best friend’s death in 2001, asked: “But who could write it?”
The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television will present the first public screening of the restored The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Saturday, March 2, at noon at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are free but must be reserved at tiff.net or 416-599-TIFF. Duddy will also be screened as part of TIFF’s Canadian Open Vault series on Thursday, March 28 at 6:15 pm.