History Wars World War II

Norman Jewison, WWII veteran and 12-time Oscar winner, dead at 97

Famed WWII veteran and director Norman Jewison, who spearheaded such films as In the Heat of the Night, Moonstruck, and The Thomas Crown Affair, has died.
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Norman Jewison speaks at a podium
LOS ANGELES, CA: Director Norman Jewison attends Canada's Stars Of the Awards Season presented by TeleFilm on February 27, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)

Famous director and producer Norman Jewison passed away at his Los Angeles home Saturday, January 19, 2024, at the age of 97.

Norman Jewison made a career out of making Oscar-nominated and winning films focused on the need for acceptance and understanding. His films focused on social and political issues of the times, making his works easily transferable from the screen to daily life. His works include a slew of wonderful stories, including In the Heat of the NightFiddler on the RoofMoonstruckThe Thomas Crown AffairThe Russians Are Coming: the Russians Are ComingThe Cincinnati KidA Soldier’s StoryRollerballJesus Christ Superstar…And Justice for AllThe Hurricane and many more.

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Norman Jewison with Kathryn Bigelow at the DGA Awards. Photo courtesy of imdb.com

Films he has directed have won 12 Oscars, 4 BAFTAs and 12 Golden Globes and he earned the Irving Thalberg G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999. He even founded the Canadian Film Centre.

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Denzel Washington on the set of The Hurricane with Jewison. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

Before making his way into cinema and film production, Jewison served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. When Jewison was just 13 years old, he saw the war effort first-hand in Canada. “The whole production of the country, from food to material to clothing, everything was being built and focused toward the war,” he told Canadian Encyclopedia. “There weren’t even silk stockings, so women were painting their legs. It was unbelievable. Everybody was involved and totally committed to winning this war and supporting the troops. I’ve never seen a society so focused.”

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Jewison‘s relatives almost all served as army reservists during the war. His uncle Charlie was a sergeant major in the 48th Highlanders, and his father was a sharpshooter with the Queen’s Own Rifles. Jewison, however, had joined the Sea Cadets in high school — ‘one way to get the attention of girls’ — and at 17 he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Navy.

“After basic training in Québec City he was shipped to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, the largest naval training base in the British Empire, where three giant words painted on the side of a building beside the parade square, expressed the sentiment of the time: “Learn to Serve.”

“The war was in its final months by the time Jewison made it to sea, working as a signalman on a Canadian corvette, escorting merchant ships up the east coast from Maine to Newfoundland, where the freighters and oil tankers would gather for convoys across to England. The Battle of the Atlantic had largely been won by 1945, and Jewison himself never saw direct combat. ‘I was disappointed that I never got to cross the Atlantic and shoot up some U-boats,’ he said. ‘That’s what I really wanted to do.’ The U-boats, however, were still sniffing around American and Canadian ports, occasionally sinking ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. ‘You were aware of the danger, aware that the war was going on,’ says Jewison. But his only glimpse of the enemy came after Germany’s surrender in May, When his ship escorted ‘a bunch of sorry-looking German prisoners from a submarine that had sailed into a Canadian port to give themselves up. They were tired; their fearsome white turtleneck sweaters were filthy with oil and sweat. They stank. When we herded them into a train bound for an internment camp somewhere up North, I gave one of them a pack of cigarettes.'”

Jewison got his first break in TV in the early 1950s, when he also wrote, directed and produced a lot of musicals, comedy-variety and dramas. This experience and training helped his upward path into directing and producing features on a high level. His TV career reached new heights in the late 1950s, doing shows with Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason, and Danny Kaye. His biggest TV feat was the Judy Garland comeback special with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. His first break into directing a feature was with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh’s film company on the project named 40 Pounds of Trouble in 1962.

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Jewison directing the cast of In the Heat of the Night. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

In the mid-1960s, he focused on comedies with Doris Day: The Thrill of It All, and Send Me No Flowers, which reunited her with Rock Hudson. His move to the upper echelon of filmmaking was with The Cincinnati Kid, which starred Marine Steven McQueen, who portrays a gambler in New Orleans. The cast was top-notch as well, with Tuesday Weld, Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margaret and Karl Malden. It was a challenging drama for Jewison and it opened the door to his continued rise into superstardom as a director. Next came The Russians Are Coming: the Russians Are Coming, and it was nominated for four Oscars. His next big-time success was with In the Heat of the Night which won five Oscars and starred Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. It won Best Picture and Jewison was nominated for Best Director. Jewison even received encouragement from Robert Kennedy. The film deals with crime and racism in a small Southern town in the tumultuous 1960s. It was so culturally significant and popular it spawned a long-running TV show of the same name.

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Jewison directing Steve McQueen and Tuesday Weld on The Cincinnati Kid. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

He again reteamed with McQueen on The Thomas Crown Affair, then did Fiddler on the Roof, which won three Oscars and earned Jewison further critical acclaim. The film starred Topol, Israeli star, Jerry Bock, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey. Jewison challenged himself next with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and filmed it in Israel. Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, he continued on a slew of popular box office films with Rollerball, …And Justice for All, F.I.S.T., and Best Friends. These starred the elite of their time and made Jewison a further bankable director and producer.

"Fiddler on the roof" in Tuschinsky Amsterdam, from let to right; Topol, Lex Goudsmit, Norman Jewison. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Fiddler on the roof” in Tuschinsky Amsterdam, from let to right; Topol, Lex Goudsmit, Norman Jewison. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1980s, Jewison challenged himself yet again with a Pulitzer Prize-winning play adapted into a feature named A Soldier’s Story, about an African-American officer investigating the death of a Black Soldier during World War II in the South. It had similar themes to In the Heat of the Night, with the lead actor, Howard E. Rollins Jr., being connected to another Jewison work as he would portray Virgil Tibbs from the In the Heat of the Night story on the TV show of the same name which premiered in the late 1980s. A Soldier’s Story also featured a young Denzel Washington as a soldier. Many of the actors in the film had portrayed these same roles on stage in NYC. The film was nominated for many awards and won numerous, introducing Jewison to a younger generation.

Jewison garnered many awards with his next film, the romantic drama Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nic Cage. Cher is stuck in a dilemma as her character falls for the brother of the man she is supposed to marry. Cher won the Oscar for Best Actress in the role; Olympia Dukakis won Best Supporting Actress, and John Patrick Shanley won for Best Original Screenplay. Jewison’s next project will resonate with military readers and fans of Vietnam movies with In Country, which stars Bruce Willis. Willis plays a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who helps his niece learn about her father, killed in Vietnam. USMC Vietnam Veteran Jim Beaver plays Willis’s character’s best friend and Willis’s character name is Emmett Smith, for those Dallas Cowboys fans. For the record: The movie came out before the Cowboys won a Super Bowl in the 1990s.

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Cher and Norman Jewison at “A Tribute to Norman Jewison” at LACMA in Los Angeles on April 16, 2009. Photo by George Pimentel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jewison wrapped out the 80s and 90s with more solid films and challenging projects. His most recent star-laden film was The Hurricane with Denzel Washington, which followed the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Jewison’s final film is The Statement with Michael Caine, which came out in 2003. He wrote a notable autobiography, aptly titled This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me. He was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2002 and in 2012 for all of his accomplishments and leadership. Jewison earned lot of recognition, accolades and success for a person who began his adult life in the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II. Rest in peace.