The fact that “In the Heat of the Night” is now a television series, with Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins Jr. in the roles played in the film by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, is a remarkable measure of social change.
Norman Jewison, who directed the 1967 movie, was remembering a few days ago the deep uncertainties he and the executives at United Artists shared about whether audiences would accept a story that accurately captured the acrid flavor and the ugly tensions of racial prejudice.
“I told Bobby Kennedy about the story when we were skiing at Sun Valley,” Jewison said over lunch. “Our sons broke their legs the same day. He said he thought the time was right.”
The picture was made but the anxieties continued through the first preview in San Francisco. “But when Sidney says, ‘I’m a police officer,’ there was a pause and then a wonderful laugh. They were embracing the film.
“When he slaps a white man back, there were cheers. That was the first time that had happened in an American film. The film won the award of the New York film critics and Bobby Kennedy came up and presented it. He said, ‘I told you the time was right.’
“Twenty-one years later and now you have a black man running for President. This country is constantly in a state of change. We know there’s going to be change, and the country is not afraid of it.
“Europeans find it hard to change their points of view. But America is not rooted in traditional behavior in the same way. It makes it easier to make films about things here because they’re about change.”
Jewison has been the prime mover in the formation of the Canadian National Center for Film Studies in Toronto, the country’s equivalent of the American Film Institute.
It is located on the 16-acre estate of E. P. Taylor in the North York section of Toronto. The first 12 fellows began their studies in January. One of them is Brigitte Berman, who won an Academy Award for her documentary on Artie Shaw, “Time Is All We’ve Got,” and who now hopes to make feature films.
“We had to spend $600,000 refitting the mansion,” Jewison says, including installing a sewer system to replace the septic tank that had sufficed for the family. Famous Players, the Canadian arm of Paramount, put in a theater and there were major contributions from Kodak and other corporations.
Garth Drabinsky of Cineplex-Odeon is a board member and is organizing a support group called Second Monday, whose members will receive a monthly series of opinion-maker screenings. Donald Sutherland is board chairman.
“One third of our support is from the government, a third from the film industry, a third from elsewhere in the private sector.”
Sven Nykvist is one of the industry experts who have shared or will share their expertise. David Puttnam will spend four days in April and Ralph Rosenblum will talk about editing.
Jewison, born in Toronto, has a beach house in Malibu but his primary residence is a farm in Ontario where he makes excellent maple syrup.
He is currently producing “January Man,” a new screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, who wrote “Moonstruck,” for which both Shanley and Jewison have been nominated for Academy Awards.
The film is being directed by Pat O’Connor, who did “Cal,” the well-reviewed drama of contemporary Ireland. The new script, Jewison says, is about sibling rivalry and stars Rod Steiger as mayor of New York and Kevin Kline and Harvey Keitel as the rival siblings.
In June, Jewison will direct “In Country,” from the Bobbie Ann Mason novel with a script by Frank Pierson. “Years ago I promised myself I would never make a movie about Vietnam,” Jewison says. But this one is about the outfall of the war, its repercussions on a 17-year-old girl whose father died in Vietnam.
He is doing “In Country” for Warners although he has an overall deal with MGM and an office in the temple-like new building across the street from the studio that L. B. Mayer built.
“It’s important to have someone at a studio you can talk to,” Jewison says, “someone you can tell what you’re up to. An executive can’t know from reading a script what a film is really going to be like. You have to tell them.”
Jewison sighs. “It’s no easier to make a film now than when I started, and it was the same with John Huston.” The failure of either the academy or the Directors Guild to nominate Huston has been an angering disappointment for Jewison.
“Damn it,” he says, “ ‘The Dead’ is the best film he ever made, one of the most profound, a story about life and death. Ireland at Christmas and he made it in a warehouse in Valencia in a wheelchair in 110-degree weather. All those wonderful Irish actors who thought they were going to have a ball in Hollywood and there they were, stashed in a motel in Valencia. But, oh, it worked.
“I’m an old-fashioned storyteller. That’s why I love John and Fred (Zinnemann) and all the great ones. That’s why I succeed, when I do, if I do.”