Norman Jewison's 50 Years In Film: A True 'Superstar'

May 22, 2011

This week, the Film Society of New York's Lincoln Center begins a 15-film, six-day retrospective of director Norman Jewison's work. The series is called "Norman Jewison: Relentless Renegade," an apt title for a man whose career has spanned more than 50 years and includes such classics as In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The Canada native's body of work has incredible range: He started out directing Tony Curtis and Doris Day comedies before turning to what would become a signature theme: racism and injustice in the United States.

He tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that his interest in that issue started with a bus ride in Memphis, Tenn.

Jewison was 18 and on leave from the Royal Canadian Navy when he decided he would hitchhike his way through the American South. Despite his military uniform, he had trouble getting picked up in Memphis. So when he saw a bus headed out of the city, he decided to hop aboard.

It was a particularly hot day, so he headed toward a seat in the back that was next to an open window. The bus started and then it stopped.

"And the bus driver looked at me," Jewison says. "He said, 'Can't you read the sign?' And there was a little sign, made of tin, swinging off a wire in the center of the bus and it said, 'Colored people to the rear.'

"And I turned around and I saw two or three black citizens sitting around me, and ... a few white people sitting way at the top of the bus. And I didn't know what to do, I was just embarrassed. So I just got off the bus and he left me there. I was left standing in this hot sun and thinking about what I had just been through. That this was my first experience with racial prejudice. And it really stuck with me."

The experience left a permanent mark on Jewison, both personally and professionally. It led him to direct the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for its leading man, Sidney Poitier.

He soon turned to musicals — directing both Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. Then came more dramas — ...And Justice for All and A Soldier's Story — and romantic comedies, such as Moonstruck and Only You. And in 1999, he directed the Oscar-nominated The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington sd a boxer wrongly imprisoned for murder.

Today, at 84, Norman Jewison shows no signs of stopping. He already has an idea for his next picture: an English-language adaptation of the Italian film Bread and Tulips. He is still trying to find funding for the film. It seems that the only thing holding him back is his age.

"I've got to convince everybody that I'm not too old to do another picture," the legend jokes. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit