Acclaimed Canadian director Ted Kotcheff will be visiting the Aero Theatre June 23-25, 2016 for a five-film series that illustrates his versatility as a director. Among the films featured in the mini-retrospective “Character Witness: The Films of Ted Kotcheff” are the 1971 thriller Wake in Fright, the hit 1989 comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, and the 1982 action-drama First Blood, in which Sylvester Stallone introduced his iconic character of the Vietnam vet Rambo.
Kotcheff, now 85, has never been typecast in a certain genre. Kotcheff, who began directing at CBC in Toronto in 1955, credits his early years in live television for cultivating his interest in all film genres.
“I started directing in live television,” said the spry Kotcheff during a recent phone interview from his home in Mexico, where he was putting the finishing touches on his autobiography.
“I did an anthology series of one-hour hour plays. One week I would be doing a drama. The next week I would be doing a comedy, the next I would be doing a history play. You could see what you were good at… I enjoyed all of them.”
Working in live television also prepared him for any and every emergency.
After working for two years in Toronto, he left for London to pursue work as a film and theater director. “When I first went there, the first thing I did was to work in live television,” said Kotcheff. In late November 1958, he was directing “Underground,” an episode of ITV’s Armchair Theatre. “It was set down in the subways of London,” noted Kotcheff. “An H-bomb had destroyed London and the only people who survived were in the subway.”
And it was just prior to the end of an act, that 33-year-old actor Gareth Jones, who was the villain of the piece, had a heart attack and died. Kotcheff didn’t let the rest of the cast know he had died, telling everyone he was indisposed. With just three minutes to the end of the break, Kotcheff scrambled to figure out who would be playing the villain and to look ahead to ascertain what type of camera problems he would have because of Jones’ absence.
Somehow, the show went on. But then he had to break the news to the cast and call Jones’ fiancée. “It was the most horrible thing I ever did,” said Kotcheff
If “Underground” was one of the most harrowing experiences of his career, Kotcheff considers the 1971 Australian thriller Wake in Fright (which opens the retrospective) one of the best. One of the seminal films of the Australian cinematic renaissance of the 1970s, the unsettling thriller follows a schoolteacher (Gary Bond) as he has a “lost” weekend with a group of drunken brutes while becomes stranded in an outback town.
The film was widely praised at the Cannes Film Festival, but when the production company went into bankruptcy, Wake in Fright disappeared.
“The film went into the hands of creditors,” said Kotcheff. “Nobody could find it.” Eventually, the film’s editor Anthony Buckley did.
“He thought it was a masterpiece,” Kotcheff said of the editor. “He spent years of his own time and at his own expense. He flew to London where the film had been developed and they didn’t have it. He went to New York and nobody knew what had happened to the film. He finally tracked it down in a warehouse in Pittsburgh. The negatives, sound track, the music tracks were in these huge wooden boxes. But in big red letters on each of the boxes were the words ‘for destruction.’ Nobody paid the warehouse for the storage, so they were going to burn then. Had my editor arrived later, they would have been no film.”
Wake in Fright was restored and screened to great acclaim at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. At the Aero Theatre, screening with Wake in Fright, is 1974’s award-winning period drama The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Based on the novel by Kotcheff’s good friend Mordecai Richler, who earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay adaptation, the Canadian production made a star out of Richard Dreyfuss as the ambitious son of a working-class Jewish family in Montreal.
“I tried to find a Canadian actor to play Duddy,” said Kotcheff, “but I couldn’t find anybody who could carry this quite complicated [character] and engage the audience's sympathies because he was not the most sympathetic person.”
He contacted casting director Lynn Stalmaster to see if he knew a young actor in Hollywood. “I told him I’ve got to cast the part and I have got to start shooting in two weeks. I sent him the script. He said this is one of the greatest scripts I have read. I have an actor who was born to play the part.”
That actor was Dreyfuss.
Kotcheff flew to L.A. to meet Dreyfuss. “As soon as he opened his mouth, it was electric,” he noted. “Halleluiah, I got my Duddy.”’
Kotcheff ran into difficulties when he cast Jane Fonda opposite George Segal in the 1977 comedy Fun With Dick and Jane, which screens Thursday, June 23rd with Weekend at Bernie’s. Fonda, who had been called "Hanoi Jane" because of her visit to the capital of North Vietnam and her other anti-war activities, hadn’t done anything of “significance” because of her political beliefs. Still, noted Kotcheff, “I thought she would be perfect for this part because I always liked her as a light comedian.”
Kotcheff ran into trouble at various locations where he chose to shoot the comedy about an upper-class couple who become bank robbers after breadwinner Segal loses his job.
In fact, the head of the company chosen for Segal’s workplace told Kotcheff: “'We are so
thrilled you are shooting down here. Who is going to be in it?' I said George Segal. He said 'I love George Segal.' And I said Jane Fonda.”
The owner’s demeanor totally changed.
“He said 'I’m not going to allow that traitor bitch on my property,'” said Kotcheff. I had trouble all the time. But nobody is going to tell me who to cast. I wanted Jane.”
To see some of Ted Kotcheff’s films including Weekend at Bernie’s, Fun with Dick and Jane, Wake in Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and First Blood, see dates and times at www.aerotheatre.com
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in Classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.
Follow her on Twitter: @mymackie