CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Duddy and Me
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz changed my life — not instantly, mind you. It took 15 years.
When I moved in with Mordecai to share his flat on the top floor of a condemned house in Swiss Cottage with decor by Charles Dickens, he had just started writing the novel, his fourth. It took him two years to complete. The novel was hilariously picaresque, yet a heartfelt tale of a third-generation immigrant who lived in the St. Urbain Street Jewish ghetto in Montreal. He was the consummate schemer who desperately desired and ruthlessly aspired to be a somebody. The basic question of the novel was posed to Duddy Kravitz by a gangster: “Kravitz, why do you always run around like you’ve got a red hot poker up your ass?”
Upon completion of its creation, Mordecai literally lifted its last page from his hot typewriter and asked me to read the novel. I finished in one sitting, all 350 pages.
“Not only is this the best Canadian novel ever written,” I declared, “but one day I am going to go back to Canada and make a film out of it.”
We then both laughed at the absurdity of the idea because, of course, there was no Canadian film industry whatsoever at that time. And though one realistic side of me saw that no British or American company was going to finance a film about a Canadian Jewish Sammy Glick, another part hoped that I might find the exception.
In the meantime, I was able to convince Armchair Theatre to let me do a few chapters of the novel. Mordecai and I made a one-hour TV play of the part that takes place at a Jewish summer resort hotel where Duddy works as a waiter. But the show didn’t turn out very well, because it was difficult to cast Brits as Canadian Yiddish characters. The idea for making it into a feature film seemed even more like the pipe dream of a couple of naïve Canadian expats, but I never let it go. And I always kept envisaging the film.
For years and years, I struggled to find someone who would be interested in financing a film based on The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. From the day that I read the novel in that dingy apartment, whenever I would meet a film producer, I pressed a copy of the book firmly into his hands, telling them with absolute, true conviction what a fantastic movie this book would make.
But after a decade of trying, I still did not have a single taker.
And then, participating in the Venice Film Festival was a film I had directed in England entitled Two Gentlemen Sharing, about the racial situation in London in the 1960s. Also in attendance at the festival was an American producer, Sam Arkoff, who was vice-president of a distribution company called American International Pictures (AIP). He purchased Two Gentlemen Sharing and distributed the film in the United States in 1969. Sam told me in Venice over lunch how much he liked my films and asked what else I was working on. I gave him the novel, and he responded immediately.
“Ted, I love this book!” he said with the gusto of a true Hollywood producer. “And I want to produce it.”
Oh, thank my lucky god, I thought with a sigh of relief. I was unbelievably elated. Never mind that AIP’s stock-in-trade was making raucous movies like Beach Party, outlaw biker movies, and assorted low-budget horror films. With the stroke of a pen, Sam Arkoff had the power to put Duddy Kravitz into production.
“. . . but,” he paused. I’ve hated “buts” my entire creative career. “Buts” never bode well. He sipped his wine. “But there’s one thing: I don’t want Duddy to be Jewish. I want him to be Greek.”
“Greek? Greek! But Sam, the story is about this Jewish kid in a small Jewish enclave surrounded by a mammoth Catholic metropolis,” I said. “He’s staring at a cross at the top of Mount Royal flashing Christianity at him all day long. When Mordecai was ten, he witnessed students marching through his Jewish ghetto in Montreal crying, ‘À bas les Juifs!’ Down with the Jews!” I said. “The students then committed their own version of Nazi Kristallnacht, smashing the windows of Jewish shops. When Mordecai was a kid, French-Canadian kids chanted as they danced around him, ‘You killed Jesus Christ! You killed Jesus Christ!’ This is what Duddy faces and has to triumph over. This is what has shaped him. That’s the point of the film. It’s what makes him sympathetic! He has to use his French-Canadian girlfriend to buy the properties he is chasing, because the French-Canadian farmers won’t sell their land to a Jew!”
In spite of my diatribe, there was no turning Arkoff around. No matter what I said, either Duddy would be Greek — Dudopholous Kravopolous perhaps — or Arkoff was out, and I was back to beggar’s row.
It was an easy decision for me. No matter how badly I wanted to make the film, I couldn’t violate the integrity of my best friend’s masterpiece. I had watched him slave over the novel for two years. The story was so close to him, and now to me, that there wasn’t even a small chance I would make Duddy a Greek.
However, I did understand where Arkoff was coming from in general. He was part of an entire generation of Jews in Hollywood who did not wish to make films about Jews and never did.
I had one other strong nibble from another important producer, but he wanted to set the story in Pittsburgh. His reasoning? Montreal was too parochial. “And Pittsburgh isn’t?” I said. “The working-class steel capital of the world where a man’s beer gut was a point of pride? No, I’m not setting it in Pittsburgh.” And then he said, “No, I’m not doing the film.”
Was this to be my fate with this project? It seemed to have insuperable obstacles to it ever being made.
More time flew by.
Not only was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz a brilliant novel written by my dearest friend, but also I had become obsessed with the lead character. I felt I knew him well and the world he inhabited. He was an outcast, as I had been growing up. Colorful, shady characters populated Duddy’s world as they populated mine.
When I was 15, I worked at my dad’s restaurant that he had recently purchased, Norm’s, a small diner in a rundown area of Toronto. As I said, the place was populated by colorful characters, some on the fringes of the underworld: bookies, pimps and prostitutes, blind pig owners, drug dealers, con men, and artists — you name it, they hung out there for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I came to know them all very well.
One of the bookies came to me and said, “Ted, I’ve got a hot tip for you. There’s a big fix on the sixth race today. Put everything you’ve got on it.” He gave me the name of the horse. I was always getting these kinds of tips, but this one somehow convinced me. He told me it would put me through university. So I put $20 on the nose, which was a lot of money for me those days. He won at 15 to 1. With the $300 in winnings, I paid for my first year at the University of Toronto.
One small-time crook that came to Norm’s was called German Johnny. He was the black sheep of a prominent family that owned a brewing company back in the beer-land of Milwaukee. Johnny would dress up in an expensive suit and take a well-dressed woman with him to a jewelry store. They would pretend to shop for a wedding ring. The salesman would bring out a tray of diamond rings and, when he turned his back, German Johnny would quickly swap a real ring with a zirconium copy. Although he came under suspicion, the jewelry stores couldn’t prove it. Still, he did it so often, he was banned from all jewelry stores. These guys were very much like the characters in the town at the beginning of Duddy Kravitz.
The summer when I was 14, I worked at the Old Mill Restaurant as a busboy. It was one of the top restaurants in Toronto, similar in feeling to the one at the resort where Duddy works. I told Mordecai some of my experiences there and he incorporated them in his novel.
The food at the Old Mill was wonderful, but the waiters never got to eat a bite of it. At 5:30, before the patrons arrived, all the waiters and busboys sat down to our dinner and we were served what could be called, at best, “second-hand food” brought in from god knows where. The dessert was the same every night: stale apple and cherry turnovers. They tasted like cardboard.
One day, the dessert chef called me over to his station and solved that problem. “Hey kid,” he said surreptitiously, “when people order wine with their dinner they rarely drink it all, these Canadians; bring the bottle back to me and I’ll put aside some good desserts for you.”
Done deal. I watched all the patrons who ordered wine, and I had many corks in the pocket of my white busboy’s jacket. The second the guests left the table, I would whisk away the leftover wine, jam a cork back in, lay it on my busboy’s tray, cover it with used napkins, head for the dessert chef’s station, and slip it to him. I was slipping bottles to him all night long.
The dessert chef, mind you, wasn’t picky. Red, white, rosé, he liked them all — and he liked them all mixed together. He would pop the cork out and pour all the varietals into the same gallon jug he kept below his pastry workspace. When the restaurant closed, we would sit out back, and as he drank his blended wine, I’d savor one of my wonderful desserts.
One evening at the staff’s 5:30 pre-opening dinner, I was enjoying an exquisite Napoleon topped off with a dollop of homemade ice cream. The other waiters, who were French and German, were gagging on their stale apple and cherry turnovers. A stoic German guy eyed me with disgust.
“Alright, Kotcheff,” he said, disapprovingly, “what Jew tricks did you get up to for that dessert?”
“I’m not Jewish,” I replied.
“Yes you are!” he insisted. “You’re a Jew and you’re pulling Jew tricks for that dessert.”
I felt as if I were back in my childhood, asking my father if we were Jewish and him saying, “Almost . . .” As poor Bulgarians, we were only a half step above the Jews.
There I was, a victim of anti-Semitism, and yet I wasn’t Jewish. I got to feel what every Jew must endure. I didn’t mind, I used it directorially later.
The whole “wine story” had literary value. I told Mordecai the story, and he threw in a wonderful line about Duddy, who was able to cajole the cook into giving him his orders quickly: “The gift of a bottle of rum insured the cook’s goodwill — Duddy had no trouble getting his orders.”
When I finally made The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz, I built this up in the film.
In one scene, Duddy is in the kitchen, waiting impatiently for his entrees. The chef shuns him and gives the entrees to another waiter. Duddy realizes that the other waiter is somehow paying off the chef.
So, one night after the restaurant closes, Duddy gives the chef a bottle of whiskey as a “present.” The chef, in return, begins giving Duddy his orders quicker than the other waiters, ensuring him bigger tips.
One night while working at the Old Mill, I had the most extraordinary experience. I observed a couple in their mid-20s. They smelled like money. I felt certain I would get a big tip. Like Duddy in the novel, I kissed ass — but instead got a piece of something else.
Shortly after the couple ordered, they started arguing. They were angrily whispering and gesturing harshly at one another. While cleaning up a nearby table, I could read their lips: “You cunt,” he said. Her reply, “Don’t call me that, you piece of shit.”
The argument grew even more heated. In a moment of anger, the woman swung her hand and accidentally knocked over the bottle, sending red wine all over the table. Shit, I thought, there goes my dessert!
The headwaiter rushed over to me and told me to change the tablecloth immediately.
Changing the tablecloth required great dexterity. We busboys had been warned never to reveal the top of any table because they were all so unpleasantly scarred. We were taught to roll the new tablecloth on as we rolled the old one off. While I was engaged in this tricky process, I put my hand below the tabletop to smooth out the new cloth. The wife grabbed my hand and put it between her legs — right on her minge!
I was 14. I was confused and embarrassed. I struggled, but she wouldn’t let go. The husband was scowling at me. He wanted me to get the hell away so they could resume their argument. Little did he know! Finally, I pulled my hand away. I rolled up the stained tablecloth and slid away as gracefully as I could.
I glanced back at the woman. She was smiling triumphantly at her husband, as if to say, You don’t know it, but I had my way with that 14-year-old boy!
Wow, Ted, I thought, you have a lot to learn about women.
The natives finally came through for Duddy Kravitz.
In 1967, the Canadian government set up a funding organization called the Canadian Film Development Corporation. The CFDC was run by a lovely man named Michael Spencer. Once things were up and running, I sent him the novel and the script.
I had a pretty fair script from a young Jewish writer from Montreal, Lionel Chetwynd, who was working for a film company in London. The adaptation was a difficult one, for Mordecai’s novel is long and complex. Mordecai didn’t want to write the script. He was in the middle of another novel, and he said to script Duddy would take him back to a state of mind that would interfere with what he was doing creatively in his new novel.
Michael Spencer loved the story but thought the script needed work. Mordecai said, “Get the structure right, Ted, and I’ll polish up the dialogue afterward.” Lionel and I streamlined the structure, then, as agreed, Mordecai took over and did the final draft.
Michael Spencer had one proviso: the film had to be produced by a Canadian. He gave me three names and their credits. I objected vociferously, “Come on, Michael, I’ve made five films, these guys are raw amateurs, inexperienced novices, their credits are risible,” and he said to me, “Exactly, but I want to develop Canadian producers, so if you want government money, that’s the deal.” So I met with them.
The first guy wanted to own the film and pay me a small fee. I told him he was out of his mind. “You’re going to pay me a small fee?! I’ve directed five films, what the fuck have you done?” I said. “I have lived with his book deep in my soul for a decade. And I developed it! And furthermore, you are being thrust on me, because I’m supposed to be giving you an education in producing! I don’t even fucking want you!” Obviously, he was excised from the list.
The second was John Kemeny. He was very deferential to me. We hit it off so well that I never met with the third guy. Right away, I saw that John would be able to squeeze the most out of every dollar, which he did. He budgeted the film at a remarkable $750,000. Remember, this was a period film with period cars, period wardrobe, and period hair. Not cheap. The CFDC agreed to put up half the money. And we raised the other half from a real estate developer in Montreal named Gerry Snyder.
We were ready to go, except for two key ingredients to the filmic stew. We needed a great Duddy — no, an unbelievable Duddy — and we needed the most beautiful lake that God had ever created. After an eternity of aching for the opportunity to realize the novel as a film, I found myself only two weeks away from the commencement of shooting, but missing its two most important elements.
I had been auditioning endlessly for the role of Duddy Kravitz in Canada, but I could not find anyone that I thought could carry this difficult film. Finally, I phoned Lynn Stalmaster in Hollywood. Lynn had cast my Gregory Peck western, Billy Two Hats. He was the most brilliant, sharp-eyed casting director in the business. He had cast dozens of movies at that time, classics like Harold and Maude, Fiddler on the Roof, Deliverance, and many others, and he went on to cast more than 300 films in his long professional career.
But there was one problem: on a budget of $750,000, I couldn’t afford him. When I talked to Lynn, I said, “Lynn, I desperately need your help, but I haven’t got the money to pay you.” Lynn replied, “Ted, don’t worry about the money; you’re going to be making many films. We will be working together again, and you’ll pay me a little extra on your next big project. Send me the script pronto!” I couriered it to him. He read it immediately and phoned me, “Ted, this is one of the best scripts I’ve read in years, and I’ve got just the actor to play Duddy. You won’t have heard of him. Young guy named Richard Dreyfuss. He’s playing one of the leading roles in a film right now, American Graffiti. He played Baby Face Nelson in the recent Dillinger film.”
“I’ll check it out,” I said.
“No, no, I don’t want you to watch it; he overacts in the film.”
“Lynn, are you kidding! Are you recommending someone who overacts for the part of Duddy Kravitz?!”
“Ted, I’ll bring the ten best, most promising young actors in Hollywood to read for you, but I’ll bet you anything you’ll end up with Richard Dreyfuss. He was born to play this part.”
I flew to Los Angeles for the readings, tingling with anticipation.
I had lived with my vision of Duddy for a dozen years. A man with Slavic looks, brown eyes, dark hair, slim body. Into the casting office, Lynn brought in Richard: blue eyes! Light hair! Pear shaped body! Had Lynn flipped his wig? He had aroused such high expectations about Richard in me. My heart sank — two weeks to go, and still no Duddy. I told Richard to start his reading.
As soon as Richard opened his mouth, it was electric! He had Duddy’s manic energy. You understood him, felt for him, you saw his needs. He grabbed you by the lapels and demanded your attention, your feelings, your sympathy. It was an extraordinary reading.
One of the great things about Lynn Stalmaster was if there were two actors who were equal in the audition, he would say, “Take B, the camera will magnify and enhance his performance.” And that’s what he said about Richard. He said, “As brilliant as his reading is now, it will reach even greater heights in front of the camera. And his performance will be more complex and grow in unexpected directions.” How right he was.
I remembered my time at Camp Naivelt. There were mostly dark Polish Jews, but there were two boys who were red headed! And Mordecai said German Jews were often blonde and blue-eyed. In any case, Richard made me forget any hesitations I had about his appearance with his electrifying performance. He was Duddy Kravitz.
The other important role was Duddy’s French-Canadian girlfriend. That spring, Mordecai and I were in the south of France. During the Cannes Film Festival, Mordecai said there was a French-Canadian film in the festival and suggested we see it. The film was Gille Carle’s Le Vraie Nature de Bernadette. Bernadette was played by an actress unknown to me, Micheline Lanctôt. Halfway through the film, I whispered to Mordecai, “There’s Duddy’s girlfriend, Yvette.” Little did I know, she would end up being my girlfriend as well.
Now I needed a lake that looked like a Monet painting come to life.
The film was being shot in Quebec, the land of a thousand lakes. How hard could it be to find a lake that fit the bill? The lake was the most important location in my film. The first shot of the lake had to be arresting. The audience’s response to it had to be visceral; they had to be as overpowered as Duddy was by its beauty.
Duddy’s entire goal in the story is to buy the lake and all the land around it. Without land, he is told by his grandfather, a man is nothing. This starts his quixotic quest. The beauty of the lake must justify the nasty, devious things Duddy does to acquire it. The audience has to see that Duddy’s reaction to it is not merely acquisitive.
Lyse Venne, the film’s location manager, was charged with finding the perfect lake. She looked at some 350 (!) lakes and showed me more than 100 of those. None of them gave me goosebumps. I kept saying no, no, no.
With only two weeks until the cameras rolled, on what was already a very tightly scheduled production, the producer, John Kemeny, was understandably getting nervous because we didn’t have our key location, the lake. He said to me, “Ted, what are you doing? A hundred lakes? One lake is like another lake.”
I replied, “One lake is not like another lake, this has to be the lake of lakes. It has to be the Platonic lake, the ultimate lake!”
“Ted, you’re crazy.”
“I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid,” I said. “I’m not compromising on this lake. If it’s some ordinary, boring fucking lake, we’ll never forgive Duddy for some of the things he does to get that dreary body of water.”
“Okay, Ted, get on with it.”
Finally, a few days later, Lyse came to me and said she had found the lake. “If this isn’t it, Ted, I’m committing suicide.”
We drove to the area and parked. We walked down a short hill. At the bottom was a tall hedge, blocking the view of the lake. I pulled the hedge back and practically had an orgasm. The lake was breathtaking. Its beauty hit me like a hammer. It was a totally virgin lake, with no houses in sight, just a glistening lake surrounded by beautiful autumnal foliage.
“This is it! We found the lake!” I shouted to Lyse.
I turned around and double-timed back to the car. Lyse stayed put. “Come back here, you bastard, and give me some satisfaction! Three hundred and fifty lakes?! Stay with me for ten seconds and look at it!” she yelled.
“No time!” I yelled over my shoulder, “I have to get back to the office, tons of production problems!”
It turned out that it was a private lake owned by two wealthy German environmentalists, who kept the lake in pristine condition. The Germans stipulated that we touch no trees or bushes or alter anything created by nature, and if we moved even a single stone, we put it right back where we found it. And they weren’t joking, they were very strict with us. One day, there was a large piece of driftwood that was interfering with my shot. I had it taken out. After the scene was over, one of the German owners tapped me on the shoulder.
“Where’s that piece of driftwood that was right there?” he asked.
Dutifully, I retrieved the driftwood and put it back in the water in exactly the same place.
The shoot lasted eight weeks. They flew by. Every day was a revelatory experience with Richard. And there was no ego problem ever. He was always in high spirits, full of amusement. Richard and I played a mind-reading game he created and loved to play in front of the crew. A member of the crew would whisper, say, “President Roosevelt” in my ear. I’d say, “Fanny spent one month in London the first time she went.” Richard would immediately answer, “President Roosevelt!” to the amazement of the whole crew. See if you can figure out how it was done. If not, the answer is at the end of this chapter.
The film ended up going over budget by about $150,000. We actually had bill collectors show up on set to collect. This is where John Kemeny showed his mettle: he held them at bay, while I stepped on the accelerator to finish the film.
Aside from the past-due invoices, we had another looming deadline. Because it was one of the first films backed by the CFDC, Duddy Kravitz was slated to premiere at the Place des Arts, a major performing arts center in Montreal.
The post-production was a short six weeks. I worked my ass off night and day to finish the editing and deliver the film. The night before the premiere, I stayed up all night with the lab technicians color correcting the film. The next morning, I was still putting the finishing touches on my film. Eventually, I showered, put on my tux, and headed to the premiere.
The crowd was the haute monde of Montreal society. It was a proud moment — the arrival of a truly Canadian film based on a great Canadian novel.
Mordecai and I, standing in the lobby, were nervously sipping cognacs and smoking cigars to keep us going, especially me. Saidye Bronfman, the society doyenne of Canada, surrounded by her entourage, fluttered up to us to say hello. She was the matriarch of the Bronfman family, whose fortune had come from the largest liquor business in North America, Seagrams. The family was also incredibly philanthropic. Her name seemed to be on every third community building.
Saidye eyed Mordecai in his tux. “Well Mordecai, you’ve come a long way from being a St. Urbain Street slum boy,” she said.
“Well Saidye, you’ve come a long way from being a bootlegger’s wife,” Mordecai replied, without missing a beat.
Saidye was not amused. She turned on her heels like Queen Victoria and pranced away. No one could trade one-liners like Mordecai Richler, as I had seen quite often.
But the highlight of the night came after the film ended. There was a rousing ovation. As it died down and everyone started to file out, I overheard a man say to his wife, “I can’t believe a Canadian made such a great film!”
The attention the film received got me noticed by the Hollywood players, for all the reviews were outstanding — with one glaring exception, The New Yorker.
At that time, The New Yorker was the gold standard of film criticism because of Pauline Kael. A rave from Pauline Kael was a career maker. But, as luck would have it, when Duddy Kravitz was screened for the American critics in New York, Pauline was on vacation. Her interim replacement was an English critic named Penelope Gilliatt.
A creative person has to develop a rhinoceros’s hide. I’ve discovered, in my long experience, that no matter how good I believe my film to be, there will be someone who dislikes it, and no matter how mediocre one of my films is, there will be some fool who loves it. Of course, reviews affect the film’s box office tremendously, but I have never learned a single thing from a film critic.
Many years ago, I was at the opening night of a play and I was talking to the great Irish playwright Brendan Behan. As we watched the critics arriving, he turned to me and said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They see the trick being done every night, but they can’t do it themselves.”
Penelope Gilliatt panned my film in The New Yorker. Some of the other critics at the screening conveyed to me that she arrived late and somewhat drunk. But the damage was done — or was it?
Three days after Penelope’s review was published, I received a phone call from Pauline Kael herself, who had seen the film. “That bitch!” she said. “I can’t believe she gave you that review. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I love your film and I’ll do anything to help you with it.”
Pauline suggested that she write her own review and allow us to use it in our advertising. Her praise became the centerpiece of our press campaign. It was featured in all our ads. Here it is in all of its wonderful entirety:
No matter how phenomenal Richard Dreyfuss is in other roles, it’s not likely that he’ll ever top his performance in this teeming, energetic Canadian film. His baby-faced Duddy is a force of nature, a pushy 18-year-old con artist on his way to becoming an entrepreneur. Mordecai Richler’s screenplay, based on his exultant, Dickensian 1959 novel, really enables us to understand What Makes Sammy Run. Duddy waits on tables, he drives a taxi, he deals in pinball machines, he sets up a company to film weddings and bar mitzvahs. He jiggles impatiently and sweats and scratches himself. His drive for success is a comic passion. We feel with him every step of the way; he’s a little monster, yet we share his devastation when his suave uncle (Joseph Wiseman) tells him, “You’re a pusherke, a little Jew-boy on the make. Guys like you make me sick and ashamed.” The work of the director, Ted Kotcheff, is often crude but it has electricity. And the film has a real wit; it even has visual wit when we see a bar mitzvah film made by a drunken, half-mad blacklistee (Denholm Elliott). With Randy Quaid, Jack Warden, Micheline Lanctôt, Joe Silver, Henry Ramer, and, as the grandfather, Zvee Scooler. (The adaptation is credited to Lionel Chetwynd.) Shot mostly in and around Montreal, on a budget of less than $1 million.
As a result of the film’s success in its initial release, my agent, Robert Shapiro, who was then head of the William Morris office in London, got several offers for me to direct studio films in Hollywood. But I was not ready to leave Canada for Hollywood yet.
As promised, the answer to Richard Dreyfuss’s game is: you use the first letter of all proper nouns and any number refers to the vowel: 1-A, 2-E, 3-I, 4-O, 5-U. So in this case, “Fanny spent one month in London the first time she went,” the clue for the answer is “Fala,” the name of President Roosevelt’s dog. You always spell out something associated with the answer, but never spell out the name itself.