Frontlines

Ombudsman as hustler: the other Bob Cooper

Ernest Hillen October 16 1978
Frontlines

Ombudsman as hustler: the other Bob Cooper

Ernest Hillen October 16 1978

Ombudsman as hustler: the other Bob Cooper

Frontlines

It isn’t easy to get Robert Cooper, CBC’s ombudsman, to stand still. He’s always on the run. Just on Ombudsman business alone he travels 100,000 miles a year. And now it seems, incredibly, there are two of him running.

One is “the weird guy with the squeaky voice,” as he refers to himself, who fights for the little man three Sunday nights a month at 10:30. “Outraged by injustice,” the 33-year-old lawyer uncovers it and then harasses bureaucrats and politicians into resolving it. They’re lively fights filmed all over Canada, and Cooper has won many of them. That is a national hero.

The cases Cooper the ombudsman tackles may involve large principles but often relatively small sums of money. It’s at this point that he runs to a different drummer than the other Bob Cooper. One day Ombudsman Cooper is, say, in Outlook, Saskatchewan, helping a welfare recipient collect $50 a week.

But the next day he may well be in Los Angeles negotiating a million-dollar deal. While both Coopers chomp on big cigars, only one of them then comes across as somewhat of a stereotype. That’s the other Cooper: a hard-nosed, wheeling and dealing producer of multi million-dollar movies.

A short, owlish-looking man with a tinny voice, he is an unlikely television celebrity. And when Ombudsman started five years ago, the media know-it-alls smiled their smiles. But they were

wrong. The lack of “star quality” is a plus: people identify with Cooper and trust him. One admirer, Patrick Watson, says Cooper has also acquired “a nice toughness (and) a nervous confidence” which are “brilliantly effective.” Thousands of Canadians, abused or misused by The System, now see the ombudsman as their ultimate court of last resort. His program has dealt with more than 12,000 cases (1.2 per cent on air, 36 per cent resolved); the mail count is over 40,000; and nearly 1.5 million people watch it faithfully.

“I always liked show business,” says Cooper. As a boy in Montreal he per-

formed magic semiprofessionally as The Great Roberto. He later studied drama for a summer at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, and he wrote a master’s thesis on Beatlemania. Then two years ago Cooper took a jump—to the top. Billed as executive producer, he made Power Play (still to be released), a $2-million movie about a fictitious coup d’état starring Peter O’Toole, David Hemmings and Donald Pleasence. It’s been sold to 30 countries but, incidentally, banned in Argentina and Brazil. This year Cooper is co-producing with his partner Montreal lawyer Ronald Cohen an all-Canadian-financed, $3.5-million film called Running, starring Michael Douglas (son of Kirk, costar of The Streets of San Francisco). Parts were shot in New York and Toronto last month and Running is now on location in Montreal. The Olympic Stadium has been booked for the climactic sequences. Unprecedented in Canadian

film-making, Running recouped its budget even before the cameras rolled. ABC bought the rights to air it two years after its release to theatres for over $2 million; and a second deal with Viacom Pay TV, an American cable company, brought in more than $1 million. .. And out of Don Quixote there popped a Samuel Goldwyn.

Cooper says he likes to work at things that have a “pioneering element” to them. (For instance, right after he graduated from McGill law school he opened the first storefront legal aid office in Canada.) “I asked myself if a really good professional film could be

made in Canada. Well, we did with Power Play and we will with Running. The secret is to get the best expertise in the industry—and that’s in the U.S. We miss that professionalism in Canada, in good marketing, in good lawyering. The first thing I did was hire L.A.’s top lawyer in movies.” Cooper read and rejected some 350 scripts before he found Running. He and Cohen then learned that Michael Douglas had also made a bid. Douglas was co-producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which made him a millionaire and earned him an Academy Award. Here was some splendid American expertise. The three joined forces.

“Another reason for making movies,” says Cooper, “is that I’m fascinated with the notion of risk. Not gambling, but taking a calculated risk. Cohen and

I risked $200,000 on Running and could have been clobbered. But money has never motivated me. What I’m talking about is daring to do something you believe in, stretching yourself, risking the pain of losing. That’s what movies are about—taking risks. Running is about that... and something else.

“I once read on a tombstone, ‘He stood up to be counted.’ That’s one more essence of Running. And of Ombudsman. An underdog determined to have his moment.”

The movie was written and is being directed by Canadian Steven Stern (Neither by Day nor by Night, Fast Friends) and will also star Susan Anspach (Blume in Love, Five Easy Pieces) and Canadians Larry Dane and Chuck Shamata. It’s about a would-be marathoner who seems to have lost all, his

wife, job and credibility, and then creates his chance to prove he can make it in life. The ending won’t leave a dry eye in the country.

Cooper cringes at the image of movie mogul. He is concerned that nothing damages his credibility as ombudsman. “Movie-making is exciting and challenging, but I’m also aware of the industry’s shallow value system. In a way, filmmaking is like a hobby for me. My lifeblood is Ombudsman. I spend 65 per cent of my time there, and it’s a joy. The best part is sitting in the office figuring out a case. It’s so fine to quietly work toward something . . . like the hero in Running; it’s not for the applause but for myself. I have to admit, my life is now entirely full—and God knows I am lucky.” The two Coopers run together rather well. Ernest Hillen