How Canadians are infiltrating Hollywood

HAL TENNANT January 1 1968

How Canadians are infiltrating Hollywood

HAL TENNANT January 1 1968

How Canadians are infiltrating Hollywood


“WHAT I REALLY NEED,” Saul Ilson was saying from behind his desk, “is a sign out there in the hall saying YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE CANADIAN SECTOR.”

That seemed fair warning, in a way. After all, not everybody manages, as I did, to penetrate Ilson’s third-floor fortress there in Television City, Hollywood, and discover that one of the brains behind The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is a shy, dark-haired gnome who keeps a picture of Lester B. Pearson and a Canadian flag, side by side, on his office wall, and a hockey puck on his desk.

But who needed warning? It was hard to imagine anybody in the building not realizing by this time that the Canadian Mafia, as they are known around CBS, were pretty much in control of the hottest variety show on TV.

Ilson, who could hardly be more resolutely Canadian if he took a bath every morning in maple syrup with a pet beaver, has never made a secret of his origins as a Montrealer-cww-Torontonian who once wrote such now-defunct CBC television programs as Cross Canada Hit Parade, The Juliette Show and Showtime, starring Robert Goulet. And even as he spoke, his Canadian henchmen were ranged conspicuously throughout the sprawling CBS building. Bill Davis, who was then director (he has since moved on), was in a rehearsal hall, running part of the cast through a routine; writers Ron Clark and Allan Blye were at their typewriters, concocting gags and skits; and music consultant Denny Vaughan, one-time Montreal bandleader and star of his own CBC-TV show, was hard at work at the piano, piecing together a song medley.

“There are so many Canadians around here,” llson’s partner, Ernie Chambers, noted with mock indignation, “that some people think we’re all Canadians. People say, “Why don't you go back to Canada?’ How can I? I’m from New Jersey!”

Which made me wonder how many other loyal and innocent Americans on how many other TV shows and movie lots feel surrounded, or at least thoroughly infiltrated, by other branches of the Canadian Cosa Nostra. Not that I was in Hollywood to document the already well-publicized fact that dozens upon dozens of actors, writers and directors from Canada are doing very well indeed in the film capital. I had a fresher angle than that. Two angles, in fact. One is that there really is a Canadian Mafia down there, disappointingly unsinister but otherwise much like Our Thing — a brotherhood of people feeling kinship from a common origin and standing ready at all times to help one another get ahead — and rich.

My second angle, though, is more surprising and, I think, a lot more significant: Canadians no longer have to go down to Hollywood to have their talents discovered; Hollywood is coming right up to Canada and discovering them.

The Mafia thing takes many forms. On the Smothers Brothers show, Ilson, for all his flagwaving, didn’t set out to hire any Canadians as such. As executive producers, he and Chambers (who are co-owners of the show, along with Tom and Dick Smothers) needed proven talent, and Ilson naturally looked to Toronto and Montreal. “I wouldn’t know where else to look.” It was equally natural for him to pick Blye, Vaughan and Davis, all ex-CBC types, because he knew their work from his Toronto days. (Ron Clark, a Montrealer, was the exception. He wrote skits at McGill, couldn’t persuade anybody at the CBC in Toronto to hire him, took off for the U. S., wrote gags for Jack Carter, Phyllis Diller, Will Jordan, Jackie Gleason and others, and first encountered Ilson in Hollywood — they both wrote for The Danny Kaye Show.)

Some Canadians fall in with the Mafia only after arriving in Hollywood. Gordon Farr, for instance, was a producer-director in Toronto until less than a year ago. Then he and his partner, Steve Stern, decided to try Hollywood.

“I’d been in LA for exactly one day,” says Farr, “when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s Bernie Orenstein [a writer on Hollywood Palace]. He gives me the big hello, offers to help me find an agent, tells me where the jobs are and who to call. He was enormously helpful, and we’d never even met. Canadians help each other down here.” They do indeed. Within four months after their move, Farr and Stern were also writing for Hollywood Palace — at at least $50,000 a year each.

Sometimes the effects of this underground freemasonry go on and on, in a seemingly endless chain. Perhaps the best example of that is the one that led eventually to Hollywood’s most recent and most dramatic, discovery of Canada. Three years ago, Larry Mann, a balding,

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continued from page 31

Needed: a movie agent who doesn’t call anybody “Baby”

rotund character actor was working in Toronto—at acting, when he could get roles, hut mostly at other things. There were a lot of “other things”— radio interviews, TV commercials, cartoon characters’ voices, industrial shows. Several times, within a few' months, his old friend Norman Jewison called him from Hollywood, always with the same question: “When are you coming down, Larry?”

Jewison, ex-CBC. was already well established as a film director (his credits since then include The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and In The Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier) and he always had some role in mind for Mann. But Mann always had other commitments. When he finally did decide to make the move, one Sunday afternoon in July 1965, he called Jewison from Toronto.

“Normie." he said, "1 just want one favor from you.”

“You want a part,” said Jewison.

“No,” said Mann, “I want you to introduce me to a good agent. He should have one or two big - name clients — but not too many. He’s got to be honest. And he's got to be a guy who doesn't call anybody ‘Baby.’ ”

As soon as Mann got to Hollywood. Jewison took him to see Wilt Melnick, a pleasant, bouncy man at the Louis Shurr Agency, where they are (by all accounts) totally honest, handle just one big-name client. Bob Hope, and make a point of not calling anybody Baby—even each other. Melnick took Mann on the rounds of the studios and Mann, with 20 years’ solid experience behind him. was on his way. (He has since played character roles in a dozen or more TV comedies and dramas and acted in movies with several big stars, including Marlon Brando and Doris Day.)

Mann's turn to render an assist came one day when Melnick asked him. “Do you know any good directors?”

“I know an excellent director.” Mann said without^ hesitation. “His name is George McCowan.”

McCowan, of course, was working in Toronto, and as it happened he was well along with a TV series that would prove to be the most widely acclaimed work of his career—a CBC sleeper called Wojeck.

Melnick flew to Toronto to see McCowan, got a look at two episodes of Wojeck and later set up a private screening of them in Hollywood. Mann attended, along with Judd Bernard, a producer associated with M-G-M, and John Boorman, a director newly arrived from England. Bernard and Boorman, excited by what they

saw, went to Toronto and signed Wojeck's star John Vernon (see page 32) and the episodes' guest star, Sharon Acker, to play important roles with Lee Marvin in Point Blank; George McCowan got offers to go to Hollywood, where he is now directing episodes of Felony Squad and The Invaders for TV; and Jennifer Leak, a

willowy. 20-year-old ingenue, got the role of Henry Fonda’s and Lucille Ball's daughter in a movie titled His, Hers and Theirs, now being held for release around Easter.

And—oh. yes—they've all become clients of Melnick's.

Now' it’s a cinch that, some day, Melnick or Bernard or somebody else will say to McCowan or John Vernon, “Say. you don't happen to know somebody up in Canada who . . . ” “1 feel guilty about it," says Mel-

nick, referring to this exodus from Canada. “I’m helping to destroy an industry. But if / didn’t do it, somebody else would.”

Melnick’s manoeuvres may not be as destructive as he thinks, but certainly Canadians are that hot right now. Even in the seven or eight weeks he spent filming Point Blank, John Vernon could notice how receptive Hollywood is to Canadians. “Anybody from Canada, an actor or a writer with a script,” he says, “can go right to the producer. Suddenly that whole knocking-on-doors business is over. The doors are open.”

“If you’re an actor from Canada,” agrees Larry Mann, “they take it for granted you’re a seasoned actor.”

Several of the best films shown at Expo 67 have lately added to the Canadian impact on Hollywood. The most spectacular example is A Place To Stand, the Ontario Pavilion movie made by Christopher Chapman, of Toronto. His film hadn’t been released for long before Chapman was lured to Hollywood by one of several tempting offers. "A Place To Stand has really rocked them down here,” Chapman reports with obvious delight. And Norman Jewison, who has been around Hollywood long enough to assess Chapman’s long-term chances, says flatly, “He’s made — he’s made right now.” Certainly Chapman’s first Hollywood assignment is bound to attract attention whether it’s a hit or a flop: he and his technical director, Barry Gordon, are working with Gower Champion on a Broadwaybound production of The Happy Time, which will combine film and live actors as the Czech Laterna Mapika did at Expo. Meanwhile, two other Canadian film-makers who had successes at Expo, Roman Kroitor (Labyrinth) and Graeme Ferguson (the polar film in Man The Explorer) have formed their own company and are working with Hollywood engineers to develop multi-screen techniques.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, success in Hollywood breeds success, and there are movie executives there today who swear Canadians can do no wrong.

“All the Canadians here are excellent,” enthuses Bill Kenney, casting director for 20th Century-Fox.

Kenney’s reaction is so typical that some Hollywood moguls now are reasoning: “If they have all that talent up there in Canada, why not go right to the fountainhead?”

With that in mind, NBC recently began negotiating with the CBC over a proposition for a one-hour drama series, to be produced jointly in Toronto and aired over both networks. The scheme calls for a pilot episode to be shot some time in 1968, with production of as many as 29 other episodes to follow, if the pilot is a success. The whole package would cost about three million dollars.

Such a deal could signal the longawaited beginning of a Canadian film industry, with the kind of solid financial backing and long-term momentum that independent film-makers in Canada have always lacked.

Who knows? Maybe in a year or two, that whole Mafia thing will have started working in the opposite direction. ★