With six decades in show business, legendary director Ted Kotcheff looks back on his life.
Born to immigrant parents and raised in the slums of Toronto during the Depression, Ted Kotcheff learned storytelling on the streets before taking a stagehand job at CBC Television. Discovering his skills with actors and production, Kotcheff went on to direct some of the greatest films of the freewheeling 1970s, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Wake in Fright, and North Dallas Forty. After directing the 1980s blockbusters First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's, Kotcheff helped produce the groundbreaking TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. During his career, he was declared a Communist by the US government, banned from the Royal Albert Hall in London, and coped with assassination threats to one of his lead actors.
With his seminal films enjoying a critical renaissance, including praise from Martin Scorsese and Nick Cave, Kotcheff now turns the lens on himself. Witty and fearless, Director's Cut is not just a memoir, but also a close-up on life and craft, with stories of his long friendship with Mordecai Richler and working with stars like Sylvester Stallone, James Mason, Gregory Peck, Ingmar Bergman, Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Richard Dreyfuss, as well as advice on how to survive the slings and arrows of Hollywood.
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About the Author
Ted Kotcheff resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Laifun. Josh Young is the co-author of five New York Times bestsellers, including books by Howie Mandel, Bob Newhart, and Jim Belushi. Mariska Hargitay is an Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning actor, producer, and director.
Read an Excerpt
My Life in Film
By Ted Kotcheff, Josh Young
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2017 Ted Kotcheff and Josh Young
All rights reserved.
How I Was Branded a Communist
Before my career could even get started, I was branded a Communist and banned from America. This disbarment was a huge stigmatic obstacle, as it marooned me professionally in Canada, which had no film industry whatsoever at that time.
It was 1953. I was 22 and had been working one year as a stagehand at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto on dramatic plays that were shown live on television. Another stagehand, Phil Hersh, and I decided to go to New York for a short holiday. I was incredibly excited. My father had always said that New York was the most interesting place in the world to live. Certainly, it was the mecca of theater and drama. I could not wait to see the lights of Broadway and lap up the spirit of the Great White Way. Phil and I were looking forward to having the full-on New York experience. We would go out for a feast in Little Italy and eat the famous cheesecake at Lindy's in Times Square. We had heard that the most beautiful women in the world were in New York, so we also planned to sample the bars and nightclubs.
Quite possibly, I thought, this could be a life-changing trip. Well, it certainly proved to be life changing, but not in the way I imagined.
Traveling by railroad was the most economical. We took a train from Toronto to Montreal, where we switched for a train to New York. The closer we got, the more our anticipation grew.
As the train approached the U.S. border crossing from Canada into Vermont, U.S. immigration officials came through for a passport check. Phil and I presented our documents. Phil's was stamped without ceremony. Mine was not.
An overweight, toady immigration official studied my passport as though it were in hieroglyphics. He harrumphed and walked away, taking my passport with him.
When he returned several minutes later, the immigration official informed me that I would have to disembark at the next stop in St. Albans, Vermont. There, I would be examined for admissibility. "If you pass the examination, you can go on to New York this evening," he said.
I didn't take this hiccup very seriously. I figured it was some kind of formality, as I had never entered the U.S. before. I assumed that they were going to ask me the kind of standard questions that customs officials ask, things like where are you going to stay, is this trip business or pleasure, are you carrying any fruit, et cetera. I told Phil to go ahead to New York, check into our hotel, and scope out a local bar. I would see him later that night.
The train pulled in to a dingy railway station in St. Albans, an ugly little one-horse burg. It was raining heavily. The immigration official and I disembarked. With my two pieces of luggage banging on my legs, I accompanied Mr. Bullfrog up a hill to a charmless, three-story stone building.
The official checked me in and escorted me to the second floor. He directed me into a room. I took a few steps inside and heard a loud clang behind me. I quickly turned around to see that the door had metal bars on it.
Holy shit, I thought, I'm in jail! Jail?!
Mr. Bullfrog scowled at me. "We have decided to detain you for a variety of reasons," he said. "You will go before a board, and they will decide your admissibility to the U.S."
I was stunned. I didn't know what to do. I lay down on the bottom of a bunk bed. The walls were covered in graffiti, some in English, mostly in French. "Baise mon cul, Oncle Sam" being typical. A two-way radio could be heard from next door: "Those baby smugglers are expected to try crossing the border tonight."
I sat and stewed for several hours. Thoughts of seeing the lights of Broadway and carousing with beautiful women were long gone. Now I was only concerned with why I was here, and how I would get out. I was a 22-year-old who was incarcerated but had no idea why. Only one person knew where I was. But what if they moved me? Then no one would know.
At one point, an orderly brought me a ham sandwich for lunch, but made me pay for it. Periodically, some official type would come to the cell door and ask me a personal question, then go away. One guy with a military attitude and spit-shined shoes to match his demeanor told me that "if I played ball with them, I would be in New York that night."
I didn't find him particularly convincing, and I began to grow increasingly worried as time passed. What had I done? Surely, this was a case of mistaken identity. Wasn't it?
Eventually, two immigration officials appeared and began peppering me with questions. They asked me my mother's maiden name, which I told them was Diana Christoff. This was followed by a series of benign questions about where I lived and what I did for a living.
Every six or seventh question, they would again ask my mother's maiden name. Finally, I had had enough.
"I already gave it to you, several times!" I said curtly.
"Give it to me again," one of them growled.
"Christoff," I said curtly.
"How do you spell Christoff?" he asked.
"C-H-R-I-S-T as in Jesus Christ, and O-F-F as in fuck off," I answered.
"Don't get so smart with me, young guy," he said.
"You keep asking me as if I'm lying to you," I replied.
Finally, around 4 p.m., I was granted the promised hearing. I went before three strict and humorless Justice Department officers in a gloomy boardroom. After a few perfunctory questions, one of the officers looked down at a piece of paper and then solemnly asked, "Were you ever a member of the Left Wing Book Club?" In fact, I had been.
When I was a teenager, in the school's summer holidays, I worked at my dad's diner, Norm's, at the corner of Dundas and Pembroke in Toronto. The place was full of lowlifes and colorful characters. One of them was an aging leftie who wore a beret and a cape. From the looks of him, he was very hard up. He sold copies of The Daily Worker for a meager living, and I sometimes bought the paper, more out of charity than political interest.
One day the leftie spotted me sitting at the cash register reading a book. He pressed me to join the Left Wing Book Club, which he promised me would provide good books at low prices. Though I demurred, he kept nagging at me. Finally, feeling sorry for his indigence, I allowed myself to be persuaded by him. I filled out the coupon in The Daily Worker and gave it to him.
It was a kind of Socialist Book of the Month Club. Over the next seven months, I passively received three club selections. The first was volume one of the writings of Lenin. The second was Wind in the Olive Trees, a critical and damning account of Generalissimo Franco, Spain's fascist dictator for 30 years. Lastly, I received a biography of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who was admired in Socialist circles, presumably because of his proletarian roots.
The books seemed random and unrelated. I found Lenin's writings unreadable and gave up on them early. The book on Franco was too much of a polemic to be engaging, but I did enjoy the Robert Burns biography and all of his poems that were included, and still do.
During one of the book deliveries, the postman spoke to my mother and reproached her for allowing her son to belong to a "Commie front" book club. The postman! I suppose this should have alerted me to the fact that I was being snooped on by the Royal Canadian Mounted (i.e., Stuffed) Police. But in any case, bored with their books, I resigned from the Left Wing Book Club after seven months. I never heard from them again.
How did the U.S. Immigration Service know any of this? I had thoughts of conspiracy.
Answering the Justice Department officer's question about my membership in the Left Wing Book Club, I protested my innocence. "Sir, that was when I was 16 years old," I said. "Six years ago ... and I was only a member for seven months. And I was so bored with their offerings that I quit!" "Be that as it may, you belonged to a book club that disseminated literature that advocated the forceful overthrow of democratic government," one hearing officer said.
The officials didn't seem to care what my explanation was. They issued their verdict: "I'm afraid we have to reject your application for entry into the United States."
"Your banishment comes under the provisions of sections 212(a)(28)(H) of the Immigration and Nationality Act in that you are an alien who has been a member of an organization that circulated and distributed printed matter advocating the economic, international, and governmental doctrines of World Communism."
"Communism?! What do you mean? I'm not a Communist! I'm the opposite! I'm violently opposed to Communism!" Their three countenances were studies in stony disbelief. I could read their eyes: diehard Commie. I realized I could protest and argue from now till doomsday, but it would be to no avail.
I was refused entry and informed that I would be escorted back to Canada that evening. The hearing was over.
I was handcuffed to Mr. Bullfrog, handcuffed! And together we walked back down the muddy hill to the railway station. Passing people looked at me strangely, some even fearfully. As the train arrived in the station, in an unexpected act of thoughtfulness, Mr. Bullfrog said that if I promised to behave myself he would remove the cuffs, saving me embarrassment when we boarded the train. However, as I was escorted to my seat by a uniformed man, who clearly had some sort of official capacity, people eyed me curiously. Mr. Bullfrog took a seat two rows behind me.
When the train crossed the border, he left the train without a look or a word at the first Canadian station. I proceeded to Montreal in the gathering darkness. My mind swirled with confusion, as I began to ruminate on the events of the day.
I had been imprisoned for hours, harassed with endless questionings on the deceptive pretext that if I played ball, I would be allowed to go to New York. This was followed by that sham hearing as to my admissibility with its predetermined outcome, and then the final humiliation: handcuffed like some dangerous criminal, all done to me by a country I liked and admired.
I became livid, to put it mildly. I was boiling with rancor. A wave of contempt rose within me for the hypocrisies of the Yanks. The freest country in the world! Freedom of thought! Freedom of belief! What bullshit! I was condemned for something I had read. I concurred with the sentiments of that anonymous French Canadian, "Baise mon cul, Oncle Sam!" Kiss my royal Canadian asshole, Uncle Sam!
As for our Royal Canadian Mounted Police betraying me, one of their own people, to the Yanks, it was disgraceful. They not only dropped their trousers and bent over, they put Vaseline on their posteriors to make it easier for the Yanks to bone them. I've never forgiven them, even to this day.
"I sat fists clenched and ransacked my mind: was there something else besides the book club? Was I perhaps paying for the misinterpreted beliefs of my parents? My entire family was extremely left wing, a product of what had happened during the 1930s Great Depression, when the unacceptable, ugly face of capitalism truly showed itself: when people were allowed to starve to death and freeze to death, even me — almost! My parents' political and social beliefs had somewhat become my own.
Both my parents had participated in a left-wing theater club, which put on weekly plays in a Bulgarian-Macedonian hall, which had its share of Communist members. The auditorium held about 200 people, and it was always full for performances.
Most of the plays were about the plight of the Bulgarian and Macedonian people, who lived under the oppressive rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for some 500 years. The desire of the people to be free and to overthrow their savage rulers was an underlying theme in many of the plays. More than once, my dad played a rebel soldier who was killed by the Turkish army.
While the left-wing philosophy was ingrained in me from their theater group, the experience also led to my love of theater. It taught me what Bulgarians and Macedonians had endured for centuries, and it showed me how storytelling could be a critical outlet in the desire for freedom and dignity. The fact that it was left wing was secondary to the emotional content.
Because my parents could not afford a babysitter, and I was an only child at the time, they took me to all the rehearsals and performances. My parents, then in their twenties, were the leading actors in the troupe. They rehearsed every Saturday night, leaving me to roam the auditorium and gaze up at them under the stage lights. I would stand at the rear of the auditorium peering over the back of a chair, watching my parents transform into other people and become two strangers. I'm sure it was here that the seeds of my directing career were planted.
All my aunts and uncles were also actors in the plays. I actually made my stage debut at five, playing a village child in The Macedonian Blood Wedding.
Theatre program from the Bulgarian-Macedonian Theatre Group for a play in which my parents starred. Mom sits on the floor, Dad sits behind her.
My father, who knew French, also translated classic plays like Molière's The Doctor in Spite of Himself into Bulgarian for the troupe. For these plays, he would serve as the line prompter. He would stand just offstage and feed the lines to the actors if need be. I remember standing in the wings next to my father being totally captivated by this process. All the performers had exhausting jobs filling their week, leaving them little time to learn their lines properly. So sometimes every line had to be prompted. My father would whisper the line, and then the actor would utter it.
My father's whispering of each line was loud enough that the audience could hear it. My father would say, "Tell him you love him." A second later, the actor would earnestly declare, "I love you."
But when I looked out at the audience, I could see people weeping, oblivious to the process, not letting it disturb their experience. The audience members were completely riveted. I marveled at their desire not to let anything interfere with their involvement with the play. It was a real lesson for me. Drama entails a suspension of disbelief. Their disbelief was so suspended that they never once flinched — despite the fact that every line was being audibly prompted. They were so emotionally engaged in the story that they were able to filter out my father's voice.
My father had one defect as a prompter: he loved humor and would laugh enormously, even at his own jokes, to the extent that he couldn't get out the punch line. Sometimes, like in the Molière play, my father would laugh so hard at its funny bits, tears would pour from his eyes, rendering him unable to see the lines and prompt the performers. The poor actors were stuck frozen, waiting, only able to throw daggers at him.
The one thing I noticed was that all the performers in the play were working-class people, not professional actors. They used the plays as an outlet for their creativity, and for their deeply held political beliefs and frustrations.
The plays were followed by music, a Bulgarian choir and solo performances of tap dancing and even the violin. I did both. At age five, I began playing the violin and became accomplished very quickly, so I often performed for the crowd. The performances were followed by a political speech and a collection of money to support the theater group, as all performances were free and funded through contributions.
The guiding spirit of that theater group was my mother's elder brother, my uncle, Andrew Palmeroff. At the end of the evening's entertainment, Andrew would take the stage and deliver a political speech. He was a fiery orator. He passionately railed about how important the plays were to the psyche and soul of each and every member of the community, which caused them to give more than they intended. I became a champion debater at high school, having picked up many rhetorical tricks from my uncle.
Uncle Andrew worked days as a chef in his restaurant, but the theater group was his true love. He would tape his lines that he had to learn above his culinary workstation. At breakfast once, he was studying his lines and making pancakes at the same time. He reached up on the shelf for the baking powder but someone had put rat poison next to it on that shelf, but he didn't notice that because he was so absorbed in preparing for his role. He dumped a nice shaking of rat poison in the batter, making a patron violently ill.
Politically, he was an extreme left-winger. Aside from running the theater, he also wrote for a Bulgarian-Macedonian newspaper published in Canada called New Times. He had a big influence on me.
Ironically though, I was totally turned off Communism because of Uncle Andrew. His son, Julian, was very gifted athletically, an outstanding player on the Pape Public School hockey team. He was also a champion pole-vaulter. I was very fond of Julian — he was a very lovely and amusing man — but my uncle thought sports were for knuckleheads and oafs, and he wanted a son who was an intellectual, like me, with whom he could talk about Freud and Marx and their ilk. He even told me he wished I were his son.
Excerpted from Director's Cut by Ted Kotcheff, Josh Young. Copyright © 2017 Ted Kotcheff and Josh Young. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Mariska Hargitay
Prologue: Picture This . . .
Chapter 1: How I Was Branded a Communist
Chapter 2: Cabbagetown Kid
Chapter 3: Escape from Cabbagetown
Chapter 4: The Garlic Revenge, the Principled Principal, and the Diehard Rebel
Chapter 5: The Rain It Raineth Every Day
Chapter 6: Disturbingly Human
Chapter 7: Adventures in Live Television
Chapter 8: A Pivotal Moment
Chapter 9: Horses of the Same Color
Chapter 10: London Calling
Chapter 11: Playing Musical Chairs with Rex Harrison
Close Up: James Mason
Close Up: Michelangelo Antonioni
Close Up: Ingrid Bergman
Chapter 12: Coming to America
Chapter 13: Walking with Edna
Chapter 14: Realizing Wake in Fright
Close Up: Gregory Peck
Chapter 15: Duddy and Me
Chapter 16: Oh, Canada
Chapter 17: Directing Is Hard, Comedy Is Harder
Close Up: Peter Sellers
Chapter 18: Frank & Dino
Chapter 19: Gridiron Characters
Close Up: Nick Nolte
Chapter 20: Rambo
Close Up: Sylvester Stallone and Kirk Douglas
Chapter 21: Partying with Bernie Lomax
Chapter 22: Pretending to Be Someone Else
Close Up: Gene Hackman
Chapter 23: Special Victims Unit: No One Can Take the Children
Chapter 24: Make Room for the Music
Chapter 25: It Might Have Been
Chapter 26: Escape to Freedom