Director Norman Jewison tells tales of ‘Fiddler on the Roof'

Director/producer Norman Jewison appeared at the final screening of the Malibu Film Society’s season on Saturday to talk about his work on “Fiddler on the Roof.” Photo by Jimy Tallal

Malibu Film Society ends season with appearance by producer/director Norman Jewison and a showing of his Academy Award-winning film “Fiddler on the Roof.”

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

Last Saturday, the Malibu Film Society ended its inaugural season with a sold-out event Saturday evening at the Malibu Screening Room, during which producer/director Norman Jewison gave his personal account of the making of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was released in 1971, nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three.

The work originally appeared as a successful Broadway musical starring Zero Mostel. Jewison recounted that after being approached to produce and direct the film version, during his first meeting with the producers, all of whom were Jewish, he felt he had to be honest and tell them that despite the last name Jewison, which means “son of a Jew,” he wasn't Jewish. “I'm a goy [Yiddish for non-Jew]!” he said, laughing. He said “their mouths dropped open,” but they hired him anyway.

One of the first challenges in making the film, the director said, was casting the lead role. Jewison was afraid that Mostel, like many other experienced stage actors, would overact on the screen. He felt the exaggerated facial expressions appropriate for live theater audiences didn't translate well to close-ups on the big screen. Instead, Jewison chose the actor Chaim Topol, who was playing the role of Tevye in London and was little-known outside of his native Israel. Jewison also wanted to find actors with knowledge of the old eastern European way of life portrayed in “Fiddler,” and Topol fit the requirement perfectly. He was a first generation Israeli immigrant of parents with eastern European origins.

The next problem to solve was choosing an actual eastern European village where the film could be made on location. Jewison needed to find one that hadn't changed much since 1900, and that contained a synagogue, houses, small farms and small shops. Although the story actually takes place in Russia, filming in the actual Communist U.S.S.R. was out of the question in 1971. Jewison found the perfect village in Romania, but was unable to obtain the necessary production insurance to make the movie there. He finally settled on a small town in what was then Yugoslavia.

When “Fiddler” premiered in Israel, Jewison was seated next to Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel. He said she was a tough woman, but during a sad part of the movie, he saw her wipe away a single tear. When the movie premiered in Great Britain, the queen was unable to come for political reasons, but another member of the royal family did attend.

Jewison, 83, is a native of Toronto and divides his time between Canada and Malibu. He has received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and/or Best Picture for “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Moonstruck,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming,” and “A Soldier's Story.” The musical scenes in “Fiddler” revolutionized the way musicals were done in movies. Jewison was the first to film singers moving and dancing through various scenes and settings while performing various tasks and interacting with other singers. The singers and dancers weren't just staying in one spot or on one set to perform the way they would have on a stage.

Some of the biggest events from the Malibu Film Society's first season included a personal appearance by director James Cameron to present his film “Terminator” in memory of special effects wizard and collaborator Stan Winston. The organization also featured Malibu's only public screenings of this year's top Academy Award-winning feature films (“The Hurt Locker” and “The Cove”), and had a sold-out pre-holiday crowd for a silent Mary Pickford film with original score performed live by Maria Newman, Scott Hosfeld and a small chamber orchestra.

To thank the community and the City of Malibu for its support, MFS will be hosting a free outdoor movie event on May 15 at 7 p.m. at the Malibu Lumber Yard. Actor Louis Gossett, Jr. will be signing copies of his new book “An Actor and a Gentleman,” prior to introducing the showing of his Academy Award winning film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

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