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Norman Jewison, director of 'Moonstruck,' 'Fiddler on the Roof,' dies at 97

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Today, we remember filmmaker Norman Jewison, who has died at the age of 97. His name appeared as director in the credits for hit movies across decades. And three times, he was nominated for best director.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of his best-known films had a connection to his life experience. Jewison was a native of Toronto. And at age 18, in the 1940s, he visited Memphis, Tenn., and got a lesson in the segregation of that time. As he once told NPR, he got on a bus on a hot day and headed for the back, taking a seat by an open window.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NORMAN JEWISON: The bus driver looked at me. He says, can't you read the sign? And there was a little sign made of tin, swinging off a wire in the center of the bus. And it said, colored people to the rear.

MARTÍNEZ: Jewison was white. He said he was embarrassed, didn't know what to do, so he got off the bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEWISON: This was my first experience with racial prejudice, and it really stuck with me.

INSKEEP: Experiences like that helped to lay the groundwork for the movie "In The Heat Of The Night," a story of a white sheriff and a Black cop in the segregated South, which came out at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

ROD STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Colored can't earn that kind of money, boy. Hell, that's more than I make in a month. Now, where did you earn it?

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Det. Virgil Tibbs) Philadelphia.

STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Mississippi?

POITIER: (As Det. Virgil Tibbs) Pennsylvania.

STEIGER: (As Chief Bill Gillespie) Just what you do up there in little, old Pennsylvania to earn that kind of money?

POITIER: (As Det. Virgil Tibbs) I'm a police officer.

MARTÍNEZ: The movie went on to win five Oscars, including best picture. And one of Jewison's biggest commercial successes. Then came in 1971 with "Fiddler On The Roof," a story of romance clashing with traditional values when a Russian Jewish father is faced with the challenge of marrying off three of his daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

TOPOL: (As Tevye, singing) Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play?

INSKEEP: (Singing) Tradition.

Now, before agreeing to direct that movie, Mr. Jewison had to clear up confusion about his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEWISON: I thought, oh, my God, they think I'm Jewish. What am I going to do? And I guess I have to tell them.

MARTÍNEZ: Jewison's movies spanned several genres, including drama, musical and romantic comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONSTRUCK")

CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) Last night never happened, and I'm going to marry him. And you and I are going to take this to our coffins.

NICOLAS CAGE: (As Ronny Cammareri) I can't do that.

CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) Why not?

CAGE: (As Ronny Cammareri) I'm in love with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPS)

CHER: (As Loretta Castorini) Snap out of it.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: "Moonstruck" in 1987 was a box office hit, as well as a slap, apparently, and earned Cher an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman who falls in love with her fiance's brother, played by Nicolas Cage.

MARTÍNEZ: I even felt that slap.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: The Directors Guild of America called Jewison a hero and a warrior for defending the creative rights of fellow directors and tackling racism and injustice in his own work. Jewison died Saturday.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) May all your futures be pleasant ones, not like our present ones. Drink l'chaim, to life, to life. L'chaim. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.