A Book Review by Irv Slifkin.
Who would have figured the Canadian director of such diverse films as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), North Dallas Forty (1979), and First Blood (1982) would be such an engaging raconteur? But here he is, at age 86, recounting great stories about the making of his films, the people he’s met and the struggles he’s faced during his 50-plus years in the film and TV business in his autobiography Director’s Cut: My Life on Film, co-written by Josh Young (ECW Press, 2017).
The son of Bulgarian immigrants who settled in Toronto, Kotcheff cut his teeth fresh out of college with live TV dramas for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and later in England for the popular “Armchair Theatre” and other small screen dramas. His first feature was 1959’s Tiara Tahiti with James Mason and John Mills, followed by 1965’s Life at the Top, starring Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons, a sequel to the acclaimed 1959 British “Kitchen Sink” drama Room at the Top.
Kotcheff moved onto Australia where in 1971, he helmed the recently resurrected Wake in Fright. a gritty survey of a schoolteacher’s unsettling experiences among a group of outcasts in a small outback town. A one-time London roommate of novelist Mordecai Richler, Kotcheff’s big break actually came when bringing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler’s story of a scheming young Jewish opportunist in Montreal, to the screen. The low-budget film, nominated for an Oscar for Richler’s screenplay adaptation, was a critical and box-office hit and helped boost star Richard Dreyfuss’s career as well.
Kotcheff writes lovingly of his friend Richler, but also points out that the novelist had a penchant for being anti-social at times. “His ease in moving from genuine suffering to absurdist comedy was rare,” writes Kotcheff. “Under that corrugated surface of his lay a very, very, very deep feeling man.” He then goes on to explain Richler’s eccentric way of writing and dogged work ethic.
Kotcheff’s tales are often funny, but other times showcase the drama that goes on behind the scenes. His reportage of the shooting of the much-admired 1979 football saga North Dallas Forty is especially punchy. Nick Nolte, the film’s star, seemed to have a steady line of female admirers throughout the production whom he entertained in his trailer. The rugged performer also took “The Method” a little too far, by insisting on wearing skid-marked underwear for a locker-room scene. After an impasse between director and star, a compromise was negotiated.
Kotcheff called the shots on Sylvester’s Stallone’s first appearance as “John Rambo” in 1982’s First Blood, a serious survey of a troubled Vietnam veteran in the Midwest. Kirk Douglas was originally cast as Col. Trautman, Rambo’s former commanding officer. As Kotcheff writes it, Douglas, who spoke of himself in the third person, had issues with the way the role was written and essentially wanted to control the entire enterprise. This led Kotcheff to fire the Hollywood icon and replace him during the early part of the shoot with Richard Crenna, who stepped in with no preparation. Kotcheff also tells how film’s original downbeat ending was scoffed at during test screenings. If it wasn’t changed, there would have likely none of the sequels or the reboot – for better or worse.
For the most part, Kotcheff, has nice things to say about the people he’s worked with during his years as a filmmaker and 12-year stint as executive producer on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He notes he’s particularly fond of George Segal’s gift for light comedy – they made a TV movie of Of Mice and Men (1968), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), and Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978) together; the pure acting ability and pinpoint concentration of Gene Hackman, the lead in Kotcheff’s gung-ho back-to-Vietnam adventure Uncommon Valor (1983); and the “Wonder Woman”-like qualities of CSI star Mariska Hargitay.
But Kotcheff is also refreshingly honest his failures, especially his version of the classic newspaper farce The Front Page, a misguided 1988 reboot reimagined in a TV newsroom starring Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner, and Christopher Reeve. Reynolds stepped in for Michael Caine at the last minute. Kotcheff admits to making an “uneven” effort and hints that Reynolds and Turner sparred throughout production.
The director also reminds us a few times in Director’s Cut that Billy Wilder – who did his own version of The Front Page in 1974 with Lemmon and Matthau – is his idol. Kotcheff’s story about meeting Wilder in Paris, having dinner with the great writer-director in a posh restaurant and hearing a story involving a potential Wilder-directed project about the dancer Nijinsky is hilarious. Coming from Ted Kotcheff, the guy who gave us “John Rambo,” this may seem peculiar, but after reading “Director’s Cut,” it makes sense.
Irv Slifkin teaches film and communications at Temple University in Philadelphia and Rowan University in New Jersey, USA. He is currently producing a documentary on cult films.