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Charles Foran: The legacy of Mordecai Richler’s screenwriting career

Mordecai Richler

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a tribute to Mordecai Richler. As part of its Richler On-Screen programming, the festival, which runs from May 4–14, will present 15 events, including film and television adaptations of the late Montreal author’s works, and several documentaries dedicated to his enduring literary legacy.

On May 13, at 1 p.m. at Innis Town Hall, the festival will show the 2010 documentary Mordecai Richler: The Last Of The Wild Jews. The film – which positions Richler as part of a generation of culturally influential Jewish intellectuals, along with Saul Bellow, Irving Layton, and Lenny Bruce – was directed by Francine Pelletier and written by Charles Foran, author of the award-winning biography Mordecai: The Life & Times (Knopf Canada). Pelletier will be present at the screening, along with Louise Dennys, executive publisher of the Knopf Random House Canada Publishing Group, and entertainment lawyer Michael Levine.

Foran spoke to Quill & Quire about Richler’s life as a screenwriter, and two another films at the festival, Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia Is Good For You. Richler co-wrote the two 1957 comedy shorts with Peter Sellers, who also starred in the films. Both films were thought lost until they were discovered in 1996, abandoned in a London Dumpster outside Park Lane Films.

Did you watch these films as part of your research for Mordecai?
I watched all the films – all the ones that were then known – except the little Sellers ones, which weren’t then found. I wrote about it obliquely in the book because I was basing it on Florence Richler’s memory of Mordecai being hired to sit in a room with other joke writers, like they did in the ’50s and ’60s. She remembered they made a few short things he was involved with.

What drew you to this period in Richler’s career?

I was fascinated by this period between 1955 and 1965, because CBC had started just a couple of years before BBC, and all these Canadian kids were going over to London and being hailed as veterans and masters of this new art form of TV, and TV drama in particular. Twenty-somethings like Richler and Ted Kotcheff, all these young guys were going over to London and getting well-paid jobs directing and writing live dramas because the Brits had no idea how to do it – frankly, the Canadians didn’t really either, but they had a little bit of a head start. There were huge opportunities. Someone like Richler could get paid a lot for a 45-minute BBC show, multiple times what he could get publishing a novel. I think the year he published The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, in 1958, he got £450 for it or something, and at the same time was getting around a thousand per script.

Was this a short-lived era?

It settled down, but it was pre-professionalization of the writing industry. There was no notion that you had to be a TV writer or a book writer, just a writer and someone would say, “Just write me a script.” One of the films the festival is showing is an episode of The Play’s The Thing calledThe Bells of Hell,” written by Richler. It was this amazing thing, in the early 1970s where the CBC just went out and asked all the leading Canadian writers, from Alice Munro to Richler to Atwood, to write an hour drama. They were all funded and these people had often no qualifications, but there was this openness to it. There wasn’t this notion of professional TV writers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.