Harry Gulkin R.I.P.

Written by  //  July 23, 2018  //  Absent Friends  //  No comments

Brownstein: ‘Lived many lives’, Montreal filmmaker Harry Gulkin has died
Best known for Lies My Father Told Me and Jacob Two-Two, Gulkin was also revealed to be Sarah Polley’s father in 2012 doc

No one will dispute this: Harry Gulkin lived a life, and then some.
(November 14, 1927–July 23, 2018)

“Actually, he lived many lives,” Cathy Gulkin noted in assessing the life of her father.

Legendary Montreal filmmaker Harry Gulkin died Monday morning at the age of 90, following a brief bout with pneumonia. Gulkin, an Albert Einstein doppelgänger with a flowing mass of white curls and an ever-present impish grin, was an unforgettable character.

His loss is a major blow to the anglo cultural scene, coming quickly on the heels of the death of producer/writer Kevin Tierney two months back. Like Tierney, Gulkin was a bridge-builder, respected as much among francos as anglos.

Although he served as president and chair of the Canadian Film Institute and vice-president of the Cinémathèque québécoise, Gulkin was probably best known for producing the iconic Montreal-made film Lies My Father Told Me (1975), based on the Ted Allan novella. Focusing on the heartwarming bond between a seven-year-old boy and his eccentric grandfather, the film was hailed as a Canadian classic. It won six Canadian Film Awards (now Genies) and is the only Canadian production to win the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.

Gulkin also produced the Montreal-set films Two Solitudes (1978), an adaptation of Hugh MacLennan’s bestselling novel, and Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), an adaptation of the famed Mordecai Richler children’s fantasy.

In 2008, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television presented Gulkin a special Genie Award as “a person of outstanding vision and merit, who has built through his love of film a stronger and more vibrant film community.”

Apart from his son, Jim, and daughter Cathy, Gulkin was also the father of Canadian filmmaker/actress Sarah Polley — as was revealed in the latter’s 2012 documentary, Stories We Tell.

But Gulkin’s film accomplishments were just the tip of the iceberg. He was an original. He was a character Ernest Hemingway could have concocted for a novel.

Born in 1927, Gulkin grew up on the Main, a “red-diaper baby,” the son of Russian immigrants who had been actively involved in the Russian Revolution. At 16, he dropped out of Baron Byng High School to join the Merchant Marines and spent part of the Second World War dodging bullets, bombs and torpedoes.

Following his war service, he returned to Montreal, where he became a union activist and correspondent for the communist weekly the Canadian Tribune. He was to abandon communism in 1956 after becoming aware of the horrific excesses of the Joseph Stalin regime in the Soviet Union. He then made quite the dramatic career turnaround, going from communism to commerce and becoming a marketing exec at the now-defunct Steinberg’s supermarket chain.

Gulkin veered from commerce to culture in the early 1970s. His mission was simple: to adapt some of the country’s greatest fiction for the screen — preferably works based in Montreal. Hence Lies My Father Told Me, Two Solitudes and Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. In Newfoundland, he produced Bayo (1985), based on the Chipman Hall novel Lightly.

After leaving film production, Gulkin went on to head the Saidye Bronfman Centre (now the Segal Centre). He would later work as an analyst at Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), the Quebec film-funding agency where he helped spearhead such seminal Québécois offerings as Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal and Les Invasions barbares.

The National Film Board of Canada produced the 2004 documentary on his life, Harry Gulkin: Red Dawn on Main Street, which covered some of his more colourful and memorable moments.

“The many sides of my life may seem contradictory,” Gulkin told me during a visit two years back. “I may have raised my voice when I was a union activist, but I was never an angry man. One can have radical ideas and still be quite the romantic. But I can see how the many turns that my life has taken might surprise people, especially those who were unaware.”

In looking back at his life, Gulkin acknowledged that while his film work generated great highs, it was also fraught with some frightening lows. He was specifically referring to the late-1980s film project, The Incredible Mrs. Chadwick, that never got off the ground. A tale of a quirky con woman, slated to star Shirley MacLaine, the film had to be shut down due to financial problems and a blood clot that migrated to Gulkin’s brain and nearly killed him.

“I’ve had some great times in my life,” Gulkin said. “In retrospect, the best times I had go back to my early years, when I was a union organizer and I was sailing the seas. Those were fulfilled moments. I had that level of conviction and belief that you could never have again, that you could only have when you’re very young, when you believe you’re a romantic figure doing the right thing for yourself and for society.”

There will be a private family funeral and a public memorial to be announced shortly.

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