This isn’t the greatest movie director memoir I’ve ever read, but it is a vital one. Why? Because its author, the 85 year old Ted Kotcheff, has had an amazingly varied and eventful career, with a filmography that includes the bleak Australian thriller WAKE IN FRIGHT, the Canadian dramedy THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ and the Hollyweird products FUN WITH DICK AND JANE, FIRST BLOOD and WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S. Kotcheff also presided over one of the most infamous live TV dramas of all time, 1958’s UNDERGROUND, during the taping of which its co-star Gareth Jones died, and was a producer of NBC’s LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.
As you might expect, Kotcheff provides a fair amount of info about his formative years in depression-era Toronto. There he contended with poverty and physical abuse, finding relief through writing poetry, several examples of which are included here. He also claims to have been quite sexually precocious as a child, in passages that will doubtless earn this book some controversy.
Kotcheff’s start in the industry came through working in the Canadian Broadcasting Company, a job he took because it sounded “far more engaging than making car seats and much easier to stomach than working in an abattoir.” Canadian television was in its infancy at the time, and Kotcheff, at 24, became the youngest director in the CBC.
That was a talent he took with him to England, where he presided over the chaotic production of the aforementioned UNDERGROUND. Working in Hollywood was impossible due to an incident, related in this book’s first chapter, in which Kotcheff was falsely branded a communist by the U.S. Justice Department at age 22—the reason he travelled to Australia, the only other English speaking country with a viable film industry, to make WAKE IN FRIGHT (which IMO remains his masterpiece).
Kotcheff did eventually get to work in the U.S. after scoring an international success with DUDDY KRAVITZ in 1974, which led to FUN WITH DICK AND JANE and the Nick Nolte football drama NORTH DALLAS FORTY. Next came WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE? and FIRST BLOOD, the chapter on which lavishes enormous praise on its star and co-screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, followed by UNCOMMON VALOR, WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S and LAW AND ORDER SVU. Left undiscussed are 1982’s SPLIT IMAGE (not a bad movie, FYI), 1985’s JOSHUA THEN AND NOW, 1992’s FOLKS! and the 1995 Dolph Lundgren vehicle HIDDEN ASSASSIN.
Many juicy anecdotes are included in Kotcheff’s recollections, such as his misadventures in the Australian outback during the production of WAKE IN FRIGHT and the claim that Kathleen Turner was difficult (not hard to believe!) on the set of Kotcheff’s failed 1988 comedy SWITCHING CHANNELS. For the most part, however, Kotcheff is quite generous toward his collaborators—even the legendarily irascible Gene Hackman is praised—making for a pleasant read by an evidently pleasant man.