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Film legend Harry Gulkin remembered as a true original

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Harry Gulkin (YouTube screencap)

Members of Canada’s film and television industries, as well as many others who were touched by film producer Harry Gulkin, gathered at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montreal on Aug. 5, to toast the charming master of self-reinvention, who died at age 90 on July 23.

Gulkin had a mischievous wit, was a natural raconteur and remained unpretentious and idealistic, despite his success, say his friends and colleagues. As was fitting, this was more of a celebratory send-off than a memorial. It was a recognition of his pioneering contribution to the Canadian film industry – both English and French.

Gulkin, who’s best known for producing the Oscar-nominated 1975 film, Lies My Father Told Me, was the executive and artistic director of the Segal’s predecessor, the Saidye Bronfman Centre (SBC), from 1983 to 1987.

Administering a cultural institution was a new phase for Gulkin, who had enough with making movies and decided to make an unusual mid-life career move.

Despite its low budget, Lies My Father Told Me enjoyed unlikely international acclaim, becoming the first Canadian entry to win a Golden Globe for best foreign film and winning a raft of Canadian awards. It was based on a Ted Allan story about the tender relationship between a Jewish boy and his kindly and devout grandfather, a scrap dealer, set in Montreal during the Great Depression.

As Montreal Gazette columnist and biographer Bill Brownstein said, “Creating films about Canadian stories that should be told was a sure way to (professional) suicide at the time.” But that did not stop Gulkin.

The son of Russian immigrants who were ardent communists, Gulkin wholeheartedly embraced the ideology in his younger years.

He dropped out of Baron Byng High School at 15 and lied about his age, in order to join the merchant navy during the war.

Afterward, he became a radical organizer for the seamen’s union and worked for a Canadian communist publication. But when Stalin’s atrocities were exposed in the mid-1950s, he abandoned the communist cause and settled into a conventional life.

His son, Jim Gulkin, who MCed the commemoration, said the family lived in suburban Châteauguay. Despite not finishing high school, Gulkin did well as a corporate executive at Steinberg’s supermarket chain and later taught marketing at Concordia University.

Jim Gulkin owns a successful seafood business in Thailand, while his sister, Cathy Gulkin, who lives in Toronto, is a Gemini Award-winning film editor. Her father was ahead of his time in the 1960s, when he encouraged her to pursue a field that was dominated by males at the time.

Jim Gulkin remembers his dad as extremely gregarious, “a real people person,” who struck up conversations with anyone.

“It was not superficial, he really was interested in people and what made them tick,” Jim Gulkin said.

In her 2012 documentary, actor/director Sarah Polley, now 39, revealed that the elder Gulkin was her biological father.

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After Lies My Father Told Me, Gulkin produced movie versions of other beloved Canadian tales, such as Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes and Mordecai Richler’s Jacob Two-Two. His final film was 1985’s Bayo, a Newfoundland yarn that appealed to Gulkin’s lifelong love of being on the water.

He attempted to make a movie with more commercial potential starring Shirley MacLaine, but “it almost killed him,” said Brownstein.

Harry Gulkin (Courtesy of the Gulkin family)

Although his tenure at the SBC was relatively brief, Gulkin’s “vision was bold and ambitious, not least in that he attempted to reconcile the ambiguity over whether the Saidye served the Jewish or wider community,” according to the 2010 book Spirited Commitment, which was commissioned by the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation. Under his watch, the SBC embarked on an ambitious physical and programmatic expansion.

Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre veteran Edit Kuper recalled that Gulkin saw to it that Wasserman, who founded the resident troupe in 1958, “finally received at least a modicum of a salary and respect as an artist.”

In 1984, the troupe staged a Yiddish version of Lies My Father Told Me.

Gulkin was a committed atheist, but he loved to preside over a secular seder each Passover, writer and lifelong friend Josh Freed said. He would lead songs from his communist Young Pioneers days, anti-war folk songs and sometimes salty sea ditties.

After the SBC, Gulkin became a project manager at Quebec’s film funding agency, known today as SODEC, where for the next 20 years he mentored young filmmakers. He is credited with having a significant influence on the development of Quebec cinema.

Gulkin was praised for his generosity and building bridges between the francophone and anglophone cultural communities.

In 2008, Gulkin received a Genie Award for his contribution to film in this country.

Among those reminiscing about him were veteran producer Roger Frappier, Festival du Nouveau Cinéma founder Claude Chamberland, producers Marcia Couelle, Suzanne Hénault and Richard Elson, and SODEC director-general Johanne Larue.

As Elisabeth Gimber, who first met Gulkin when she was 23, more than 30 years ago, said: “Harry taught me it’s OK to zig and zag, to take chances and make mistakes. What’s important is to be true to yourself.”