Canadian author Mordecai Richler let his best friend and roommate Ted Kotcheff read the manuscript of his fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1958. At the time, they were sharing a flat in London, England and the latter proclaimed it to be “the best Canadian novel ever written.” Others felt the same way, too. It was published in 1959 and went on to become one of the most highly regarded examples of Canadian literature. Described as Canada’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye, it chronicles the misadventures of a scrappy young Jewish kid from the streets of Montreal.
Ever since he first read Richler’s manuscript, Kotcheff had wanted to adapt it into a film and finally got the chance in 1974 with a young Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. The actor famously was so disappointed with his own performance that he feared it could potentially end his promising movie career. He had turned down a pivotal role in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and begged to be cast in the film before any negative buzz from Duddy Kravitz could reach the powers that be. The rest is history and Kotcheff’s film not only became the most commercially successful Canadian film at that time, but also features what might arguably be Dreyfuss’ best performance.
The film immediately immerses us in the sights and sounds of 1950s Montreal by showing how the whole neighborhood comes out to see the cadet marching band making its way through the streets. We see kids playing on the street, men talking on the street corner and old women buying produce at the fruit market. Duddy Kravitz (Dreyfuss) slips away from the parade to a local deli where his taxi cab driver father Max (Jack Warden) is holding court, telling an engrossing story. The veteran character actor commands the screen with his animated style of storytelling that harkens back to a time when guys like him would tell colorful tales in bars and delis.
Duddy hangs out with his grandfather (Zvee Scooler) who imparts pearls of wisdom like, “A man without land is nobody.” He’s one of the few adults Duddy respects and the words really make a big impact on the young man. He gets a summer job as a waiter at a Jewish resort hotel in the Laurentian Mountains – a world away from the streets of Montreal – where he uses his hustling skills to make money on the side. He soon finds that there’s a definite pecking order with the waiters, all of whom study at McGill University and look down at the working class kid. This includes the cook who gives the other waiters their orders first. However, Duddy is a fast learner and works harder and earns more money than the others by knowing which wheels to grease.
Duddy is full of quick rich schemes, from filming bar mitzvahs to selling pinball machines. He’s got street smarts, which rubs his uncle Benjy (Joseph Wiseman) the wrong way and lets his nephew know it: “You’re a born pusher, a little Jew boy on the make and guys like you make me feel sick and ashamed.” This provokes Duddy to say, “Oh, you lousy, intelligent people! You liars! Your books and your socialism and your sneers, you can be one more pain in the ass, you know that?” It’s the summer resort all over again with the educated university students laughing at Duddy. He feels the same sense of superiority from his uncle. It is a wonderfully delivered speech from Dreyfuss as the scene underlines one of the film’s central themes – street smarts vs. intellectualism.
Richard Dreyfuss’ Duddy is a whirlwind of energy and the actor instills the character with a vitality that is exciting to watch. It’s hard not to get caught up in his dreams of making money even if they turn out to be schemes more than anything else. The actor conveys a confidence and bravado that often comes from being young with nothing to lose and this ideally suited a character like Duddy. Dreyfuss isn’t afraid to show the lows that come with the euphoric highs, like how Duddy vomits after losing all his money in a roulette game.
Duddy Kravitz makes a point of showing the distinction between classes, most significantly Duddy’s working class neighborhood vs. the rich, snobby university students that work at the resort. He resents this and, as a result, always has something to prove. Father figures also play a prominent role in the film as Duddy’s dad hardly gives his son the time of day and so the young man looks to people like his grandfather or an alcoholic blacklisted film director (a hilariously bitter Denholm Elliott) for approval and wisdom, which makes him something of a tragic figure as the impetus for what he does comes out of trying to impress his father.
Ted Kotcheff was born and raised in Toronto and wanted to be a film director but ended up working for the CBC in the mid-1950s directing live television dramas. There was no film industry in Canada at the time and so he moved to London, England to learn about making movies. It was there that he met, became friends with and roomed with writer Mordecai Richler in 1958. At the time, the author was writing The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and when he was finished, let Kotcheff read it. The director told Richler, “This is the best Canadian novel ever written. Someday I am going to go back to Canada and film it.”
For years, Kotcheff tried to get Duddy Kravitz made but potential producers feared that the subject matter might be misconstrued as being anti-Semitic, much like the accusations leveled at Richler when his novel was published. One American producer – Samuel Z. Arkoff – wanted to change Duddy Kravitz to a Greek character. Finally, the Canadian Film Development Corp., which was government financed, agreed to help back it and National Film Board of Canada veteran John Kemeny agreed to produce it. However, the existing screenplay needed work and Richler came in to rewrite it in six weeks. Kotcheff was able to make the film on a thrifty $900,000 budget.
The filmmaker had no problem finding the supporting cast but found choosing the right actor to play the titular character a challenge because he would have to make the audience care for a guy that does awful things over the course of the film. Time was running out when a friend of Kotcheff’s, casting agent Lynn Stalmaster, recommended a young actor by the name of Richard Dreyfuss, fresh from appear in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Kotcheff remembered, “As soon as he opened his mouth it was electrifying. Richard had everything: the core of Duddy’s drive and obsession.” The actor recalled, “As soon as I read the script, I realized I was holding in my hands the greatest part ever offered to a young actor.” Dreyfuss had never heard of the book and “got on a train, read the book and spent the rest of the time on the train writing ‘Add this, add this, add this’ because the novel was so rich.”
At the time, Dreyfuss had repeated turned down a role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Jaws but had a change of heart when he saw himself in Duddy Kravitz. He thought that his performance was so bad that he would never work in film again. “I thought it was a wonderful movie but I didn’t like my performance because I had no experience in watching me for that amount of time. I saw all the things I didn’t do. I didn’t see it as story-telling.” He begged Spielberg to cast him in Jaws.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was a box office hit in both Canada and the United States. It was also named Canada’s Best Film of 1974, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award for its script. Pauline Kael said of Dreyfuss’ performance: “No matter how phenomenal Richard Dreyfuss is in other roles, it’s not likely that he’ll ever top his performance in this teeming, energetic Canadian film.” Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “It’s a little too sloppy, and occasionally too obvious, to qualify as a great film, but it’s a good and entertaining one, and it leaves us thinking that Duddy Kravitz might amount to something after all, should he ever grow up.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby found it an “alternately sad and hilarious movie of dreams rampant.”
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is about a selfish opportunist, a young man desperate to make money and realize his dreams any way he can and along the way he ends up hurting those close to him, either emotionally or, indirectly, physically. Dreyfuss delivers a fearless performance in a breakout role. In the end, Duddy achieves his goal but at a terrible cost and it seems like a hollow victory at best. The film is a coming-of-age tale with Duddy learning some harsh lessons about life.
Howell, Peter. “Ted Kotcheff Finally Brings The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to Cannes.” Toronto Star. May 22, 2013.
Johnson, Brian D. “Richard Dreyfuss Owes Jaws to Duddy Kravitz.” Macleans. May 22, 2013.
Knelman, Martin. “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz Gets New Life.” Toronto Star. February 16, 2013.
Lacey, Liam. “Dreyfuss on Duddy: ‘Roles like that don’t come along very often.’” The Globe and Mail. May 22, 2013.