IT WAS WITH GREAT SADNESS THAT I LEARNED ABOUT THE NEWS OF WILLIAM (BILL) MARSHALL'S PASSING. He was the Co-Founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), cherished in all of Canada, well loved by his family, and a friend who was admired by me and Roger. I extend condolences to Bill's wife, Sari Ruda, his children: Lee, Stephen and Shelagh; and his six grandchildren. His family released an official announcement that Bill had passed away early Sunday morning (New Year's Day) from cardiac arrest while in a Toronto hospital. He was 77 years old. "In a very real way Bill was in the business of making dreams become reality," the family said in a statement. "Now as the house lights dim, friends and family will remember and honor Bill as a first rate raconteur, famous for his honesty, keen mind and wry humor."
Two decades after he immigrated to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland, in 1955, Bill co-founded the Festival of Festivals along with Dusty Cohl and Henk Van der Kolk in 1976. (Toronto filmmaker Barry Avrich made a short film about them called "The Founders.") Bill was also the organization’s Director during its first three years. It grew from a small intimate event to become one of the most important film festivals in the world. Roger said that the festival worked in the early days because each of the men were passionate about their mission to bring a film festival to Canada, and were great schmoozers who were not shy about using their voluminous contacts to call in favors. Bill was always quick to greet you with a smile.
Below is a picture of Bill standing between Henk and Dusty (wearing his signature cowboy hat), and beneath that is a picture of Bill delivering a speech with Dusty at his side (again, with the cowboy hat).
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and TIFF Chair Emeritus Bill Marshall," said Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF, in a statement. "Without his tenacity and dedication, the Toronto International Film Festival would not be among the most influential public cultural festivals today. We were so fortunate to have Bill serve as one of our greatest champions for forty-one years."
Bill produced 13 feature films, including Richard Benner's 1977 cult comedy, "Outrageous!", along with many documentaries. He was an accomplished writer, journalist, novelist and speech writer to royalty and heads of state. He also produced numerous live theatre productions, including the Toronto production of the hit musical Hair. In addition to his artistic achievements, his family notes that Bill played a significant role in shaping the political landscape of Toronto, where he served as campaign manager and Chief of Staff for three different Toronto mayors. Bill was a trusted advisor to many senior politicians in Canada and the United States, and his legacy continued with his recent support of current Toronto mayor, John Tory. He was a proud Canadian and Member of the Order of Canada, an honor he received for his many contributions to the arts.
As an industry leader, Bill was a driving force behind the establishment of numerous industry organizations, including the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, The Toronto Film and Television Office, and was past President of the Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers.
But there was another aspect of these founders of TIFF that I find absolutely fascinating, and had occasion to speak with Bill about in recent years. Their wives also made contributions to the planning of the festival and I suspect that some of their input helped to make TIFF a warm festival of the people. I am talking about significant contributions. There is Bill's wife Sari Ruda, and Dusty's wife, Joan, who though petite with piercing blue eyes was smart as a whip, and forceful in her opinions. (Joan's first date was with Paul Robeson). Then there is Henk's wife Yanka, a talent with her camera and the ability to charm.
Even some of the others who helped to market or produce or write about the festival had savvy wives who contributed their thoughts and opinions about how the festival could improve. And Bill and Dusty and Henk listened to them. There was John Daniel's wife Myrna who wrote the first check to start the festival and who, with the Daniels Corporation, helped to build the festival's permanent home at the Bell Lightbox. There was the former head of the Toronto Sun and former Entertainment Producer at the CBC, George Anthony who, with his wife Gail, made important contributions. And marketing impresario and director Barry Avrich, who made interstitials for the festival and helped to promote it around the world, along with his wife Melissa.
Even mogul Ivan Fecan, and his mogul wife, producer Sandra Faire, contributed as a couple. And lawyer Ralph Lean with his wife Marcelle, who started a French-themed film festival, were big supporters of TIFF. There were also some of Canada's most acclaimed filmmakers like Atom Egoyan who cast his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, as his muse in his films. And not to forget revered director Norman Jewison, and his late wife, Dixie, and current wife Lynne. Their support of the festival was and is crucial.
I salute Bill and all of these men who had the vision to involve their smart wives in the production of the film festival. And I think that the past and current stewards of the festival, Helga Stephenson, Wayne Clarkson, Piers Handling, Michelle Mahieux, and Cameron Bailey also recognize the subtle influences exerted by this cadre of female film lovers. I was discussing this anomaly with Nicole Henderson, a young litigator from Canada, and asked why she thought this happened in Toronto. She said Canadians, even in that generation, were taught to look for spouses who are equals, not in a snobby way, but for wives who will be, not trophy wives, but partners. Wow. Beautiful.
(This added later: I am getting comments that single women are thinking of going to Toronto after reading this column about respecting the wives. I was going to add that the children of the Founders were also involved in the festivals, but it just seemed too good to be true. It is true. What is in Canada's water!)
Bill, I hope you rest in Movie Heaven.
Below is a picture of Bill at our TIFF/Ebert Tribute to Ava DuVernay, standing in between Myrna and John Daniels.