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Harry Rasky

Director, Producer, Screenwriter
(b. May 9, 1928 Toronto, Ontario)

“Documentary implies a studied dullness,” Harry Rasky has said. “My biographies, with their dramatizations and illustrations of the subject’s work, are entertainments. It’s a unique form of entertainment… I have tried to find the positive forces in life and out of them create works of art of a lasting nature with the idea of improving the lives of others.”

An outspoken, ambitious, idealistic and philosophical hustler – as much a romantic poet as a filmmaker – Harry Rasky is one of world cinema’s most prolific and internationally acclaimed documentary filmmakers. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he has made more than forty documentaries, among them many penetrating biographies of leading artists, performers and writers, including Tennessee Williams, Stephen Leacock, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Miller and Leonard Cohen. His films, which have come to be known as “Raskymentaries,” are typically spiritually uplifting and positive in tone, and often combine documentary and fiction elements. They provide a fascinating look at the particular forces that create artistic genius and serve as seminal studies in the art of biographical filmmaking.

The son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, Rasky grew up with seven siblings in Toronto’s midtown St. Clair neighbourhood, where the disparity between his lively, intense Jewish upbringing and the staid WASP environment engendered a tenacious and audacious streetwise attitude. He began his career as a journalist for the Northern Daily News in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, moved back to Toronto and joined CHUM radio as a news writer, then worked for CKEY as a ghost writer for Lorne Greene’s commentaries. He worked as a producer with CBC from 1952 to 1955, when he moved to New York City to direct public affairs programmes for the CBC, CBS, NBC and ABC. New York served as his home base until 1972 when he returned to Toronto. 

He has developed a deliberate style based largely on his disdain for television programming, which he feels has “degenerated down to a comic strip level. The comic strips of the newspapers have become the mass literature of America.” His films are a precursor to those of Errol Morris in their focus on fantastically eccentric individuals and events.

Rasky has won more than two hundred international prizes, including several Peabody Awards, six Emmy nominations and two Oscar® nominations. In 1982, he received an honourary doctorate from the University of Toronto and in 1992 was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA). Hall of Kings, his documentary on Westminster Abbey made for ABC-TV, won an Emmy Award in 1967. Upon This Rock, a drama about the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome starring Orson Welles and Sir Ralph Richardson, won the Venice Film Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. His 1975 docudrama Next Year in Jerusalem won an ACTRA award for best documentary. His most acclaimed film, Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love (1977), about the contemporary Russian painter Marc Chagall, was the first made-for-TV documentary to receive wide theatrical release; it nabbed a Director’s Guild of America Award and an Academy Award® nomination. Nobody Swings on Sunday, his coming-of-age memoir, was published in 1980.

Film and video work includes

The Life of Churchill, News Magazine series, 1954 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Day Called X, 1957 (director; co-writer with Lester Cooper; producer; TV)
A Child is to Love, Twentieth Century series, 1960 (director; writer; TV)
Panama: Danger Zone, 1961 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Lion and the Cross, Twentieth Century series, 1962 (director; writer; TV)
The Nobel Prize, 1963 (director; writer; producer; TV)
A Tour of Washington with Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, 1963 (director; TV)
Cuba and Castro Today, 1964 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Thorn of Plenty, 1964 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Operation Sea War: Vietnam, 1966 (director; producer; TV)
Hall of Kings, 1967 (director; writer; producer; TV)
I Remember Illinois, 1967 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Legend of Silent Night, 1968 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Upon This Rock, a.k.a. Return to Lochaver, 1970 (director; writer; producer)
Zoos of the World: A National Geographic Special, 1971 (director; TV)
The Wit and World of George Bernard Shaw, 1972 (director; writer; producer)
Tennessee Williams' South, 1973 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Baryshnikov, 1974 (co-director; writer; producer; TV)
Next Year in Jerusalem, 1974 (director; writer; producer; researcher; TV)
Travels Through Life With Leacock, 1975 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Homage to Chagall: The Colours of Love, a.k.a. The Colours of Love, 1977 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Peking Man Mystery, 1977 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Lessons of History - Will and Ariel Durant, a.k.a. The Canadian Connection: The Lessons of History, 1978 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Arthur Miller on Home Ground, 1979 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Song of Leonard Cohen, 1980 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Being Different, 1981 (director; writer; producer; lyrics)
The Spies Who Never Were, 1981 (director; writer; producer; TV)
Raymond Massey: Actor of the Century, 1983 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The Mystery of Henry Moore, 1985 (director; writer; producer; narrator; TV)
Karsh: The Searching Eye, 1986 (director; writer; producer; himself/narrator)
To Mend the World, 1987 (director; TV)
Degas, 1988 (director; writer; producer; narrator; TV)
The Great Teacher: Northrop Frye, 1989 (director; writer; producer; narrator)
The Magic Season of Robertson Davies, 1990 (director; writer; producer; TV)
The War Against the Indians, 1992 (director; writer; producer; narrator)
A&E Biography: Eleanor - A Restless Spirit, 1994 (director; producer; TV)
Christopher Plummer: King of Players, 1997 (director; producer; writer; TV)
William Hutt: A Most Fortunate Man, 1997 (director; producer; TV)