In conversation with Alvin Rakoff

Alvin Rakoff has led a life any cinephile can admire. The multi-award winning director of over 100 films has been internationally recognized for his contributions in television, theatre, and film working with names like Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Alan Rickman, Laurence Olivier, and Michael Cane, to name a few. 

Born in 1927, Rakoff grew up on Baldwin Street in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He witnessed and experienced a vastly different market from the one we know today, and over the course of his career has seen a rapidly changing entertainment industry. After attending the University of Toronto, he worked as a journalist, then as a writer for the CBC before they sent him to the BBC in London, England to gain some more experience in the field. Within four days of his arrival he sold a short television script about Algonquin Park for a children’s program, which opened a door for him to delve deeper into television and film. He’s lived in England ever since. 

In 2007 Rakoff wrote a book called Baldwin Street, which describes his childhood in the neighbourhood. To learn more about him, Niv sat down with Rakoff to discuss his life in Toronto and the greatest accomplishments of his career. 

Where did your family immigrate from? 

Unlike many Jews at the time, my parents did not know each other in Europe. They’re Russian immigrants and they immigrated for various reasons. My father left when he was 16 and my mother left when she was 21 and they met in Toronto at a Russian Jewish party. They obviously found they had some things in common and the rest is history. They had seven children of which I’m the third. 

What was it like growing up in Kensington Market while being part of such a large family? 

I wrote Baldwin Street to answer that because it is such a difficult question and it is such a unique place to grow up in, that I can certainly say. Looking back on it, it was amazing in so many ways but it’s very difficult to describe. The great thing about it was the security you felt being surrounded by other Jewish people, storekeepers, and families going through the same troubles as you, which were how to survive and make a living. I was grateful for the comradery. But you don’t want to romanticize it too much. It was a terrific place to grow up and it was a terrible place to grow up. There’s a danger of romanticizing it. What people need reminding of, and certainly I need reminding of, is that rats were a constant problem, bed bugs, cockroaches, tuberculosis . . . all those terrible things that exist in poverty stricken areas existed on Baldwin Street. February was a terrible month for Baldwin Street as extremely few people had a car back then. Days would go by, even weeks, without a customer visiting the street. We would make no income whatsoever and that’s a very difficult memory. Hygiene was also not a great thing. My mother spent every Friday night washing the kitchen linoleum on the floor with soap and water then putting newspaper on it so we wouldn’t get it dirty by schlepping snow and dirt from the outside. 

How did Baldwin Street help inform your Jewish identity growing up? 

Well it completely informed my Jewish identity, like I said, I felt secure because my neighbours and the storekeepers were Jewish. There were certainly a few non-Jews in there but 90 per cent, even more, of the shopkeepers were Jewish. 

What are some of your most cherished memories you have of your childhood? 

At the end of May and early June a truck would go from the market to Miami, Florida to pick up watermelon because watermelon from Canada didn’t appear until August. So he went down to Florida in advance to get watermelons and would come back with a huge truck load filled with watermelons stacked high. And another man unloading them would always make sure to drop one, so it would split and couldn’t be sold. He would slice it up and give a piece to all the kids. That’s a warm memory of their generosity.

What was the shop your family owned? 

In September 1939, we moved to 178 Baldwin Street. My father had a general store and would sell things from clothes to pots and pans. They allowed me to name it Rakoff Hardware. We didn’t sell hammers or hardware, but we did sell pots and pans. We didn’t sell nuts and bolts there . . . I don’t know why we named it hardware. But anyway, people liked it, it sounded good. Better than Rakoff’s Dry Goods, everybody was so-and-so dry goods so we were different. 

How was your family or Kensington impacted by the war? 

When the war broke out it changed everything in Toronto, and Canada, and the world. But specifically in Kensington Market, it went from abject poverty to not being so bad and then good. My father would sell garbage cans, or ties, or mens shirts, it was on credit, but he started making a profit however small. Then when the war commission came along, there was a decree of regulation that you could only make 50% on it. 

My cousin who was 18 or 19 when the war broke out and graduated from Harbord Collegiate, used to go around with an ice pick and would knock on doors and ask if he could scrape off their ice; he made a few cents doing that. He entered the army gladly as he was clothed, heated and fed by them. He left the army in 1945 as a Captain. That’s a sort of dramatic change. That’s a change with one specific man. 

Did you ever think about directing in the film business at all? 

As a young teenager I thought I was going to be a pharmacist at a drug store and be a shopkeeper like everyone around me and wear a white tunic and smock of some kind that everyone respected and didn’t treat like the other shopkeepers. That’s around the time I was 12. By the time I reached 15 or 16 I knew that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I began writing around then. I remember clearly when I was 16, my older sister was about three years older and I was madly attracted to one of her girlfriends and so I read them one of the short stories I’d written. Both my sister and the girl said, “where did you get this idea from?” and it’s very difficult to explain where an idea comes from. I knew they didn’t have that sort of idea. And I realized, creativity is something, if you’re blessed with, you have. And I knew from 16, definitely, I wanted to be a writer. 

What draws you to a certain performers like Sean Connery and Alan Rickman? 

Judgement is purely based on experience. Watching Alan Rickman read for a part, I immediately knew this guy can do it. He had no reputation, no name, nothing. He and I read the scene together in Romeo and Juliet and I knew he was the right actor for the part and I had to give it to him. It’s part instinct but it’s also experience. I knew with Sean Connery he had this persona which my late first wife said at the time, “the ladies would like him” because he had this presence and self-certainty which was attractive in many ways. I gave Sean Connery his first big break. He was an extra and I gave him his first speaking leading role which made him a star. 

Looking back on your career, what are some of the highlights and proudest moments or accomplishments? 

I take considerable pride in actors and worldwide stars that I’ve worked with and who wanted to work with me. As a director I would take pride in that. Following that, I was thinking the other day of directing Laurence Olivier in A Voyage Round My Father. We were on location, in a field, outside London and he tells the story (as the character) of an incident in his life and he starts to cough and choke while he’s telling the story which is in the script. I called action and my son was eight or nine and he came to visit me on set that day. As Olivier was coughing and choking my son was so perturbed he ran towards him and I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him . . . he didn’t ruin the shot. But then my son realized Olivier was acting. I told Olivier this story, and he thought this was one of the best tributes to his performance as an actor. 

Where do you keep our Emmy’s and awards? 

On the wall behind me, I’m not sure if you can see them. 

In the epigraph of Baldwin Street you wrote “when you are young you want to change the world. When you are old you want the world to be more like it was when you were young.” How did you want to change the world when you were young? And what did you want to stay the same as you got older? 

When you’re young you hate the injustices that you see, the wrongs, the hurtfulness, the violence, the crimes, you want that to change. A lot of it is ego and you want the world to pay attention to you. When you’re old you’re looking back at it and going, it wasn’t so bad, you survived it, you got through it, so just calm down. Enjoy life more and take it easy. 

The industry has changed so much and as a veteran of it, do you have any advice for younger directors or artists? 

Yes, in the words of Shakespeare, I’ll use the Shakespearean pronunciation which is a bit pompous perseverance [per-seh-ver-ance] which is perseverance. Persevere, keep doing it, if you’re any good it’s going to come out and it will show. It’s very difficult . . . you’ll get slapped down especially if you’re different or in any way unique. People say “no, no, no” until it’s a “maybe” and then it’s a “yes” and then you’re away and running. But what most young people lack today is the ability to persevere. Keep going, keep at it. No matter what anybody says, if you believe you can do something, then do it. 

Why do you think the generation today lacks perseverance? 

I think people today think they’ll write a great book and be found that way. It just doesn’t happen that way. You write a book, you learn from that book, then you write another book etcetera. You direct and make stupid mistakes. Not everything I directed I am proud of, some of it I directed to pay the school bills. But you’ve got to keep going. You learn every time you do something. Learn from it, learn from life. Life is a bloody hard teacher, but it’s a teacher. 

 

Alvin Rakoff’s book, I’m Just the Guy Who Says Action! will be released in September 2021. 

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein with photos courtesy of Alvin Rakoff.

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