In Memoriam: William T. Marshall

January 13, 2017

And then there was one:

With the passing of William T. Marshall on Jan. 1st, 2017, just one of the three co-founders of the Toronto International Film Festival is still alive. This was a sad way to start another year, after the significant losses of major cultural figures throughout 2016.

Marshall was 77 years old. He died of cardiac arrest in Toronto early on New Year’s Day, after a long illness. Marshall follows fellow TIFF co-founder Dusty Cohl, who died of cancer on Jan. 11, 2008. The only survivor of the original trio is Henk Van der Kolk.

Each man brought unique talents to the table in 1976 when they launched what was then known so cheekily as the Festival of Festivals. Van der Kolk was the quiet businessman who quelled the financial panic behind the scenes; Cohl was the ebullient organizer, schmoozer, and beloved people person who rallied the public, the media, and ultimately some celebrities to support and/or attend the festival in the early days.

Marshall, as festival director for the first three years, was the gruff billygoat who forced things to happen by imposing a steel will that complemented his wisdom and passion.

That same will was behind his involvement in the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, the Toronto Film and Television Office and the Canadian Association of Motion Picture Producers. In 2002, Marshall’s national status was confirmed when he was named as a Member of the Order of Canada. This was in recognition of his “major role in developing Canada’s film industry and culture.”

Yet the typical TIFF patron of recent years quite likely had no idea who Bill Marshall actually was, and why he was so critical to the founding and early expansion of the festival that he still served as chairman emeritus. TIFFers might have seen him at select events. They might have noticed a frail man shuffling along on the arm of his lovingly supportive wife, Sari Ruda Marshall. But it took a conversation to suddenly realize that the mind inside that slight frame was still keen. And that the tongue was still barbed with sarcasm, wit and keen observations about the state of cinema and of life in Canada.

Sadly, even fewer people know how important the irascible politico and film producer was in the maturation of the arts and also of liberal municipal politics in Toronto. Marshall, like Dusty Cohl and other players in a wider circle of Toronto culture, was at the height of his powers when he helped to push the provincial place they called Hogtown into a wider world. The festival was just part of the changing scene. Marshall was also a backroom political organizer who helped elect progressive Toronto mayors, including David Crombie, whom Marshall then worked for as his chief executive.

That suited Marshall, who was born in Scotland in 1939 as the son of a railway worker, theatre-lover and socialist. I do not remember Marshall having any great interest in trains, but the left-leaning politics that he inherited from his father stood out and so did his passion for theatre and then for cinema. While I never heard him humming “The Age of Aquarius” in the 40 years I had known him, Marshall co-produced the now-legendary Toronto production of Hair at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1969-71.

As for his filmmaking, Marshall was a leader in and a victim of the early tax shelter era of Toronto filmmaking. Many of his films were B-movie fare, from his debut with the Frankenstein romp Flick (1970, also known as Frankenstein on Campus) through the sex tease Felicity (1978) and right up to his most recent effort, the action thriller Gangster Exchange.

Yet there were highlights. From the early years you can find the seminal Canadian drama Outrageous! (1977) and the sadly unknown yet fascinating Hank Williams stage musical with Sneezy Waters, The Show He Never Gave (1980). From later years, reflecting Marshall’s extensive involvement in Down Under cinema, there is Australian filmmaker Paul Cox’s heartfelt drama, Innocence (2000).

Throughout his career, no one ever accused Marshall of playing nice or mincing his words. He was plain-spoken and direct. He was often so blunt you had to wince and then gather your thoughts before answering. My own interactions with Marshall — starting with my first Toronto film festival experience in 1977 — were often charged.

Example: At the 1977 festival, which showcased Outrageous!, the unsettled Outrageous! director Richard Benner spilled the beans on some struggles he had had with his producers. Cohl, who was intimately involved in getting the word out on Outrageous!, called me for a meeting: After a rocky start, we became friends for life. Marshall was just pissed off and crudely criticized the story I wrote. We became filmmaker-media combatants for life. The respect was always there (I hope) but the details of each encounter might send our conversations from happy to stressful and back again.

On a public level, I mourn the loss of another Toronto titan of the arts. On a private level, I will miss those encounters more than William T. Marshall could have ever imagined.

Bruce Kirkland