Bill Marshall, employing the look of skepticism he adopted whenever I put my arm around him…
Recovering from the shock of his death, the image that keeps reoccurring was the night—the very late night— Bill Marshall, movie producer, Toronto International Film Festival co-founder, and (much) larger-than-life rogue warrior, lifted me up, hefted me across his shoulders, and spun me around.
This occurred during the wilder and woolier early days of the film festival when such shenanigans were not uncommon after a few of us retreated to the festival’s hospitality suite for an after-hours drink, and you could end up getting tossed around by one of the founders.
I used to watch Bill, somewhat enviously I must admit, holding court at what was then Club 22—the two-two, as the regulars called it—a darkened, somewhat elegant watering hole nestled inside Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel.
It was the place to see and be seen in the midst of the fleeting glitz of what was dubbed Hollywood North, when everyone seemed to be coming to Canada to make a movie. You could find Donald Sutherland at one of the tables, James Coburn huddled at another, Peter Fonda not far away.
But almost always you could find Bill Marshall at his corner banquette adjacent to the bar, seeming to dominate the room. He usually was seated with his friend Henk Van der Kolk, the writer Tom Hedley, and, on occasion, the lawyer, Dusty Cohl.
Back then he was known as a movie producer. He’d actually made a film people heard of, Outrageous, and as a result he seemed to be everywhere, momentarily the town’s highest profile producer.
There was something magnetic about him that drew everyone. The movers and the shakers, not to mention the stars, all stopped by Bill’s table for a handshake and a few wryly delivered words.
Bill often played with the establishment—he orchestrated three mayoral campaigns, and worked at city hall—but there was always an outlaw quality about him, a sense that he was outside it all, barely containing his disdain for the games the adults played, particularly when it came to the arcane and mostly impenetrable weirdness involved in the making of movies.
Those outlaw qualities were shared, at least to some extent, by his pals Henk and Dusty. They were all rogues in their way. But Bill was Rogue One.
Maybe these characters could get a movie made; it was a business of crazies after all. But no one in their right mind was ever going to let them loose to do something like start a film festival. Who would ever support a ridiculous idea like that?
Years later, after the festival was a well-established part of the Toronto cultural scene, and was on its way to becoming an international phenomenon, I would look at Bill and Henk and Dusty—all of whom were friends at that point—and shake my head considering the sheer audacity of what the rogues had pulled off.
But pull it off they did, and today the fact that they succeeded so well is part of much-repeated local lore. Bill took it all in stride, never getting too ruffled, viewing the landscape around him with a skeptical eye and a gruff, barely-contained sarcasm.
He never stopped working the room, hustling the next wildly envisioned dream. I would encounter him in the darnedest places. Jogging along Santa Monica Boulevard one morning when I was living in Los Angeles, there was Bill, sauntering toward me. I expressed surprise at seeing him; he acted as if the two of us had run into each other yesterday. Of course he was living in L.A. Where else would he be? Come to lunch. We can talk.
\When I drove to the address he had given me, I thought there was a mistake. Most of the Canadians I knew who had arrived in Los Angeles to reinvent themselves—myself included—occupied apartments, usually over the hill in the San Fernando Valley.
Not Bill Marshall.
Bill was holed up in the newcomer’s fantasy of Hollywood, a mansion in Beverly Hills, complete with a lake-size swimming pool Esther Williams would be at home in, featuring a pair of marble lions resting at either end. One half expected Jay Gatsby or Monroe Stahr from The Last Tycoon to stroll out and ask you if you’d like a drink before lunch.
Instead it was Bill pouring the wine and leading me into a vast dining room where he presided at the head of a long table. What he was doing in La La Land is anyone’s guess. Probably trying to make movies. Certainly that’s what we talked about into the afternoon. But then there was always this enigmatic quality to Bill, the holding of cards close to his chest, never giving too much away.
Out of the palm of his hand…
Years later, Bill and I more or less reconnected and I got to know his wife Sari Ruda. Bill still had not stopped. There was talk of producing more movies, and, oh yes, a film festival in the Niagara-on-the-Lake region that would combine film with the fine wines and dining to be found at the local wineries.
I couldn’t help thinking to myself, Yeah, sure, but what are the chances of that ever happening? I should have known better. The next thing, I was arriving at a party launching the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. The event was held in a historic old house outside of town, the rooms filled with the local establishment types Bill always seemed to be able to draw in.
He looked frail, but as soon as Sari introduced him, Bill had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Bill never gave a speech as such, he talked to a crowd, reasonable, witty, self-deprecating conversation that you might be able to resist, but could never help but admire.
The guests that night couldn’t resist. The Niagara Integrated Film Festival became a reality. One of the last times I saw Bill was on a sparkling summer evening at the Trius Winery. The festival was honoring the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, an outdoor event that attracted the usual dignitaries, including the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.
Bill looked even frailer but once again rallied to chat up his audience, in his element but somehow removed from it at the same time. Listening to him, I marveled all over again at his perseverance, his unwillingness to give up, his quiet belief that the next hand was the winning hand, all he had to do was talk a few people around to his way of thinking.
So much had changed since the days when I used to glance enviously at that corner where Bill Marshall held court. There is no more Club 22, the hospitality suite at the film festival long ago closed down, and the festival itself has become so big and well-oiled that everyone involved pretty much behaves themselves.
But watching Bill do his thing at the Niagara Film Festival, he remained for me a touchstone of sorts, a reminder of earlier wilder days when, late at night, a fellow could get spun around on the shoulders of a delightful rogue, and life would go on forever.
Now the rogue is gone, his brightness vanished. The lights are dimmer.