By MARTYN BURKE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
In the late 1960s, stepping off the elevator into Richard Nielsen's Public Eye office space was like stepping into a Canada that did not yet exist.
Known to his friends simply as Dick, he put together a CBC current affairs TV show, based in Toronto, that was staffed by people with a rainbow of nationalities, temperaments, religions and sexual preferences. The human kaleidoscope that he assembled included a Jamaican academic, a Japanese intellectual, a proudly gay anglophile (this in the days when the closet was packed), a literature professor, a Jewish political comic and a Mississauga widow in her 60s.
But if someone had applied the terms "multicultural," "diversity" or "rainbow," to his hiring practices, Mr. Nielsen would have been mystified. He hired simply on the basis of a person's intellect and imagination. And no one had more of these qualities than Mr. Nielsen himself. The Public Eye took on issues normally best served by print and made them into riveting television - a rare accomplishment. Whether it was the bombing of Dresden, Walter Lippmann's theories on the Cold War or the riots engulfing American cities, the programs of The Public Eye reflected Mr. Nielsen's ability to synthesize news and history with a unique perspective rooted in his working-class Danish-immigrant upbringing in the Maritimes.
He died in Toronto on Oct. 25, leaving his wife, Donna, (née Dunseith); two of his daughters, Camilla Brockhouse and Petrea McConvey; eight grandchildren and six great grandchildren. He was predeceased by a third daughter, Marta Nielsen, a filmmaker. Right up to the end, at the age of 86, he was still producing shows about the First World War and dictating instructions to his assistants from his bed at Toronto General Hospital even as pneumonia overtook him.
Mr. Nielsen was born Feb. 21, 1928, to Hans and Camilla (née Mikkelsen) in the logging town of Plaster Rock, N.B. He had a passion for reading throughout his life, but none of his immense erudition came from the ivy halls of academia. His real-world education began at the age of 16, when he took a job at a factory and continued on through stints at a meat-packing plant, steel mills and in the Northern Ontario bush. With this background, Mr. Nielsen was not impressed by degrees, résumés and reputations; the main attraction for him was the quality of a person's mind and the moral compass behind it. He was an intellectual, but one with no interest in being thought of as an intellectual. He also appreciated a good sense of humour; no one loved to laugh more than he did. Once airborne, his cackling, wheezing guffaw joyously infected all those within earshot.
Mr. Nielsen cared less for material goods or signs of status than anyone this side of a saint. Never owning or even driving a car, or caring about financial security, he was almost Buddhist in his ability to lessen his worldly wants. But the one desire that never decreased was his drive to stimulate people's minds. This showed up even in the smallest ways, like his sentences so frequently prefaced by: "Yes, but you see ... ." With little or no interest in personal wealth, he willed scores of award-winning productions (some expensive) into life.
Mr. Nielsen reserved his fury for those who disguised sloth or timidity with prestige or entitlement. Passionately Canadian, he directed his most withering scorn at the succession of CBC presidents who passed through what he deemed a turnstile of mediocrity, on their way to a purgatory of pensioned comfort untroubled by legacies of innovation or daring. For Mr. Nielsen, the CBC was a national treasure that had fallen into the hands of those who knew little of its vital purpose. And if he ever had an enemy, they were it.
From his difficult days as a worker in the factories, forest and rail yards, Mr. Nielsen forged a concept of social justice, a concern for the underclasses of society that remained with him for the rest of his life. Yet he embraced contradictions, his own and others. His concept of a functioning and decent society would sometimes lead him to fight against those he had formerly championed. The abuse of power drew his wrath - whether by unions, management, government or any group seeking power at the expense of others. In many ways, his independent cast of mind made him the outsider that no one group could claim as its own.
Loving the CBC but frustrated by its bureaucracy, Mr. Nielsen made the decision to move to private enterprise, creating film companies that would produce documentaries and such major dramas as the 1983 adaptation of Timothy Findley's celebrated novel The Wars.
It was probably no accident that The Wars won Genies for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for Martha Henry and Jackie Burroughs, who were among the most celebrated Canadian actresses of that era. In the very best sense of the word, Mr. Nielsen loved women. He was surrounded by them. He and his wife, Donna, to whom he was devoted for six decades, raised three daughters, Camilla, Petrea and Marta. At the CBC, he brought in female hosts at a time when there were no women in major prime-time interviewing roles.
Beginning with Jeanne Sauvé, the future governor-general, whom he brought in as a co-host on The Public Eye in 1967, Mr. Nielsen sought women for on-camera roles in what had been exclusively a male domain. The following year, as executive producer of the CBC's new flagship current affairs show Weekend, he found Kay Sigurjonsson, then working in relative obscurity as an executive assistant at the Federation of Women Teachers' Association of Ontario. Within weeks of calling her in for trial on-camera interviews, he made her co-host of Weekend with Lloyd Robertson. Before the year was out, Ms. Sigurjonsson was interviewing then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Major figures impressed him only if he found their reputations to be justified once he had worked with them. He and was fascinated by Glenn Gould. But the legendary British journalist, essayist and thinker Malcolm Muggeridge was another story. Mr. Muggeridge had been one of Mr. Nielsen's heroes for his courageous reporting from Moscow in the 1930s, when he was one of the few journalists bearing witness to the Stalinist atrocities that other Western journalists glossed over. Mr. Nielsen was also enthralled by his later foray into religion and philosophy. But meeting him while working on one of his many acclaimed TV productions after The Public Eye, Mr. Nielsen saw Mr. Muggeridge as a man living on his own legend. He later wrote that Mr. Muggeridge, in his old age "... broke what is supposedly the fundamental rule of the trade: that facts are sacred. He had little or no care for the facts and made little effort to discover them."
That was never to be Mr. Nielsen's fate. At his funeral, one of his admiring granddaughters, Erin Nielsen-Burgess, wrote in a tribute to him: "With all this talk of staying healthy and being financially secure for when we are older, it is also important to be motivated and to use our minds."
Mr. Nielsen was always motivated and his mind never stopped. It was his body that began giving way, first to diabetes and then to ancillary afflictions. His visitors in the past few years would find him in a small Toronto townhouse robbed of normal eyesight, peering into a huge desk-mounted magnifying glass that allowed him the vital task of reading. He was the very personification of the Kipling lines: "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve their turn long after they are gone." Yet even during his decline, that same spirit lived on as young assistants constantly came in, helping produce the various films that his company, Norflicks, was making. They were part of a long tradition - talented novices getting their start in the business because they were working with Dick Nielsen.
And yet for someone who incessantly sought out new horizons, Mr. Nielsen began to feel confined in the last year of his life. He had long been close to his youngest daughter, Marta, who had followed him into the film business and in the spring of 2014, at the age of 53, had been battling cancer for nearly a decade. After a visit, he wrote: "I expressed some discouragement with my life and she admonished me to concentrate on something for which I was grateful. I didn't have far to look. I was grateful for Marta; grateful that in my old age I had found a spiritual adviser and confidante in my youngest child."
Ms. Nielsen died a few weeks after this conversation. Mr. Nielsen died almost exactly six months later, honoured by both his family and by the legion of those he helped, mentored and inspired.
Martyn Burke is a Canadian director, screenwriter and novelist who worked for Dick Nielsen.
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Mr. Nielsen produced the CBC current affairs program The Public Eye among many other projects.