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Saturday November 17, 2012

Lone wolf brought out the best in people

Co-founder of Goldcrest Films produced Driving Miss Daisy and Chariots of Fire, believed movies should be used to better mankind

Duddy Kravitz he wasn't.

Tall, bespectacled and unassuming, Jake Eberts, the financial wizard behind such classic films as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Dances with Wolves, A River Runs Through It, The Name of the Rose and Driving Miss Daisy, was a family man who eschewed the limelight and the glittering trappings of celebrity. His authenticity was his trademark. Married to the same woman for more than 40 years, Eberts wore a Timex watch and drove a rented Toyota Camry to high-powered meetings with studio moguls.

"He wasn't defined by his watch or his car or any other thing," said his widow, Fiona Eberts, recalling one of her husband's favourite expressions: "Don't worry about what people are thinking about you, because they aren't."

Of the more than 50 films for which he took the helm as producer or executive producer, more than half won Academy Awards, including four for Best Picture. Yet little attention was paid in his native country when Eberts died of cancer in Montreal in early September. The silence was partly because great swaths of the entertainment world were in a tizzy about the Toronto International Film Festival, partly because (although he had a home in the Eastern Townships and an apartment in Montreal) he primarily worked and lived abroad, and mostly because he was the antithesis of a schmoozer.

His life was celebrated in early November in the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in downtown Montreal. Close to 1,000 people joined former premier Jean Charest, former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hilary Weston, assorted film icons including actor Donald Sutherland and scores of financial, social and legal heavyweights to mourn Canada's most successful and least known producer.

The traditional service, complete with choir, homily, rousing renditions of Jerusalem and Morning Has Broken was capped by soprano Constance Hauman's soaring performance of Amazing Grace, projecting that funeral chestnut into the towering arches of the vast Gothic-style church. Before kilted piper Cameron Stevens led mourners out into the cold rainy afternoon, they listened to a reading of If by Rudyard Kipling, said to be Eberts's favourite poem, and an appreciation in which Tony Stikeman described his brother-in-law as a curious, imaginative child who wished he could have an eye on the end of his finger to increase his investigative powers and a mouth on top of his head so "he could put his porridge in his tuque and not be late for school."

Beset with a pronounced stutter, Eberts had speech therapy as a child along with some prophetic advice from his father: practise telling jokes and stories. "Little did we know ... Jake would become one of the most excellent storytellers of all time, not just in conversation, but in film," observed Stikeman.

An accidental film producer who trained as a chemical engineer, a banker and a venture capitalist before he found his métier, the soft-spoken Eberts, says programmer, writer and York University film professor Seth Feldman, was the epitome of an independent producer whose organization was "small enough to do interesting things and big enough to both attract big-name talent and convince the studios to distribute their product."

His business model, based on "exquisite taste, formidable financial muscle coupled with a large amount of daring, made him a seriously creative executive producer who would back directors and their ambitious projects," says Helga Stephenson, former director of TIFF and now head of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. "He loved stories, he loved creative people, he loved his independence. He wanted to make meaningful movies and he did."

Instead of technically innovative and edgy social commentaries, Eberts opted to work time and again with directors and actors he trusted, such as Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman, and to produce morally uplifting films based on true stories in which characters struggle against adversity and hope triumphs over despair. Content to let others be cutting edge, Eberts was interested in audiences and stories, and that's where he made his mark, with a long list of absorbing narratives about the human condition, including Local Hero, The Killing Fields, and A Room with a View.

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