Toronto was always home to Ivan Reitman

To most of the world, Hollywood filmmaker Ivan Reitman was the beloved director and/or producer of such lowbrow comedy hits as “Ghostbusters,” “Meatballs” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

Yet Reitman, who died in his sleep Saturday at age 75, had a deeper relationship with Toronto, the city he called home from age four after his family fled Communist rule in their native country, then called Czechoslovakia.

Torontonians also loved the bawdy humour of the man with the easy grin and fatherly demeanour. But they appreciated him all the more as a highbrow patron of the arts.

His family’s extraordinary donation of land at the corner of King and John Streets made possible a much needed home for the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the main cinema and headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival.

“When we were looking to build a permanent home for TIFF, Ivan and the Reitman family contributed the land where their parents’ car wash business once stood,” TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey said in a press statement.

“Even more, he supported TIFF’s vision of a home for film culture. Every day at TIFF Bell Lightbox, we show and champion movies thanks to Ivan. TIFF wouldn’t be what it is today without Ivan Reitman. We mourn his loss.”

Reitman loved being loved by TIFF. He hated being known as a maker of “gross-out” films, a moniker that first took hold after John Belushi’s infamous “human zit” scene in “Animal House,” released in 1978.

“We were sort of insulted by that (‘gross-out’) term,” Reitman once told me in an interview.

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“It seemed too easy a moniker to put on what we thought was a pretty damned sophisticated script and movie. There was physicality to the movie … but the zit scene is like 30 seconds in the script!”

TIFF Bell Lightbox opened in September 2010, the same month that Reitman was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada by then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean.

Reitman’s rise to this national honour was worthy of one of his favourite film narrative arcs, for characters often played by Bill Murray: the clever rascal who makes good.

As an arts and music major at Hamilton’s McMaster University in 1969, Reitman and other students made a raunchy documentary comedy called “Columbus of Sex.” A screening was busted by the cops, leading to an obscenity conviction and a fine of $300, plus the dubious distinction of “Columbus of Sex” being the only Canadian feature to be banned by the old Ontario Board of Censors.

Reitman was long a booster of Canadian film and Toronto filmmakers. He produced two of David Cronenberg’s early horror movies, “Shivers” (1975) and “Rabid” (1977).

When another Toronto filmmaker, Atom Egoyan, had trouble finding backers for his 2009 psychodrama “Chloe,” starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried, Reitman stepped in as a producer to get the project back on track. “Chloe” was filmed in Toronto and gave the city an uncommon sense of mystery and sexual intrigue.

Reitman also helped mentor and boost filmmakers who were just starting out. In 2009, he teamed with actor Eugene Levy, his friend since their McMaster University days, to donate their time and talent to the Telefilm Canada Features Comedy Lab. They helped mentor five teams of Canadian filmmakers to create five feature films to tickle the funny bones of their fellow Canucks — and also of comedy lovers everywhere.

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When I interviewed Reitman and Levy at the Canadian Film Centre’s mansion on Bayview Avenue, where the comedy workshops were underway, Reitman summarized the filmmaking advice he offered his young charges:

“‘Go out there and take some chances. That’s the great thing about what you can do right now. Don’t talk to me about names. You’re not going to get names. Harrison Ford is not going to work for you right now and you don’t deserve to work with him, you don’t know anything.’ It was good for them to hear stuff like that.”

Reitman lived much of his adult life in the U.S., but he always maintained his Toronto connections. His love for the city would show up in the oddest of ways.

Legend has it that the frat-boy antics of “Animal House,” which made a movie star of “Saturday Night Live” comic John Belushi, was based on a notorious all-male University of Toronto residence called Gate House, which went coed in 2007. The inmates of Gate House pulled such brazen stunts as putting a cooked pig’s head in a woman’s washroom and building a 2.5-metre snow penis outside the building.

Reitman laughed off the Gate House story — he went to McMaster, after all — but it’s worth noting that actor Donald Sutherland, who plays a hip professor in “Animal House,” lived right next door to Gate House when he attended U of T.

But there’s at least one for-sure connection to Toronto in “Animal House,” one that Reitman revealed in an interview in 2013 to celebrate the film’s 35th anniversary, which was recognized by a TIFF Bell Lightbox tribute screening that he attended.

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It’s the toga party thrown by Belushi’s wild man Bluto and his pals, a rave-up that spawned toga parties around the world after “Animal House” became a hit.

There’s Canadian content sneaked into that scene, Reitman said. He based the fast/slow/fast changes in the “Shout” song by R&B band Otis Day and the Knights on “dances I remember doing at my Jewish school in Toronto.”

Peter Howell is a movie critic in Toronto. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm


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