By William Wolf


This was the first Toronto Film Festival at which the ubiquitous Dusty Cohl was missing. Death was the only thing that could keep him away.

Dusty, who co-founded the Festival along with William Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk, liked to call himself “the accomplice” rather than assume a title. He worked his wiles as an enabler, and built up such a reputation that it has been acknowledged that without him there would have been no Festival. It was fitting that at the opening night gala a moving short celebrating his life and filled with testimonials was shown to hearty applause.

While we were attending the Cannes Film Festival where plans for Toronto were being hatched the three founders recruited me to work at the first two Festivals (then called the Festival of Festivals) as chair of the various craft conferences at which professionals participated on panels dealing with directing, screenwriting, producing, acting etc. I was absolutely amazed when some 800 people turned up at 9 a.m. for a conference on screenwriting. I thought: What kind of film nuts are these Toronto fans? Such a turnout for a screenwriting discussion would never happen in New York.

There was only one problem. Which famous individuals could be gotten to take part on the panels? Dusty was the calm one. When I repeatedly asked who would be on a panel due to take place on that very day, Dusty would say, “Wolfie—that’s what he liked to call me—don’t worry.” And at the last minute he always came through.

Lo and behold, on one acting panel, there was Peter O’Toole. On a panel to discuss directing, the legendary director Frank Capra turned up. Now, when there are so many notables converging on the Toronto Festival, that may not sound like such a big deal. But then it was impressive.

When one looked for Dusty in a crowd, one could first spot the black cowboy hat that was his trademark. He sometimes lost patience with me on one score. I’m not one who likes to wear pins. Dusty had special stars made to designate years of attendance at the Festival. He’d given them to me but had never seen me wear them. "Where’s your star?” he would ask disapprovingly.

Dusty made a habit of giving me a ride to the annual barbeque held at the Canadian Film Center founded by celebrated director Norman Jewison. I went again this year on the occasion of the Center’s 20th anniversary, but missed the companionship of Dusty, who would take a large table that drew more and more of his friends around it. However, I did meet many other friends there, including Yanka Van der Kolk, Norman Jewison, Lynne St. David, and long-time Festival supporters George and Gail Anthony.

But it wasn’t the same without the hat. However, it was bracing to hear Jewison issue a blast against the cut in funds for the arts by the Canadian government. He spoke very passionately, and I thought he could come to New York and make the same speech, as that’s been happening in the United States as well.

I had lunch that week with Dusty’s wife, Joan Cohl, and we had a good time reminiscing as well as catching up on her take on things that were happening currently. I also met Henk Van der Kolk at the Festival’s opening night party and had a chat with him. There is a lot of history among these good friends. But it was strange, attending my first Festival without the towering presence of Dusty Cohl. He’ll be long remembered.


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