Donald Shebib, director of landmark Canadian film Goin’ Down the Road, dead at 85

Donald Shebib, director of Goin’ Down the Road, the 1970 best picture winner at the Canadian Film Awards and a movie perennially recognized as one of the country’s best, has died. He was 85.

He died in hospital with family by his side in his native Toronto on Sunday, his son, music producer Noah (40) Shebib told CBC News in an email. A cause of death wasn’t immediately available.

Shebib was working on a series of television documentaries in the 1960s when Goin’ Down the Road was conceived, with a screenplay written by William Fruet, his colleague at CBC’s The Way It Is.

Goin’ Down the Road was made for just $87,000 and shot on 16-mm film, its low-budget and relatively inexperienced cast lending the film its verité, and often gritty feel.

“Nobody believed in the film, nobody. Then when the reaction to it was good, I was overwhelmed by it,” Shebib told CBC in 2011.

WATCH l Shebib, with Goin’ Down the Road’s Jayne Eastwood, on film’s legacy:

Don Shebib and Jayne Eastwood

Featured VideoGeorge interviews Don Shebib and Jayne Eastwood

The film, screenwriter Fruet and lead actors Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley would win awards at the Canadian Film Awards, the forerunner to the Canadian Screen Awards.

It was a key moment in Canada’s nascent film industry, with future Toronto International Film Festival executive director Piers Handling writing in 1978, “Goin’ Down The Road seemed to be our first step, tentative perhaps, but opening the floodgates to self-expression.” It was, added George Melnyk in 2004’s One Years of Canadian Cinema, “Canada’s original road movie.”

Goin’ Down the Road was named the sixth-best Canadian film of all time by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, and it was part of the inaugural film class of the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada’s MasterWorks in 2000.

Cultural impact

The story tracks Pete and Joey, two poorly educated but enthusiastic dreamers who leave Cape Breton for what they believe will be brighter prospects in Ontario’s capital.

“Their coming up is a definite social movement, the same kind of thing as in The Grapes of Wrath, or the people coming out of Appalachia,” the Montreal Gazette wrote in one of the first profiles of Shebib, after the film’s release.

The film mixed just enough comedic moments — hijinks at work, nights carousing under the lights of Yonge Street — as a respite from the profound struggles of the characters: There’s mind-numbing assembly line work at a bottling plant, depressing accommodation at flophouses and tiny apartments, a shotgun marriage and an ill-timed pregnancy.

Pete and Joey are often the architects of their misfortune, their lives pocked by heavy drinking, a shaky work ethic, and casual misogyny. The young men get “chewed up by the cold concrete molars of late-sixties Toronto,” in the words of film critic and historian Geoff Pevere in his 2012 study of the film.

Two older, white-haired men laugh while sitting for a photograph.
Donald Shebib, right, is shown promoting 2022′ Nightalk along with the film’s actor Art Hindle, in Toronto on Sept. 1, 2022. (Yader Guzman, The Canadian Press)

In addition to cinematography from Richard Leiterman that showcased Toronto on film for one of the first times, poignancy was lent by background songs from nascent singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.

For a film with more than its share of grim moments, Goin’ Down the Road ironically has resonated through the years as much in Canadian comedy as drama, its influences felt in the hoser characters of shows like Fubar and Trailer Park Boys.

Most famously, in the SCTV sketch Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice — which Shebib later said he loved — John Candy entices Joe Flaherty to head to Toronto with the promise of “doctorin’ jobs and lawyerin’ jobs,” the professions they’ve left behind in New Brunswick. Along the way they pick up Andrea Martin’s nuclear physicist Quebec hitchhiker, as Canadian actor Jayne Eastwood reprises her role of Betty from the 1970 film.

Stories of Canadians for CBC, NFB

Shebib was born on Jan. 27, 1938 in Toronto. His paternal grandfather was Lebanese and his parents had each lived in Atlantic Canada. 

Shebib grew up with a love of story, becoming a collector of comic books, and after not having a television in the house until his teens, it made maximum impact.

“When I was 17 or 18, I started watching CBC, as opposed to just westerns and stuff, and I really got myself educated that way,” he told Pierre Berton on the latter’s talk show in 1971.

WATCH l Shebib’s look at 1968 San Francisco for CBC’s The Way It Is:

Documenting hippie society at Haight-Ashbury in 1968

Featured VideoCanadian filmmaker Don Shebib journeys to the epicentre of the hippie world, the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco. Aired March 24, 1968 on CBC’s The Way It Is.

After studying sociology at the University of Toronto, he made his way to film school at UCLA, where he was a contemporary of Francis Ford Coppola, working as part of the crew on the future Godfather director’s early foray, Dementia 13 in 1963.

Shebib returned to Toronto and shot a series of documentaries of varying lengths for CBC and the National Film Board, always with a focus on interesting stories and characters, from bikers in 1966’s Satan’s Choice, teachers in the following year’s A Search For Learning and war veterans in 1969’s Good Times, Bad Times.

Goin’ Down the Road was made in part with a grant from the Canadian Film Development Corp., and it was inspired in part by real stories, Shebib told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in 2011.

“I had a cousin who came to stay with us in Toronto in the late 1950’s and he tried to make a go of it and couldn’t and went back to the Maritimes,” he said.

WATCH l Satan’s Choice (1966), directed by Donald Shebib:

In addition to Canada, the film got noticed by influential critics in the U.S. 

“Above all it is a vigorous and stinging story of the drifters and the dropouts when they came of age, the sad truth about that silent majority who believe in life’s easy rides,” Judith Crist wrote in New York magazine.

Shebib followed it up on the big screen with the teen coming-of-age tale Rip-Off (1971), another collaboration with Fruet, and the heist film Between Friends (1974).  Heartaches in 1982 with Margot Kidder and Robert Carradine was described by influential New York Times critic Vincent Canby as “a sentimental romantic comedy that talks tough but means to break your heart with its sweetness.”

The bulk of Shebib’s work in the 1980s and 1990s was in television. He directed several made-for-TV movies and helmed episodes of series The Edison Twins, Danger Bay, Night Heat, E.N.G. and Wind at My Back.

Poignant return to familiar characters

Admitting on CBC in 2011 that he’d been “bugged” by people since 1970 to revisit his most famous characters, Shebib finally did so with Down the Road Again.

The 2011 film was a poignant shoot. Joey’s spectral presence was part of the plot, as Bradley had died in 2003, two years before cinematographer Leiterman passed away. Cayle Chernin, reprising her 1970 role of Selina, was a cheerleader on the set, her colleagues unaware she had months left to live while battling a terminal illness. 

WATCH l Shebib goes Down The Road Again:

Goin’ Down the Road, the sequel

Featured VideoDirector Don Shebib and actor Jayne Eastwood return for the next chapter of the classic 1974 Canadian film.

With McGrath, Eastwood and Chernin returning to join new castmate Kathleen Robertson of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, Down the Road Again kept the thread of its characters while changing the tone, the Toronto Star noting it was “imbued with wisdom, heart and good intentions.”

Shebib’s last film was the erotic thriller Nightalk. The film, which bowed at Toronto’s film fest in 2022, was sparked by a conversation the filmmaker overheard in Edmonton, he told the Canadian Press.

“I’m listening to this exchange between two women that was so banal and silly, but it was real,” he said.

In addition to 40, who has produced several tracks for Drake and co-founded the OVO record label, Shebib is survived by his spouse, the actress Tedde Moore, daughters Suzanna, stepdaughters  Zoë and Chaunce, and several grandchildren.

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