Dusty Cohl, man behind Toronto film festival, dies

Murray (Dusty) Cohl, the man credited with taking the Toronto International Film Festival to the international level it now enjoys, has died.

Murray (Dusty) Cohl, the man credited with taking the Toronto International Film Festival to the international level it now enjoys, has died.

Cohl died Friday in a Toronto hospital from cancer. He was 78.

Cohl, often called by his nickname "Dusty," was known in film circles for his trademark black cowboy hat, premium cigars, salt-and-pepper beard and Cheshire-cat grin.

Bill Marshall, one of the Toronto film festival's founders, said Friday that there wouldn't have been a festival without him.

Cohl became a member of the Order of Canada in 2003 for his work.

One of his major achievements was to put Toronto on the "showbiz map," Wayne Clarkson, a former film fest director and currently CEO of Telefilm Canada, said.

Helga Stephenson, another former director of the festival, said: "Dusty took the boring out of being Canadian."

It's a cherished part of the Toronto festival's lore that the idea of creating a major international film showcase in Toronto began in 1964 when Cohl and his wife, Joan, driving through France, arrived in Cannes without realizing there was a film festival going on.

He soon landed on the terrace of the Carlton Hotel in Toronto, where he presided year after year holding court and schmoozing — and trying to persuade people that this was the sort of event that could kickstart a film industry in Toronto.

Made fortune in real estate

Cohl was above all a charming salesman, shrewd deal maker and cultural ambassador who had a gift for forging bonds of friendship with lots of people, including rich, famous and talented people all over the world, many of whom he persuaded to boost the Toronto film festival in its early years.

Ted Kotcheff, the Toronto-born director behind such films as Weekend at Bernie's, said Cohl "was amusing and totally adorable, the most lovable man I ever met."

As a young lawyer, Cohl made a fortune in real estate law and development but found his true calling in show business.

"Life was a continuing party that Dusty never wanted to leave," said his close friend Barry Avrich, an advertising executive, filmmaker and festival board member who took over the Floating Film Festival, which Cohl started in 1992.

"He was always there behind the scenes, putting people together and offering advice. I was blessed to be in his galaxy."

Piers Handling, the festival's CEO, said: "The key point about Dusty was that he set a tone for this festival that set it apart from all the others.

"If European festivals were stuffy black-tie affairs, Toronto was going to be the opposite — irreverent. With his cowboy hat and T-shirts, he made a fashion statement, announcing who and what we were — rebels."

His funeral will be a private family affair, with a public memorial later.