When he was 10, entrepreneur and philanthropist Mel Hoppenheim sold ice cream and candy at lunchtime to patrons of the storied Beauty’s restaurant in Montreal, in return for which he got a hot dog and drink before returning to class. It was but one stop on a busy journey that would later include a stint as an offal salesman, the founding of a film camera rental company and the building of film and television production studios called Mel’s Cité du Cinema, the last of which would kick Canada’s barely nascent film and TV industry into high gear.
Mr. Hoppenheim, whose nickname in the industry was Mr. Hollywood North, was at once able to identify a need and create thousands of jobs in the process of filling it.
“Mel was the film business in Canada,” said his long-time friend, Lou Stroller, a producer whose resume includes the Montreal-made films Snake Eyes, starring Nicolas Cage; The Bone Collector, with Denzel Washington; and The Adventures of Pluto Nash, with Eddie Murphy. “He was a giant. He took care of the business and made it grow.”
Mr. Hoppenheim, died on July 27 after years of suffering from heart disease. He was 84 years old, a man who felt a fierce sense of duty to his community even as he grew the business into the largest provider of film and TV services in Canada. He was wont to say that “philanthropy is the rent one pays for success,” and his generosity ran the gamut, from the Montreal Children’s Hospital, where he funded a chair in neurology, to the Montreal Holocaust Centre and the Jewish National Fund. He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2015.
A $1-million gift to Concordia University led to the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, while the Guilhem Caillard, the general manager of the Cinemania French-language film festival, said it was reassuring that he could count on Mr. Hoppenheim, even during the pandemic, when other sources of funding threatened to dry up.
“Physically, he didn’t take up much space but at the same time, he could fill a room, if you know what I mean, very discreet but interested in you, human and generous,” Mr. Caillard recalled. “At the beginning of the pandemic, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I will always be there.’ He has supported us since 1998 and he kept up his support, even when there was little to show for it.”
Lillian Vineberg, a member of Concordia’s Fine Arts Committee (and the first woman to chair the university’s board of governors, between 1999 and 2003) said the institution never asked Mr. Hoppenheim for money. Rather, he approached Concordia, at first to donate his company’s old camera equipment and then, to give $1-million as the seed money to start what would become known as the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, the largest film and animation program in Canada.
“Over the years, Mel kept upgrading and upgrading to the point that with up to 250 students each year in the film and animation program, we have won Academy Awards and have a real presence on an international basis,” Ms. Vineberg continued. “He would also come in and mentor students, and give them jobs to do – always quietly, because he didn’t expect anything in return.”
And Dr. Michael Shevell, the chief pediatrician at Montreal Children’s, told the Canadian Jewish News: “He had an incredible personal journey that read like a Mordecai Richler novel, and an amazing ability to project passion, energy and engagement. It was always a delight to be in his company. Quite simply, they don’t make men like him any more.”
Mr. Hoppenheim was born in Montreal on Oct. 18, 1937, the youngest of David and Jennie (née Felgar) Hoppenheim’s three children. He grew up on St. Urbain Street, personable, quiet and always willing to help. His father was a reluctant butcher who preferred fishing, partying and playing cards to working. His mother was a homemaker who could barely read or write but was an expert at numbers, able to write up bills and receipts.
By the time he was 11, young Mel was already hustling to help the family make ends meet. In addition to the lunchtime gig at Beauty’s, he was selling newspapers to a local butcher shop and clothes hangers to cleaning businesses, while he also worked in the stockroom of a local drugstore and delivered orders to its customers.
Each Saturday, he took three streetcars to work at a butcher shop in Atwater Market.
In April 1950, during his first year of high school at Baron Byng, his father died from heart disease. Only 12, the bereaved son did not falter, continuing to work, attend classes and race around the neighbourhood with his cronies in what little free time he had. In 1953, Mr. Hoppenheim even ran a successful campaign to become school king, complete with the slogan “Don’t be sloppy, vote for Hoppy.”
The following year, at the request of a maternal uncle, Mr. Hoppenheim quit Baron Byng and went to work full-time at a slaughterhouse to help support his family. With 75 head of cattle slaughtered each day, he realized that rather than compete for the prime cuts of meat, it would be more profitable to sell parts of the animal no one else wanted to, namely, the brains and eyeballs. At the same time, he continued to study at night, at what was then called Sir George Williams College (it would become a bona fide university in 1959 and would later merge with Loyola to become Concordia).
In 1958, while still working at the slaughterhouse, Mr. Hoppenheim went to Saint-Jovite, near Mont Tremblant, in what would ultimately be an unsuccessful attempt to buy a car racetrack. There, he started chatting with a film crew shooting a commercial and learned that camera equipment had to be brought in from the United States. The conversation helped spark a new career, in which he first learned everything he could about the products; in 1965, he formalized the business under the name Panavision Canada, first in Montreal, then expanding to Toronto and Vancouver.
His first official client, in 1966, was filmmaker Jean Pierre Lefebvre, who would go on to be revered as the godfather of Canadian independent cinema. Others soon followed. Yet even though he was a natural salesman and would make lifelong friends in the industry, the business had its ups and downs. Eventually, he sold it – but not before it won an Oscar in 1982 for technical achievement and innovation.
In the late 1980s, he teamed up Michel Trudel, a much-younger former competitor. Their partnership was more like father and son, or a teacher with one of his favourite students.
“He called me Ti-gars and I often called him Dad,” Mr. Trudel recalled.
With Mr. Hoppenheim leading the way, the partners developed Mel’s Cité du Cinéma into state-of-the-art production studios. The first one, at du Havre, on the road to the Montreal Casino, played host to movies such as The Bone Collector, with Denzel Washington, and The Score, with Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando.
A second, much larger one was built in the late 1990s to accommodate productions such as Mr. Stroller’s film, Pluto Nash. By 2002, they had built a third.
Other honours Mr. Hoppenheim garnered over the years include an honorary doctorate from Concordia in 2009, and an Academy Achievement Award at the Genies in 2010.
Although the business, which continued to expand, was sold in 2015 to the TVA Group, Mr. Hoppenheim remained active and engaged in the community – and with his family, for whom he was a constant presence.
“To us, he was totally a regular father who braided our hair, painted our nails and helped us do our school projects,” said Jenny Hoppenheim, one of his four daughters.
Another daughter, Caroline Hoppenheim, a psychotherapist, remembered how direct he could be, skirting nuance to ask questions about a school project, wedding plans or a career trajectory, always with the emphasis that anything was possible when one went about it the right way.
“He would be like: ‘How many patients do you need to see a week to break even?’” she said. “He wanted to talk about the bottom line.”
Mr. Hoppenheim leaves his wife of 35 years, Rosemary Schirmer; his sister, Lila Ackman; his children, Maura, Adam, Teri, Jenny, Caroline and Mel Hoppenheim, and their spouses; 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by two children.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this obituary Mel Hoppenheim Jr. was mistakenly not included in the list of his father's survivors. This version has been amended.