Though nominally a "director for hire," Vancouver native Daryl Duke occasionally transcended the boundaries of that categorization. When Duke died on October 21, 2006, he left behind an extraordinarily diverse resumé, with content in the telemovie, theatrical feature, miniseries, and prime-time series categories. As for quality of work, Duke hit a few zeniths that most directors never dream of, but also fell flat on many occasions, suggesting that unlike some of his contemporaries (such as, say, Hal Ashby or Robert Altman), his ability to make a project soar may have been largely contingent on the quality of the script at hand. In the end, Duke left behind an occasionally exciting yet maddeningly uneven body of work.
Born October 21, 1929, Duke spent time laboring at a Canadian sawmill as a young man. At the age of 24, he joined Vancouver's premier CBC affiliate, CBUT, where he helped produce the network's first television programs in December 1953, then transferred to the Toronto branch of the CBC in 1958. From that seat, Duke produced additional television specials and documentaries, including episodes of This Hour Has Seven Days and Wojeck. When the late '60s arrived, Duke parlayed the success of his Canadian endeavors into a Hollywood-based television career. He helmed episodes of weekly prime-timers for NBC, including The Bold Ones, The Psychiatrist, Night Gallery, Banacek, and Ghost Story, which carried him through the early '70s, then made a stunning (and brave) leap into feature films, enlisting the notoriously volatile and colorful Rip Torn to play booze and pill-addled country singer Maury Dann in the road picture Payday (1973). Though the picture is now largely forgotten, it remains the archetypal "critical darling," justly lauded by the press for its remarkable craftsmanship but virtually ignored by the public, who shied away given the manically depressing nature of the material. Even more problematically, the film didn't receive an official studio release until 1975. Variety wrote of it, "Duke's feature debut is outstanding...[and] co-producer Don Carpenter's first-produced screenplay neatly captures the grit and the sweat of a poptune idol's barnstorming life. The girls, the pills, the payoffs, the cynical flackery, the hollow sentiment, and the desperate flight from poverty all are integrated deftly and superbly in concise, meaty characterizations."
In 1973, Duke returned to the small screen, where he helmed the telepic for which he most wanted to be remembered. Skillfully adapted from Margaret Craven's novel by Gerald Di Pego, I Heard the Owl Call My Name stars kitchen sink vet Tom Courtenay as an Anglican priest transferred to a rural Native American village in British Columbia, who, in order to connect with the parishioners, must first reach into his own heart and soul.
In 1976, after co-directing the poorly received telefilm The Return of Charlie Chan with Leslie Martinson (a project that wasn't officially released until 1979, several years after its production), Duke took on a project that would occupy him for 12 years: he co-founded and ran an independent Vancouver television station. Meanwhile, in 1977, Duke did the finest directorial work of his career by helming the Curtis Hanson-scripted adaptation of Anders Bodelsen's ingenious Danish novel Think of a Number. Retitled The Silent Partner for the screen, deliriously souped up by Hanson with brilliant plot twists, complex supporting characters, and shocking acts of violence, and given life by two of the finest performances in the careers of leads Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer, this motion picture deservedly won a Canadian Film Award for Best Picture prior to the official establishment of the Genies in 1980. It has since garnered a small but sturdy cult following among those who have seen it.
In the early '80s, Duke accepted the assignment for which he is best remembered by legions of television viewers: directing the seven-and-a-half-hour epic miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983), adapted by Carmen Culver from Colleen McCullough's novel for ABC. The by-now-familiar premise concerns the spiritual-carnal struggles of Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain), a Roman Catholic priest stationed in the wilds of Australia. The results are now overly familiar: The Thorn Birds became one of the highest-rated programs in television history (drawing legions of viewers) and a critical darling to boot. It swept a host of Golden Globe Awards including one for Best Miniseries in 1983.
Unfortunately, this marked the last real high point of Duke's career. He scraped bottom in 1986 by making the ill-advised decision to helm the god-awful theatrical epic Tai-Pan for mega-producer Dino de Laurentiis, then spent the next several years helming forgettable made-for-television pictures (When We Were Young, Hang Tough, Fatal Memories), before bowing out of directorial work in the early '90s.
After 14 years of inactivity, Duke died on October 21, 2006, of pulmonary fibrosis, the long-delayed product, some speculated, of his early days in the sawmill, a period when workers almost never wore masks and would thus inhale vast quantities of thick wood dust. He was survived in death by his wife, Anne-Marie Dekker, whom he married in 1980.