Duddy Kravitz (Richard Dreyfuss) is a brash, restless young Jewish man growing up poor in Montreal, Quebec. His taxi driver father Max (Jack Warden) and his rich uncle Benjy (Joseph Wiseman) are very proud of Duddy's older brother Lenny, whom Benjy is putting through medical school. Only his grandfather (Zvee Scooler) shows the motherless Duddy any attention.
Duddy gets a summer job as a waiter at a Jewish resort hotel in the Laurentian Mountains. His hustle, energy and coarse manners irritate condescending college student and fellow waiter Irwin. Irwin gets his girlfriend Linda, the daughter of the hotel's owner, to persuade Duddy to stage a clandestine roulette game. Unbeknownst to Duddy, the roulette wheel is crooked, and he loses his entire $300 earnings to Irwin and some hotel guests. Fortunately for Duddy, the other waiters find out and make Irwin give back the money. Unaware of this, the hotel guests, led by Farber, feel bad and give him a further $500.
Duddy starts a serious relationship with another hotel employee, French-Canadian Yvette (Micheline Lanctôt). One day, she takes him on a picnic beside a lake. Duddy is stunned by the beauty of the setting, and his ambition crystallizes: taking to heart his grandfather Zeyta's maxim that "a man without land is nobody", he decides he will buy all the property around the lake and develop it. Because the current owners might not want to sell to a Jew, he gets Yvette to front for him.
Duddy sets out to raise the money he needs. He hires blacklisted, alcoholic American director Friar (Denholm Elliott) to film weddings and bar mitzvahs. His first customer is Farber, who drives a hard bargain. If he does not like the result, he will not pay. Despite Friar's artistic pretensions, the film is a success, and more orders are quickly forthcoming.
However, when a piece of land comes up for sale, Duddy does not have enough money. He begs his father to get him an appointment with his friend Dingleman, "the Boy Wonder", a rich, successful businessman-cum-gangster who had equally humble beginnings. Dingleman turns down his request for a loan but later invites him to discuss his scheme on a train to New York. It turns out that Dingleman just wants a drug mule to unknowingly take the risk of smuggling heroin.
On the train, Duddy meets good-natured Virgil (Randy Quaid) and offers to buy his pinball machines, which are illegal in the United States. When Virgil shows up, Duddy does not have enough money to pay him, so Duddy hires Virgil as a truck driver, even though he has epilepsy. Tragedy strikes when Virgil has a seizure while driving and crashes; he is left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Duddy is distraught and guilt-ridden. Blaming Duddy, Yvette leaves him to care for Virgil.
Duddy becomes alarmed when Dingleman finds out about his lake. When the last piece of property Duddy needs comes on the market, Dingleman bids for it. Desperate, Duddy forges Virgil's signature on a check to buy the land, leading to a final rupture with Yvette and Virgil.
Undeterred, Duddy proudly takes Max, Lenny and his grandfather to see his property. When Dingleman shows up to offer to raise the financing for its development, Duddy mocks him. Duddy's grandfather, however, refuses to pick out a plot for his farm; Yvette told him what Duddy did to get it. He tries but fails to reconcile with her, and she tells him that she never wishes to see him again. The final scene shows Duddy having risen far enough in society to run a tab at the local diner, and his father boasting about how his son made it.Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy Kravitz
Micheline Lanctôt as Yvette
Jack Warden as Max Kravitz, Duddy's father
Randy Quaid as Virgil, Duddy's friend.
Joseph Wiseman as Benjy Kravitz, Max's brother and Duddy's and Lenny's uncle
Denholm Elliott as Friar
Henry Ramer as Dingleman
Joe Silver as Farber
Zvee Scooler as Grandfather, Max's and Benjy's father and Duddy's and Lenny's grandfather.
The film was actually Kotcheff's second adaptation of Richler's 1959 novel. In 1961, he had directed a television play for ITV's Armchair Theatre based on Kravitz, with Hugh Futcher in the title role.
American producer Samuel Z. Arkoff was approached to make the film, but wanted to turn Duddy into a Greek character.
Few Canadians were cast in major roles, for box office and artistic reasons.
Duddy Kravitz has an important place in Canadian film history because it was the most commercially successful Canadian film ever made at the time of its release, and has thus been described as a 'coming of age' for Canadian cinema. The film has been designated and preserved as a "masterwork" by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the preservation of Canada’s audio-visual heritage. The Toronto International Film Festival ranked it in the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time twice, in 1984 and 1993.
In the period between shooting Duddy Kravitz and actually seeing the completed movie, Richard Dreyfuss was offered, and turned down, the role of Matt Hooper in Jaws; having read the script he decided that it was a film he would "rather watch than be in". After he had seen the final cut of Kravitz, however, Dreyfuss felt his performance was so bad that it could potentially end his movie career. Discovering that the role of Hooper had still not been cast, he jumped at it to ensure that he was safely under contract to make another movie before anybody at Universal Pictures heard any negative press about Kravitz.
It was shown as part of the Cannes Classics section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.Berlin International Film Festival – Golden Bear Award
Canadian Film Awards – Film of the Year
Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium – (Mordecai Richler & Lionel Chetwynd)
Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay – (Mordecai Richler & Lionel Chetwynd)
Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film
In 1984 in Edmonton, Canada, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was adapted into a musical. A 1987 adaptation was directed by Austin Pendleton and premiered in Philadelphia. A newly updated version of the musical had its debut in Montreal in 2015 with music by Alan Menken, book and lyrics by David Spencer, and directed by Pendleton.