The man who let The Littlest Hobo run off-leash

In the mid-1970s, after the federal government enacted new tax-shelter laws, movie production in the city was on the rise. But there was a problem. In 1979, the City of Toronto still had no permitting system in place to handle the influx of film crews.

After several run-ins between producers and public works officials, then-mayor John Sewell appointed Naish McHugh, a seasoned industrial manager with a long-standing reputation as a mediator, to be the city’s first film commissioner.

McHugh set up the Toronto Film & Television Office, which for the past 30 years has been responsible for issuing a permit whenever a director wants to film on municipal property in the city.

McHugh’s greatest challenge was catering to film industry requirements while fighting for approval at City Hall.

“Even though I worked with City Hall, I was often fighting City Hall,” says McHugh, who began working for the city as a land surveyor in 1959. “This was all very new to them; people in positions of bureaucracy are often afraid of change, and when somebody comes along and wants to do something different, there is resistance.”

He recalls an incident on the set of CTV’s The Littlest Hobo. “There was a bylaw in Metro parks where dogs had to be leashed. Because of that, they couldn’t get permission to do certain shots. I talked to the parks commissioner, who was adamant that `a bylaw was a bylaw.’ This wasn’t very realistic,” he laughs. “For the purpose of this series, the dog needed to be free to run through the park.”

Over time, many civic bylaws were amended for the purpose of film production.

Keeping a watchful eye on the scripts that came through the office, McHugh would also act as a location adviser: when a producer wanted to shoot a scene on a grand staircase like in Gone With the Wind, McHugh suggested a staircase in the legislative building.

McHugh retired as commissioner in 1992, but thanks to his early promotion of Toronto as a film-friendly city, the TFTO now hands out thousands of film permits a year. In 2008, $610 million was spent filming on-location in the city. His efforts were recently honoured at the Toronto Urban Film Festival, with the unveiling of the “Naish McHugh Award for Emerging Filmmakers,” a $2,500 annual prize donated by the city.

Some of the films produced during McHugh administration, such as Patricia Rozema’s I Heard the Mermaids Singing and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, are featured in the Toronto on Film retrospective at Cinematheque. Info at www.cinemathequeontario.ca

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on

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