Another of Gutwillig’s passions was Wilensky’s — along with Schwartz’s, Beauty’s and the now-defunct Ben’s, the prime Montreal Jewish delis that sparked generational arguments about which counter served the best smoked meat — made famous by Mordecai Richler in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
One of the restaurant’s sandwiches, The Special, a grilled salami-from-beef and bologna-from-beef concoction with obligatory mustard on a kaiser roll, was named one of the world’s best sandwiches in 2012 by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Gutwillig took Wilensky’s to off-Broadway. Collaborating with legendary Montrealer Galt MacDermot, who wrote the award-winning music for Hair, Gutwillig penned the musical The Special, the story of a young Jewish boy who falls in love with a francophone girl in Montreal during the heated referendum campaign of 1980. The play — “a sort of Canadian ‘West Side Story,’” per the New York Times, and set in the fictional Montreal deli Rubinsky’s, was performed by Manhattan’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1985 after Gutwillig was accepted into its playwright-in-residence program.
“I never saw him happier than when he was in rehearsal,” Beloff recalled. “Mike was in absolute heaven.”
Another friend, former Westmount City Councillor Victor Drury, remembers Gutwillig at a Montreal ecumenical prayer breakfast back in the early 1960s. “Mike read us letters from a prisoner in Stanley Prison in Hong Kong. It was remarkable,” Drury says, remembering how moved he was by that, as well as how successful Gutwillig was at encouraging women to join the predominantly male group.
Both agree Gutwillig was of a rare, enthusiastic and selfless breed.
“It was never about him,” Beloff says. “It was always about what he could do for someone else.”
Gutwillig was pre-deceased by his wife, Judy, and is survived by his children, Tracy and Glenn.