Paul Haggis

"None of us expected this," said Paul Haggis after his ensemble drama Crash won the 2006 Oscar for best film. It's the kind of declaration cinema fans have come to expect from those who win the movie industry's most coveted prize, but on this occasion it was undoubtedly true. Even movie veteran Jack Nicholson, who was chosen to present the award, looked stunned when he opened the sealed envelope containing the winner's name.

The racially-charged subject matter of the movie wasn't the only reason it was considered an outsider for the gong. Having opened months before any of the other contenders, the buzz surrounding the flick had long since died down. And it was also made on a meagre budget outside of the main studio system, meaning it lacked the kind of heavyweight backing that can prove crucial in influencing Academy voters.

But despite being a relative newcomer to celebrity, Paul is far from a rookie when it comes to the world of showbiz. Over the years he has become a well-known figure in the television industry, with his writing and directing credits include such high-profile series as LA Law, Due South and Thirtysomething. He also knows a thing or two about the Academy Awards, having made the shortlist for best screenplay with his script for Clint Eastwood's 2004 blockbuster Million Dollar Baby.

Born in the town of London, Ontario on March 10 1953, Paul no doubt inherited his love of drama from his father Ted, who managed a community theatre. As a young man he helped out with carpentry work in the venue, but when he was called upon to adapt CS Lewis' legendary fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia for the stage, he got a taste for writing that would turn into a lifelong passion. "He just got the idea in his head he wanted to be a writer," recalls his dad. "He went down to Los Angeles and spent three years and four months trying to sell something and finally he did that was 25 years ago."

He was just 22 when he made the move to Hollywood, with little more than an old-fashion manual typewriter and a fertile imagination to his name. He soon found his place in the City of Angels, however, and a few years later he made a home there with first wife Diane Gettas. Their relationship seemed destined to buck the Tinseltown trend by standing the test of time but in 1994, after 17 years and three children together, the pair decided to go their separate ways.

The break-up of his marriage must have come as a terrible blow to the filmmaker, but he bounced back three years later by taking a second trip down the aisle with actress Deborah Rennard. And his relationship with the small screen star has brought more than just romance into Paul's life, as he became a father for a fourth time soon afterwards.

While the director's sudden notoriety has taken many industry experts by surprise, fame and glory have never been high on his list of priorities. A long-time human rights campaigner, he is co-founder of Artists for Peace and Justice and a director of the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project. His beneficent work also stretches to green issues, as he is on the boards of the Environmental Media Association and the Earth Communications Office, too.

Indeed the filmmaker's Oscar statuette will join a collection of humanitarian awards that already adorn his mantelpiece. One magazine even saw fit to rank him alongside Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong as "one of the 25 mavericks of our time". "Nonconformists that defy dictates, the iconoclasts that cling to independent thought, the radicals that refuse adherence, that give us pause," declared the publication. "They are what legends are made of."

The fact that he is a man on a mission was proven when he returned to work on the set of Crash just a fortnight after suffering a heart attack. And although such widespread recognition was not what he was looking for, there can be little doubt he'll use his newfound status to make more, equally challenging films.

"We've made some people really upset - it's great," he said when asked about the controversy his big screen debut provoked. "People really, really love this film or they hate it and that's what you like to see. The nice thing about these awards is they give you the credibility to do projects that are riskier."
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