Monday, January 08, 2007


Canadian Actress Charmion King passed away this past weekend at the age of 81. For those of you who never had the pleasure of seeing her onstage, several magnificent performances are available on film from an episode of "Tugboat Annie" filmed in 1957 to such Canadian classics as "Who Has Seen The Wind", "Anne of Green Gables" and "Shadow Dancing".

I first met Charmion in 1973 at one of the lowest points in my life. I was a young actor deeply involved in the production of new Canadian plays and part of a production at Toronto's Factory Theatre entitled "Works". This was a massive explosion of creativity in the form of 20-some plays presented over several nights involving dozens of actors and technicians. It was all designed (if only by sheer force of numbers) to make the point that Canadian Theatre had finally arrived.

All of us were working for something like $100 for the month (and you Newbies thought today's wages were low!) completely in contradiction of the rules of our union, Actors Equity. At that time, the union was run out of New York with contracts designed for Broadway and its traveling road shows. Contracts that had absolutely no relationship to the Canadian scene outside of a few pro companies such as Stratford and which were impossibly unrealistic for productions staffed with unknown writers and performers.

Two weeks into the run of "Works", the NY Equity office called the Toronto branch and ordered the show closed. Equity Reps literally ripped the union plaque from the wall of the theatre and charged the actors in the cast (myself included) with "Unprofessional Conduct" a crime so serious that should we be convicted, it meant the end of our professional careers.

So there I was, a couple of seasons into a profession I'd worked years to embrace, about to see the last of a job I loved and had been getting pretty good at. But I was also a child of the 60's, full of the rebellious, stick up for what you believe in, tenor of the times. So were most of the other actors charged. We fought back, appearing before a panel of our peers who would ultimately determine our fate.

The inquiry was intense, a clash of two very different cultures, young actors who saw the chance for this country to step away from re-staging American and British plays and do something unique and our own; and an older generation that had thrived on that kind of work. I'll never forget walking into the hearing room and seeing a dozen incredibly famous faces, actors I'd admired for years, ready to take me out.

One of them was Charmion King.

Charmion had been a working actress since the 1940's. She was enormously respected as both an actress and director, married to another star, Gordon Pinsent, and legendary for her no nonsense, tenacious nature. I remember her watching me as I testified, almost freezing under her icy stare and knowing I was completely fucking "over".

I left the Hearing room and dug my Equity card from my wallet, figuring I might as well drop it off now and save myself a trip. Charmion walked in as I approached the Receptionist, realized what I was doing, took the card and tucked it in my shirt, saying, "Sorry Buster, we're not losing you."

A few days later we learned that many of those older actors felt the same way we did. The charges against us were dropped and soon after, the newly formed Canadian Actors Equity Association arrived with a contract that not only made sense to our industry, but made the production of new work not only possible but profitable.

I met Charmion many times socially after that. She and Gordon and I often ended up talking and laughing late into the night. But she and I never worked together. Until I finally started producing.

In 1994, Charmion and two other Grand Ladies of the Canadian Theatre, Francis Hyland and Vivian Reese, graciously agreed to take roles in a film I was shooting in Budapest. They arrived, giddy as schoolgirls from the 11 hour flight. Hard as it is to believe in this day and age, for all their talent and experience, none of them had ever been flown to an "exotic" location to shoot a film, let alone by a Canadian producer. They couldn't have been happier.

And they couldn't have been a better addition to any shoot. Their professionalism, discipline and dedication to their craft was infectious, immediately inspiring the rest of the cast and crew. Indeed, the Hungarian unit our Canadian sound man described as taking "Quiet on the set!" to mean "No small arms fire!" would fall completely silent when they came on scene, aware they were in the company of exceptional performers.

One of my fondest memories is the dashing leading man and I taking all three to lunch at a lovely sidewalk cafe. We played the part of their kept gigolos, all of us enjoying the by-play with the staff and clientèle, laughing long into the afternoon. I'll never forget Charmion taking my arm as I walked her back to her hotel along the banks of the Danube, her wishing her husband were there to share the moment, and me understanding what a lucky man he was. I cannot imagine the depth of Gordon's loss and pray he and his family find the strength and comfort they deserve.

Charmion's performance in the film was magical and I was so proud a few months later when both she and Francis were nominated for Gemini awards.

The last time I saw Charm, she and Gordon were having a drink in an elegant hotel bar. She called me over with that husky scotch and cigarette smoke voice she was so proud of, gave me a hug and asked when I was taking her somewhere "exotic" again.

That never happened. But wherever she is tonight, I know it's a place made so much warmer and better by her presence. God bless you, Charm, and thanks for giving me and all those other actors a second chance. We've all tried hard to deserve your trust.

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