I first met Maury Chaykin a few days after he'd emigrated from New York to Toronto. We'd both been cast in a new play called "Hooray for Johnny Canuck" written by Ken Gass for the Factory Theatre.
The theatre, like most in Toronto in the 1970's, was in a dirty old warehouse. The play was an attempt to revive the once hugely popular, but by then completely forgotten Canadian comic book industry which had thrived through the 1940's with Canadian heroes like Johnny Canuck, Derek Bras D'Or, RCMP Corporal Wayne Dixon and Nelvana of the North.
Like Captain America and Sgt. Rock, these pulp creations had almost single handedly defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan in their B&W hand drawn pages. But they'd had a lot of fun doing it. So the show was a slapstick romp, patriotically over the top and politically incorrect.
We did a lot of improvising to help the script find its shape, all playing multiple characters in scenes that did or did not make the final cut.
A lot of actors are uncomfortable working in that kind of atmosphere. And for the first week, Maury was fairly quiet. None of us took that as him being aloof or harboring any New York actor sense of superiority. He just seemed a little shy and to be trying to figure out where he fit in.
I learned he'd gotten into acting with the help of his uncle, director George Bloomfield and had come to Canada looking for greener pastures not long after some New York agent had suggested he wouldn't work much until he was old enough to play Tevya in "Fiddler on the Roof".
One afternoon, we took a crack at a scene that just wasn't working. It featured a number of mad scientists pitching doomsday weapons to Adolph Hitler. Ken asked us to set aside the original comic book pages and kick around the concept. So we all took turns creating our own mad scientists and their comic/demonic creations as Der Fuehrer waited to be impressed.
When it was Maury's turn, he nervously took the stage, acting very deferential as he introduced himself. "Hello, Mr. Hitler. My name is Maury Chaykin and I'm very pleased to be able to audition for you this afternoon."
He stepped back. Cleared his throat. And launched into a full fledged performance of "If I were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof". The cast and crew collapsed in hysterics. It was one of the funniest things any of us had ever seen. And like much of the work Maury did from there on, it exemplified his incredible talent for turning his own life experience into memorable moments of comedy and drama.
I worked with Maury in a half dozen plays after that as he became a fixture in the Toronto theatre scene and we became friends. He even starred in the first short film I made, playing a Samurai warrior trying to grasp the concept of baseball after the American occupation of Japan. It was no great moment in the history of Canadian cinema, but it gave us a chance to laugh ourselves silly for a couple of days.
And that's what made Maury special. No matter what was going on in his working life, he always found time to have fun. I once watched him with a newspaper reporter doing a profile piece who insisted he should get into big time drama at Stratford or Shaw. "Don't you want to be a serious actor?" she asked. Maury shrugged, "If I was serious I wouldn't have become an actor in the first place."
Maury went on to enjoy what many would call a serious actor's career. He made more than 150 film and TV appearances, memorable in everything from his portrayal of Hal Banks in "Canada's Sweetheart" to "Dances with Wolves" to his inimitable take on Nero Wolfe for the USA Network series.
He won a Genie for "Whale Music" giggling as he held the award when I referred to his nude swimming scene as "Free Willy II". He won Gemini awards for "Nikita" and "At the Hotel". But I think he was probably proudest of the Canadian Comedy Award he shared last year with his fellow cast members on "Less Than Kind".
Through all those performances, he still found time to recreate that magical first moment I'd remembered. Like, calling me up one night to invite me to dinner, demanding that I wear a really good suit -- and then taking me to topless steakhouse -- as if it was the only fit place such well dressed gentlemen would dine.
He was a guy who always fashioned a long fuse, caught you unaware and made you so happy you hadn't seen it coming.
Maury Chaykin died this morning, after fighting a disease he'd kept mostly to himself for several years. He leaves behind a magnificent body of work as well as a legion of heart broken friends.
But I think all of us who shared the blessing of his life know that a spirit like his doesn't just go silent. And if there's an audition to get into Heaven, God's already tearing up with laughter.