Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lazy Sunday # 238: Winston

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Friday morning, Canadian actor Winston Rekert passed away in his hometown of Vancouver. In addition to a grieving family and wide circle of devastated friends, he leaves behind a country much changed and greatly improved by the life he lived.

Win’s death cuts particularly deep for me, since I spent two years making him a guy you just couldn’t kill in the CBS television series “Adderly”.

Talking with cast and crew over the last days, I discovered we all shared much the same sentiment. We never considered that a time could come when Winston wouldn’t be there to save the day, either for us or somebody else –- either on screen or off.

He had a drive, a determination and a lust for life that seemed impossible to extinguish.

“Adderly” was green-lit in the Spring of 1986 as part of a late night drama slate CBS dubbed “Crime Time After Prime Time”. It was counter-programming to the pervasive late night talk format of the time, while mining the popular Private eye/Cop genre.

Adderly tv show photo

It was where I landed my first staff job in television and it would be Winston’s first series lead as well.

I didn’t know him, but knew of him when he was cast. And, frankly, I didn’t have a high opinion of his talents.

Winston had come up through theatre in Vancouver at the same time I was coming up through it in Toronto. And back then, the twain never met. So I hadn’t been exposed to any of his landmark and iconic West coast performances.

I’d only seen him in a couple of over-hyped and overwrought Canadian movies and didn’t think he had the weight to carry a television series. But casting decisions were far beyond my pay grade back then –- clearly with good reason.

When I finally met Winston, I was stunned at how damned handsome he was. But unlike a lot of good-looking actors, he was clearly a guy who didn’t rest on those laurels.

He was funny and smart, self-deprecating, self-aware and clearly focussed on disappearing into the character of a formidable espionage agent who had lost the use of one hand and was now relegated to the very lowest level of the spy game.

The conceit of the series was that each week Adderly would turn a nothing assignment into something bigger, outsmarting both his superiors and various foreign governments in the process.

In a lot of ways that was as far-fetched as the way Tom Selleck’s “Magnum PI” and “The A-Team” operated, at a time when those two shows were part of our competition.

In that first meeting, I took an immediate liking to Winston and walked away knowing we had a lead who would make the long hours of writing worthwhile. It was a sentiment that soon spread to every other department on the series. This was a guy who cared and worked just as hard or harder than everybody else.

Over the next two seasons, I can’t count the number of times Win’s unwavering sense of humor and dedication to getting it right combined to both inspire and reward.

Although already strikingly handsome, the network powers had an obsession with "hairstyles” that ultimately had Winston locked in a make-up chair for an hour every morning as an unmoving coiffure he dubbed “the helmet” was sculpted on his head.

Instead of complaining, he used that time to ramp up the make-up and hair crew for their day, making his arrival so high energy that we discovered others of the crew were coming in an hour or two early to join in the fun while getting a little ahead on what they had to accomplish in their day.

Initially, “Adderly” was conceived as a dark, Harry Palmer rather than James Bond version of the world of international espionage. But as the audience took a greater interest in the gallows humor of series characters relegated to the dead end security sector dubbed “Miscellaneous Affairs” it began to lighten, taking the business of spying far less seriously.

Sometimes, we all felt that went too far. But Winston always found a way to make everything believable and often better than it deserved to be.

We were likewise hamstrung on the budget side, knowing we needed to compare favorably to the prevailing notion of what constituted a “spy film” with less money than James Bond spent on a single car.

To succeed, we had to play “small ball” accomplishing in story and character what we couldn’t deliver as spectacle.

Unlike those series stars who make it all about them, Winston knew when scenes needed to be about somebody else, that he shouldn’t always have the best lines and that you didn’t quit until it was as good as it could be.

My memories of those seasons are filled with set-side conferences, coming up with cheats and tricks to make the show bigger than it was. Winston was always front and center, keeping it fun, transforming the psychic pain into a fraternal bonding and helpless laughter.

In 1987, Winston won his first Gemini for “Adderly” sharing the award with Eric Peterson of “Street Legal” (I believe the first and only time that has happened). It was a stunning moment for the Canadian television industry. A shock brought home when his co-star, Dixie Seatle, took the Best Actress trophy.

Until then, we were considered just another one of those “for entertainment purposes only” shows, not legitimately Canadian and certainly nothing with the weight and importance to be considered culturally important and award worthy.

There were many discussions at the evening’s after-parties about whether the firmament had shifted. “Gee, maybe we really can make shows that a lot of people want to watch!”

The next morning, I arrived at the studio to find Win’s statuette parked in a bowl of cream cheese on the craft service table, there to be shared with everybody else he knew had made it possible.

At wrap, a case of champagne turned up as well, with Winston popping the corks and filling the paper cups, making sure he thanked everyone personally for making his achievement possible.

After “Adderly” went the way of all television, Winston returned to Vancouver to create, produce and star in the series for which he became best known, “Neon Rider”.

Through that series, Winston not only gave about half the current cadre of film professionals in Vancouver their first jobs, he became involved in a variety of charities, ultimately becoming the spokesman for “Youth in Crisis”.

He was always there for somebody.

http://www.magweb.com/picts/actor/85595/winston_rekert.jpg

Winston would go on to win a second Gemini in 2003 for a guest role on “Blue Murder” and was nominated on nine other occasions.

Yet despite these accomplishments, the seismic creative jolt he gave the industry and all he accomplished in the world of charity, Win’s passing didn’t make the news much beyond his hometown.

Maybe that’s the way the world (or at least Canada) works when it comes to TV from more than a decade ago.  But I know that there are many in this business who wouldn’t be here without him.

And there are just as many like me who watched him and learned how to make production shortcomings work in our favor and find ways to overcome misdirected network notes.

More than anything, Winston helped me to understand that as important as making a good show is, it’s just as important to have a good time making them and to share any success with everybody involved in the process.

We lost a great talent this week. A regular guy. A decent man.

For those who didn’t know him, here’s the last episode of “Adderly”, a show that died so CBS could finally climb on the late night talk show bandwagon. But also a show that first told Canadians we could easily hold our own in America and the rest of the world when it came to making popular television.

It’s a fine example of both Winston Rekert’s talents and his love of life and those with whom we share it.

It’s of another time and another world, so forgive it that.

But appreciate it for the enjoyment it attempted to deliver.

And Enjoy your Sunday.

9 comments:

tony nardi said...

Jim,

I never met the man I’m embarrassed to say. I never saw “Adderly”. I actually had no idea, Jim, that you were a writer, story editor and senior story editor on the show. But I remember the face. Full of so much character, pathos and wisdom. A face the screen loved. My spouse worked with him on a couple of Neon Rider episodes including the pilot.

I actually never put the name with the face until 2009, when the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, in celebration of 30 years of Lead Actors, announced that Winston Rekert was in the top-ten list in the Academy’s 30-year history. He was 1 of 4 actors from English Canada; 6 in the top-ten category were from Qu├ębec. I believe it’s based on total nominations and wins. As we know awards mean little to us a far as the work is concerned. But the thought came to me that any actor in the U.S. or in any country in the western world, even in Asia, who makes a top-ten list in a film Academy’s 30-year history would be a face AND a name many people in a country would know.

Today, I ran into a couple of actors. All of them middle age. Out of 4, only two immediately knew who he was. The other, after seeing his picture online, immediately recognized his face. They all had the same reaction: “Oh, no, he died?! When?! How?!” None had heard that he had died. As of yesterday only the Vancouver Sun and the Province reported his passing. Today, the Ottawa Citizen followed suit. One of the actors said: “That’s really too bad. A nice guy, but not a good actor.” He apparently saw him in a play years ago, and didn’t think much of him, but never saw him in “Adderly” or on screen, I believe.

I gave him my view. I told him that last night after I read your post in The Legion of Decency: Lazy Sunday # 238: Winston via Facebook, having been so touched by it, I watched the “Adderly” episode you posted. It was my way of honouring the memory of a colleague I never met and whose work I hardly knew. (Without taking anything away from the other actors) I was immediately arrested by his presence and simple humanity and how powerful it resonated on the screen. I then watched three more episodes… the first three of the first season. What became immediately apparent was how amazingly solid, Zen-like and at home he was in the first three episodes as he was in the 22nd episode of the 2nd season. And when he wasn’t on screen I couldn’t wait to see him back on. He was not acting, but anti-acting. And he kept my focus, as a viewer, not on himself but on the story. Those who do that on screen manage, it seems, to carry a story’s narrative within their character’s DNA, even when they don’t say anything. The minute a viewer’s eyes fall on such an actor s/he feels at home, ushered safely through the narrative and compelled to watch. That’s a screen quality not many actors possess on. It’s a gift and an immense talent.

So it struck me today that the actor who said “A nice guy, but not a good actor” hails from the very country that – for the most part - has yet to hear of Winston Rekert’s passing, a country so fast at passing judgment without giving talent or culture much of a chance… or chance to fail - even once. How Canada ever got it’s peace-loving rep I’ll never know (no doubt the ‘60s Lester B. Pearson). There is often something nasty in the Canadian ethos. Put-downs, dirty digs and jabs often stand in for critical thinking (and comedy). It is essentially adolescent, reflects a country and an acting community collectively (still) fighting acne.

As for success and failure, they are both often subjective. What remains however is the work. And I’m glad that Winston Rekert’s work on screen – notwithstanding that Canadian TV drama was young and green in the ‘80s – remains and pulsates with such simple and integral humanity and integrity. It’s like I discovered a brand new talented actor who sadly died way too soon. It’s strange to miss someone I never knew. But it’s right.

nm said...

It saddens me deeply to hear of it.deeply, and way to young to make any sense...nick mancuso

DMc said...

It's amazing how every generation we keep learning the same lessons. I hate to do this to you, Jim, but when I first saw him on Adderly I was a kid. He was a guy on TV. He was great to watch. He was great to watch on every guest shot I saw him on too. It's nice to hear that he was so decent.

But I'm weary by the lack of coverage; and I'm weary that we have to prosecute the same argument over and over. I'm weary of the NY Times having to tell us when we're good. I'm weary.

Prestba said...

I can't remember which show I've seen Winston Rekert before, but I know I have, because that face- its warmth- is hard to forget.

I posted this on my Facebook as well, just so people could get a chance to read it.

Thomas Rickert said...

What a huge loss to our actors' community and to our nation. Winston was a fine actor and human being and an inspiration to us all. He will be missed. Thomas Rickert

Magicalaurie said...

Wow. I'm very sorry to hear this. I'm a big fan and this is the first I've heard about Winston's death. That shocks me. He was special. We were blessed to have him here with us and to think the country hasn't even been made aware he's left us saddens me. He was a peaceful and wise man.
Great comedic talent- such wit! And those eyebrows. Thankyou, Winston, for Neon Rider, especially. Magic.

Laura DeYoung said...

I am a long time US fan of Winston Rekert. I absolutely loved Adderly. I got my parents in Pittsburgh, PA to tape Neon Ryder in syndication because I couldn't get it in Milwaukee where I lived at the time.I was perusing the web today, and was stunned to see that this great guy was gone. I found out so late. I've been looking for articles to tell me about the man, and there was so little there. And then I stumbled on this. What a joy to read. I am happy to know he had an interesting and productive life. I always wanted to meet him. I guess I will someday. Thank you. L. DeYoung

Jeff Taylor said...

Was never a big "Neon Rider" fan but I LOVED "Adderly" and caught every episode I could (shame it never came out on DVD). Winston Rekert played my absolute favourite TV spy, and I am saddened to hear he is no longer with us.
As a small side note the castle at the beginning of the episode also appeared as Maljardin in the seventies Canadian "Dark Shadows"-style soap opera "Strange Paradise", another fave show of mine in my younger days which I watched whenever I was home sick from school.

Magicalaurie said...

Something I want to amend about my comment. Almost immediately upon posting it, I felt "left us" was an inaccurate word choice and regretted it. I'm finally back to say so. I don't believe Winston has left anyone. Love. Peace.