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.
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.
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.