Gordon Pinsent was 24, not long out of the army and faking it as an Arthur Murray dance instructor in Winnipeg, when, on a downtown street, he spied a girlfriend he didn't want to run into.
The fast-thinking Newfoundlander ducked into the nearest door, the YMHA. Inside, he encountered a group of actors reading their next play. He fibbed to the director that he had been onstage before and landed a small part in Ruth Gordon's autobiographical drama Years Ago.
While in rehearsals, Pinsent heard about another theatre troupe that had lost a cast member for its production of Twelfth Night -- he rushed down the street and landed the role of Sebastian. He had yet to make his stage debut and had bluffed his way into two parts.
Canadians should be grateful to Pinsent's girlfriend for first steering him into the right place at the right time -- albeit unintentionally -- and beginning an almost 60-year career as a star of stage and screen.
During a recent telephone interview from his Toronto home, where he was about to embark on a cross-country book tour to promote his new autobiography called Next, Pinsent was retracing his early steps in show biz.
In a bid to run away from a girlfriend, he ran into a career, he says with a laugh.
"I can't remember the poor girl's name or why I was avoiding her but I slipped into a theatre and got myself a role in a play," the 82-year-old says in that familiar, resonant voice. "There was me trying to keep out of the eyesight of one girl and I ended up in the eyesight of a theatre audience.
"Of course, my head was filled with the idea I wanted to get onstage at some point."
Perhaps, his main talent as a young man was his ability to con his way into opportunities and then wing it. Like when he had no business accepting a job as a dance instructor, for example.
"It's true, but the atmosphere just screamed out for it," says Pinsent, whose first marriage at 21 to a Winnipeg woman produced two children but lasted only three years. "New things were starting all over the place. I don't know where the nerve came from. It was a curious thing; I just put on a face."
It was not his idea to pen Next but that of his co-author, George Anthony, a former entertainment editor and columnist for the Toronto Sun. Pinsent had already authored a 1992 memoir, By the Way, but was talked into an autobiography owing to his late-life resurgence, thanks to his attention-getting turn with British actress Julie Christie in Sarah Polley's 2006, Oscar-nominated Away From Her.
Pinsent says the 370-page Next -- dedicated to his late wife of 45 years, Charmion King -- is no tell-all, but it starts out sounding like one. Its opening line is, "I am in bed with Julie Christie." So is the third sentence. In between, he allows some self-deprecating bravado with, "Me, who used to practise kissing on trees."
His indelicate reference is to a scene from art-house success Away From Her, in which Christie, a septuagenarian in the grips of Alzheimer's disease, is in the sack with Pinsent, her heartbroken husband. After the director called cut, Christie gave him a hug and purred, "Well done, Gordon, well done." He mischievously recycled the story at every première the two did together.
"She'd laugh, and say, 'Oh my God, he's going to tell it again,'" says Pinsent, who resembled singer Robert Goulet as a young man.
The longtime fixture in Canadian culture returns to Winnipeg tomorrow, where he will be guest of honour at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's season-opening performance of A Few Good Men before launching Next at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
It's a homecoming he always looks forward to, not only because he was the first actor to ever walk onto the MTC stage (in A Hatful of Rain, opposite Doreen Brownstone, the still-active Winnipeg actress who just turned 90). He has repeated many times how pivotal his early association with the theatre and its founders John Hirsch and Tom Hendry were is in his development as an actor.
When he has a moment during his visit this week, he will make a beeline for Portage and Main.
"Theatre 77 started just down the road (77 steps to be precise)," he says. "I go there and do a circle or two and think about the opening nights of shows or Child's Restaurant, where we went after the shows. I love that sort of thing. Sentimental, oh God, yes."
Top three career highlights:
1. The Clumsy One: Pinsent's part of Global Television's 1997 series was based on an Ernest Buckler short story; his wife Charmion thought it was the best thing he ever did.
2. The Rowdyman: He wrote -- his first screenplay -- and starred in the seminal 1972 film about a roustabout who refuses to grow up. "It had heart and spirit but didn't make a nickel for anyone."
3. Elevated to Companion of the Order of Canada in 1998: "When the House of Commons stood up is something that struck me very deeply and it meant a lot to (my wife) Charm."