Winnipeg actor/musician Gene Pyrz, who died of cancer Tuesday, is being remembered as a charismatic man both on and off the stage.
"He had a magnetic personality and audiences were drawn to him," says actor Arne MacPherson. "He was a one-of-a-kind performer."
Pyrz, the lead singer of rockabilly band Combo Combo, had been battling stage IV metastatic sarcoma that had forced him into a wheelchair last fall. He was 56.
He was a stalwart of both the Winnipeg theatre community and music scene. The Elmwood native was a co-founder of Shakespeare in the Ruins and appeared in most of its early productions, such as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and the title role in Macbeth.
He was also a favourite at Manitoba Theatre Centre, where he appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Crucible, Of Mice and Men and Hamlet, starring Keanu Reeves. Both Pyrz and the Speed movie star moonlighted in bands.
"We'd always talked about sitting down one night and trading bass licks so, finally when the show was over, Keanu said, 'OK, this is where I'm staying, come over and bring your bass,'" he once told the Free Press. "We just sat around all night and jammed. He's pretty good, actually."
If there was one role he was born to play, it was Hank in Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave in 1991. To many it is remembered as the defining performance of his career.
"Gene Pyrz was the coolest actor in Winnipeg, with his gravelly voice and rock-star slouch," says Steven Schipper, RMTC artistic director. "He was a man's man, Winnipeg's answer to Russell Crowe. None of us will forget his Mercutio here in the mid-'90s or his MacHeath in The Three Penny Opera six years later, but it's his Hank Williams in The Show He Never Gave that will probably linger in people's minds because it was the perfect Gene Pyrz combination of music, theatre and hip."
Acting took him into film, where he appeared opposite Crowe and Renée Zellweger in Cinderella Man (2005), as well as in The Plague (2006), and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001).
Pat Pyrz says his brother could turn a wrench and repair his old MG with the best of backyard mechanics. Pyrz remembers Gene embarking on a bicycle tour in 1986 in pursuit of a sighting of Halley's Comet.
"Many people may only know him for his entertaining talents, but he loved science and enjoyed discussing, debating, pondering thoughts on it," Pyrz wrote in an email to the Free Press. "In many ways he was a contemporary renaissance man."