First step on the Pinsent path Late great actor’s twisty, storied, occasionally duplicitous acting career began in Winnipeg

Before becoming one of the most iconic actors in Canadian history, Gordon Pinsent, who died last week at age 92, was a young boy in Grand Falls, Newfoundland with dreams of heading west to what was in those days a different country.

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Before becoming one of the most iconic actors in Canadian history, Gordon Pinsent, who died last week at age 92, was a young boy in Grand Falls, Newfoundland with dreams of heading west to what was in those days a different country.

“(Grand Falls) was a town built and brought along by the honest sweat of the honest brow,” Pinsent wrote in his first memoir, By the Way. Most people in town, including his father, earned their wages working for the pulp and paper mill, but Pinsent was drawn to the movies, where he would see films like 1939’s Gunga Din for only a nickel.

“You’re going to be a blind man going to the movies so much,” he recalled being told. “No, I’m not,” he’d reply. “I’m goin’ to be an actor.”

Gordon Edward Pinsent became just that, forging a 70-year career that made him a familiar face — and voice — to every generation from the baby boomers through Generation Z.

He starred in Canadian series such as Quentin Durgens, M.P., Due South, the Forest Rangers and Babar, voicing the famed royal elephant of children’s literature. He wrote, directed and starred in John and the Missus, a Genie-award-winning film about a small Canadian mining town, and starred in late-career gems such as Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated 2006 film Away From Her, playing with heartbreaking stoicism the husband of a wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

But before making good on his Hollywood promise, Pinsent, who was known as the Rowdyman, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, training as a paratrooper in November 1948. Two years later, he was restationed to Rivers, Man., where he was among the thousands of volunteers called upon to combat the great flood of 1950 in Winnipeg.

“I passed sandbags, partook of Red Cross coffee and doughnuts, and dealt with trainloads of evacuated humanity from hospitals and the like on their way to wherever till the water went back to where it had come from,” he wrote in his memoir.

After being discharged from the service in 1951, Pinsent stuck around in Winnipeg, working a series of odd jobs: he was a meter reader, a streetcar ticketer, a sign painter, and a ballroom instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

He became enamoured with the city, he recalled in a 2011 taped interview with actor R.H. Thomson. “The quality of life in Winnipeg came to be a decided asset,” he said, and along with its European influence, he said there was a European love of theatre and art.

Then in 1954 came a lucky break.

A 24-year-old Pinsent wandered into the Young Men’s Hebrew Association hall on Kennedy Street to avoid an old girlfriend, where the Winnipeg Repertory Theatre, led by founder Lena Lovegrove, was mounting a production.

Pinsent recounted the incident with the Free Press in 2012 prior to the release of Next, his second memoir.

“There was me trying to keep out of the eyesight of one girl and I ended up in the eyesight of a theatre audience,” he said in the interview.

Pinsent wrote that Lovegrove approached him and told him he was “a quite presentable young man.” She wondered, had he ever acted?

“Oh yes. Long time ago,” he said. “Back east.” She asked for his clippings. “What did my toenails have to do with it?” Pinsent joked in his memoir. He cobbled together his charisma, and finagled his way into the role of the doctor in the company’s production of Years Ago, a play written by Ruth Gordon.

“I lied to get into my very first stage role,” he wrote.

From then on, Pinsent was a professional actor, and will be forever connected with Winnipeg’s theatre history.

With John Hirsch and Tom Hendry’s Theatre 77 — the number represented the amount of steps from the Dominion Theatre’s door to the corner at Portage and Main — Pinsent played the butler in Italian Strawhat, the first 77 production.

Theatre 77 was a predecessor to the Manitoba Theatre Centre, whose first production, 1958’s A Hatful of Rain, directed by Hirsch, starred Pinsent and Doreen Brownstone, who died last year at the age of 100.

“Gordon Pinsent was so good in A Hatful of Rain,” Hendry told the Free Press in 2007 that, “people were regularly coming out of the auditorium throwing up, because he was so graphically suffering as a junkie kicking the habit.

“I told Gordie to tone it down or that I am going to have to charge for carpet cleaning.”

During the theatre centre’s inaugural season, Pinsent played in Cinderella, The Glass Menagerie, Hatful of Rain, and Of Mice and Men.

In 1972, after heading to Hollywood, Pinsent returned to Winnipeg to star in MTC’s production of Guys and Dolls, playing the role of Sky Masterson.

This news was met with some confusion by Pinsent’s friend, Marlon Brando, who that year won an Oscar for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather and who had originated the role of Masterson on Broadway. “Winnipeg?” Pinsent says during his interview with Thomson, slipping into his best Brando. “What for?”

While continuing to be cast as a lead actor on stage, Pinsent began to make inroads on screen, taking on roles in some of the earliest network productions shot in Winnipeg, including 1956’s The Kiss.

Though his theatre career continued to be a personal focus, including with the Stratford Festival, Pinsent likely achieved his widest acclaim for his work in film and television, where his rugged and dashing East Coast demeanour developed over time into a wizened gravitas.

Pinsent earned adoration from colleagues such as legendary Canadian director Norman Jewison and the three-time Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who called Pinsent’s performance in Away From Her “astonishing.”

Current Royal MTC artistic director Kelly Thornton calls Pinsent “a critical part” of the company’s origin story.

“We were honoured to welcome him back to Winnipeg over the decades, and in 1989 as the playwright of Brass Rubbings,” Thornton added. “While his extraordinary career spanned the entire country, we are proud to have been part of his story.”

“Gordon Pinsent inspired (the) Royal MTC from our first play to today,” said Steven Schipper, Thornton’s predecessor.

Pinsent was married for 45 years to Charmion King, a revered actor in her own right, until her death in 2007. Together, they had one child, actor Leah Pinsent, who is married to actor Peter Keleghan. Pinsent had two other children, Beverly and Barry, from a previous marriage.

In his hometown, now known as Grand Falls-Windsor, Pinsent’s life is being celebrated, as are his contributions to the community, says Sean Cooper, the regional manager of the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts. A street was named Pinsent Drive in his honour several years ago.

During his last visit to the arts centre, in 2019, a then-89-year-old Pinsent broke out into a Shakespearean soliloquy while Cooper gave him a tour of the building.

“His comedic genius as an actor was incredible, but in his serious roles, he went into the soul. It was an honour to know he was from this small town.”

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Royal MTC, Pinsent returned to the city where he first trod the boards in 1954. He looked at the event’s attendees, and tried to listen, but lost focus as he drifted back to those early days, he told Thomson.

“I don’t want to sound too milky about it,” he says.

“I couldn’t help imagine, behind them, coming through the door for the first time, all of us, as actors, to go on to a life of theatre, leaving the daylight and going into the darkness of whatever was to come.”

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Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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