Rhodes’ road to success started in Winnipeg
'Well-known, yet anonymous,' actor cut his theatrical teeth on local stages
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/01/2018 (1826 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Earlier this month, actor Donnelly Rhodes died in Maple Ridge, B.C., at the age of 81.
If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, his face should, as he was a fixture on television screens on both sides of the border for nearly sixty years. His acting roots, however, were firmly embedded in Manitoba’s theatre scene.
Donnelly Rhodes Henry was born in Winnipeg in 1936 to Ann Henry. Later in life, his mother would become a celebrated journalist and playwright, but after her husband left her with three small children to raise, she struggled to keep a roof over their heads.
Henry recounted years later to local entertainment columnist Frank Morriss that “I’ve slept in bus depots, railway stations and other places with my children. We lived in Immigration Hall for six weeks.”
It was perhaps due to the family’s constant moving during his youngest years that Rhodes developed a sense of wanderlust at an early age.
In his teens, he worked as a cowboy in California, where the family lived for a time, a stevedore in Vancouver and was an oil rig worker and a Parks Canada ranger trainee in rural Manitoba. He later joked he set out to see the world “but only got as far as Vancouver Island.”
In the late 1950s, Rhodes returned to Winnipeg and joined the military as an airman-mechanic at RCAF Station Winnipeg. He was asked to help behind the scenes with the base’s newly established drama group, a mix of civilians and RCAF personnel that performed for the public.
Rhodes appeared in the group’s second production, The Cuckoo’s Nest, in February 1957. The play and his performance got mixed reviews, a local critic noting, “Don Henry as the nephew was easy and amusing and did a workmanlike job. He seemed a bit too big for the britches of the role and occasionally undecided about his attack.”
It wasn’t long though before Rhodes found the theatre gave him a sense of stability he hadn’t known before. “I didn’t realize then that I was at the beginning of a whole new life… I knew I hadn’t itchy feet anymore. I wanted to stay in the theatre,” he said in 1963.
‘I’ve always been kind of a hidden actor. Not that I’d turn down the high-profile of a mega-bucks hit, but I think it’s much healthier to be a chameleon’– Donnelly Rhodes
Rhodes left the Air Force to pursue a career in theatre. Despite his lack of experience, John Hirsch saw something in the 20-year-old and gave him a job as an assistant stage manager with his Theatre 77.
Hirsch’s influence on Rhodes’ career cannot be understated and is something Rhodes never forgot.
Interviewed in 1963 when he was acting at the Stratford Festival, Rhodes said “John passed on his ideals and beliefs in the theatre. I’m still a kind of protégé of the Manitoba Theatre Centre.” Nearly 40 years later, he thanked “John Hirsch… who watched over me like a brother” in his acceptance speech after receiving the Earle Grey Award for lifetime achievement by the Canadian television industry.
The Theatre 77 position afforded Rhodes the opportunity to appear on stage as well. His first professional stage appearance was in the company’s March 1958 production of Death of a Salesman, playing Stanley the bartender and treading the boards with Gordon Pinsent.
Hirsch took on double duties in 1959 when he signed on as the artistic director of Rainbow Stage. It was a bid by the Winnipeg Summer Theatre Association to further professionalize summer productions in Winnipeg. Rhodes was brought along and spent two summers as what he described as “…a combination stage manager, handyman, and even cleaned the washrooms.”
The Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) was created in the summer of 1958 when Hirsch’s Theatre 77 merged with Tom Hendry’s Winnipeg Little Theatre, though each company produced one final season under their respective names.
When the combined MTC formally debuted in the fall of 1959, Rhodes was the company’s first stage apprentice and continued to appear in small roles on stage. This included the company’s first two productions under the MTC banner, Solid Gold Cadillac (1959) and Tea and Sympathy (1959).
Despite his busy schedule — juggling stage-manager duties at two theatre companies — Rhodes found the time to go to Los Angeles to look for work. In the fall of 1960 he appeared on television in shows such as Maverick, Cheyenne and two episodes of Bonanza. (These would be his final acting credits under the name Donnelly Henry, he soon opted to drop his last name.)
In the fall, Rhodes was back at MTC to appear in its 1960-61 season opener, Mr. Roberts, along with Pinsent and Len Cariou. Gene Telpner, the Free Press theatre critic, noted Rhodes “…has all the earmarks of a real talent.”
Rhodes, however, did not finish out the season with MTC as another opportunity came his way.
The National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) was founded in Montreal in the summer of 1960. At the urging of Hirsch, Rhodes auditioned and was the only Manitoban accepted to the school in its inaugural year.
To help offset the $700 tuition, Rhodes received a $350 scholarship from MTC. On Nov. 2, 1960, he left the city to begin three years of intensive theatre study, dividing his time between school, summers at the Stratford Festival and part of the winter theatre season at MTC.
He appeared in MTC’s first production of the 1961-62 season, The Lady’s Not for Burning. “Mr. Rhodes lights up the stage whenever he walks on it”, wrote Christopher Dafoe in a Winnipeg Free Press review.
In the fall of 1962 four students from the NTS; Rhodes, Martha Henry — who was also Rhodes’ first wife, Heath Lamberts and Gary Files, came to Manitoba to perform at a dozen high schools in Winnipeg and Brandon.
The tour, called “Shakespeare in Schools”, was co-sponsored by MTC and the NTS and intended to show budding thespians in an intimate setting that performing Shakespeare and other dramatic roles could be fun. Rhodes and Henry, along with two other actors, returned the following year for another tour.
In late 1962 Rhodes found himself increasingly busy with television work as the CBC began to recruit students from the NTS for its dramatic productions. He was cast in a trio of one-hour shows that November.
A big break came his way when shortly before filming one of the shows, David, Chapter Two, written by fellow Winnipegger M. Charles Cohen, the lead actor bowed out and Rhodes was recast in his place. The show aired in January 1963 to positive reviews and put Rhodes before a national audience.
Hollywood eventually took notice of the young Winnipegger and in early 1964 he signed a multi-year contract with Review Pictures, which is what Universal Studios was known as during a short-lived rebranding. His first work for the studio was the lead in an episode of NBC’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Ten Minutes from Now which aired in the U.S. and Canada in May 1964.
Rhodes was then lent out to the UCLA Theater Group for their April 1964 touring production of P.S. 139, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring James Whitmore and Cloris Leachman. Los Angeles-based theatre critic Samuel Boyea called Rhodes “a director’s dream.”
During this time, there were also numerous television appearances in top-rated shows such as Dr. Kildare, Mannix and the Virginian.
In April 1966, Universal announced Rhodes was ready for the big screen and cast him in the western Gunfight in Abilene (1967) with fellow Canadians Michael Sarrazin and Leslie Nielsen. He capped off the decade in film as Macon the saloon owner in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and a science fiction B-movie Change of Mind (1969).
Rhodes’ American film career stalled in the 1970s, though he did appear in a couple of Canadian big-screen productions. Most notable was a critically acclaimed lead performance in The Hard Part Begins (1973) in which he played a down-and-out country and western singer
The lack of movie work was made up for by a successful decade in television on both sides of the border.
In the U.S., his roles included Phillip Chancellor II on CBS’ The Young and the Restless from 1974 to 1975 — he left because he did not want to be typecast as a soap actor, and hapless escaped criminal Dutch Leitner in ABC’s soap opera parody Soap from 1978 until the show’s cancellation in 1981.
Rhodes’ other big television success that decade was north of the border. The CBC cast him as Detective Nick Raitt alongside Jonathan Welsh in Sidestreet as a pair of Toronto-based detectives fighting organized crime. The show ran for four seasons from 1975 to 1978.
It was ironic Rhodes’ biggest television role to date came from Canada. He had long been critical of this country’s film and television industry for its low pay and production values in comparison to those in the U.S.
Even on the nationwide press junket to promote the debut of Sidestreet, Rhodes surely gave CBC publicists heart palpitations when he told an Ottawa Journal reporter, “… there’s a lot wrong with Sidestreet but a lot that can be put right” and chalked it up to “It’s Canada trying its hardest to be second, going for the silver instead of the gold.”
Rhodes continued to be a busy character actor on both sides of the border through the early 1980s but one thing that did not come his way was a leading role. A Canadian television critic aptly described the 47-year-old in 1984 as “somehow well-known, yet anonymous.”
If this bothered Rhodes he didn’t let on publicly, telling Vancouver Magazine in 1988, “I’ve always been kind of a hidden actor. Not that I’d turn down the high-profile of a mega-bucks hit, but I think it’s much healthier to be a chameleon.” He went further in a 1989 interview for the Rogers TV show Conversations, saying, “I’m not a very ambitious actor. I never really pushed that hard to be a star… I really don’t care”
Rhodes found himself back in Vancouver in 1985. This time, instead of working on the docks it was for that elusive leading dramatic role as Dr. Grant Roberts in Danger Bay. The CBC/Disney Channel co-production ran for six seasons.
It was in Vancouver that Rhodes found some of his greatest success, taking advantage of the city’s burgeoning film and television industry. He appeared in numerous U.S. productions shot there, such as Battlestar Galactica and the X-Files, as well as Canadian shows such as The Romeo Section and DaVinci’s inquest, for which he won a Genie for best supporting actor in 2002.
One place that Rhodes did not return to was the stage.
In that 1989 Conversations interview, Rhodes said he felt that film acting “favoured him most” but he was happy with his success on television. As for the stage, he admitted that he would find himself “out of my depth” in a major stage role, saying, “I’ve done it, but I was younger. I didn’t know (better)…. I’ve played Macbeth, but I’d be terrified to do that now.”
Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.
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