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Iconic Newfoundland and Labrador actor Gordon Pinsent about to turn 90

Gordon Pinsent, from “The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent,” 2016. — Contributed photo
Gordon Pinsent, from “The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent,” 2016. - Contributed

Don Nichol
Special to The Telegram

Damn Gordon Pinsent!

Most male adolescents of the ’60s who were attracted to the opposite sex could only dream of holding Julie Christie in their arms. Countless times, a younger version of this author smooched the English beauty only to open his eyes and find she’d vanished. Gordon Pinsent actually did it: he opened his eyes and she was there! Albeit ’twas a few decades after Omar Sharif dedicated the Lara poems to her in “Dr. Zhivago” (1965), after Alan Bates finally won her over in “Far from the Madding Crowd” (1967) and after fellow Canadian, Donald Sutherland, in “Don’t Look Now” (1974), engaged in one of the spiciest sex scenes ever to hit the big screen.

To rub it all in, that’s how he opened his autobiography, “Next” (2012): “I am in bed with Julie Christie. Me, who used to practice kissing on trees.” He’s had such a big life that, so far, it’s taken two memoirs, the first, “By the Way,” having come out in 1992 when he was a mere lad of 62.

Gordon Edward (Porky) Pinsent is one of the most successful Newfoundland actors to make a go of it Upalong. A high school drop-out from Grand Falls, he lucked into his first recurring television role on “The Forest Rangers” in 1963 before landing his own series, “Quentin Durgens, M.P.” (1964-69). By 1972, he starred in his own film, “The Rowdyman”, and published the spin-off novel in 1973.

He came back home to give us that delightfully mad image of husband and wife, played by Jackie Burroughs, dancing on their floating house in the 1987 film, “John & the Missus,” about an aging Rowdyman vs. Resettlement — a prospect that still lingers as the population in some communities dwindles. No doubt, one of Gordon’s earlier callings — that of an Arthur Murray dance instructor — helped him pass the audition.

One made-for-TV movie role worth noting in this current pandemic: “Quarantined” (1970), where he played Dr. Bud Bedford, whose younger brother resents being supervised by his father, founder of the Bedford clinic. A cholera outbreak forces the hospital into lockdown. Familiar health measures come to the fore. The ever-endearing Wally Cox played an offbeat bystander who offers a kidney to save a dying movie star. Off-set, Wally introduced Gordon to his childhood friend, Marlon Brando — their cremains were eventually co-mingled. Not entirely pleased with the script, Gordon quipped that the film itself probably should have been quarantined.

Having been born a month before CBC TV first hit the airwaves, I’m old enough to remember “The Forest Rangers” (1963-66). Appealing to après-school viewers, it was the first Canadian series to be shot in colour, but Sgt. Brian Scott’s scarlet uniform appeared in shades of grey on our black-and-white set. Although Gordon’s first regular role was limited, he has long appealed to young audiences; generations of kids know his regally elephantine voice from 30 years of “Babar.”

His rise to fame in “Quentin Durgens, M.P.” coincided with the first wave of Trudeaumania. Set mainly in Ottawa, the series offered Gordon his first starring role as a newly elected MP from the fictional town of Moose Falls coming to grips with the vicissitudes of politic life. It helped to establish Gordon as a national star; so much so, that he found himself sharing a limo with Trudeau the Elder.

While the U.S. lured him away to ply his trade in movies, like the first “Thomas Crown Affair,” starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, and TV series like “Hogan’s Heroes,” he has always returned to his roots, and has collaborated with home-grown talent like Barb Doran, Allan Hawco and Stephen Dunn.

An actor’s life can be brutal on families, but Gordon’s daughter, Beverly, from his first marriage, who saw more of her father on the screen than in real life, took it philosophically: “You can’t hold that kind of hunger down.” Her brother Barry re-entered his father’s life while he was performing at the Vancouver Playhouse, and is a pilot, novelist and actor who’s the spitting image of his old man. Gordon met his second wife, Charmion King, while playing opposite her in “The Mad Woman of Chaillot.” The star’s part called for her to whistle, which she proved unable to do, so Gordon came to the rescue, whistling Dixie while she mimed.

Then came that poster. Head tilted, mouth roaring with laughter, coat flinging to the wind: “The Rowdyman” had arrived, the first feature-length film to be shot in our province written and directed by and starring a Newfoundlander. Difficulties piled up: a backer pulled out at the last minute, the director was soused, the four-seasons-in-one-day weather made life hell for shooting outdoor scenes. Gordon’s portrait of the artist as a young hooligan still holds up well. There’s nothing quite like the opening chase scene in all of filmdom, while many rich verbal texturings deserve entries in the “Dictionary of Newfoundland English.”

His most heartbreaking role has to be that of Grant Anderson, husband to a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, played by the aforementioned Julie Christie. “Away from Her,” inspired by the Alice Munro short story, “The Bear Came Round the Mountain,” was Sarah Polley's directorial debut feature. Gordon had to convey devotion, jealousy and helplessness as he witnesses both the gradual erasure of his wife’s memory and her falling in love with another man. Few actors — and Gordon is a fine exemplar — possess the gravitas to pull off such a poignant performance.

Life wasn’t always peaks. When he complained during the troughs, when all the parts he was offered were “crap,” his wife Charm would tell him, “Oh Gordon, get over yourself!” Like her mother, Leah Pinsent is “blessed with a wicked, take-no-prisoners sense of humour.”

One summer morning in 2010, a car pulled up in front of Pennywell Road. I went to have a gawk and there I met Gordon, who had come to pick up my wife, Mary Walsh, who was directing his play, “Easy Down Easy,” in Grand Bank. I made him swear on a stack of Bibles to return her unseduced by the Pinsent spell. He’d written the play in 1987, inspired by Wally Cox, with a role specially designed for his wife, which, two decades later, was deemed superfluous. Its more than two-hour length made it less than easy to flow. By mutual agreement, Mary trimmed the script down by 60 minutes. After the grand opening, Mary asked Gordon what he thought: “it moves like a train — but there’s no dining car on it!” She loved his quick wit and recalls that for the time he was there local excitement was such that fresh-baked pies kept arriving on his door-step. “Easy Down Easy” went on to a successful 11-day run at the newly refurbished LSPU Hall. Between Aiden Flynn’s and Berni Stapleton’s performances and Mary’s “crisp” direction, Gordon concluded, “What’s not to like?”

Gordon’s 75th was a royal roast in Grand Falls-Windsor where the Arts and Culture Centre was renamed in his honour. His old friend Larry Dane, who produced “The Rowdyman”, quipped: “If ego ever gets to $50 a barrel, Danny Williams will want drilling rights to Gordon’s head.” Leah, who carries on the family tradition of entertaining the world, chastized the rowdy guest of honour for being a strict father. Shelagh Rogers promised him “a big bosomy hug” from Whitehorse. His daughter Beverly showed him what a great singing voice she had with her rendition of “O Gordie Boy.” To top off the evening, he kissed a female RCMP officer for the first time, thus topping off his roles in “Forest Rangers” and “Due South.”

(From left) Newfoundland actors Mary Walsh, Gordon Pinsent and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson are shown in a scene from “The Grand Seduction,” released in 2014, when Pinsent was the tender age of 84. - Contributed
(From left) Newfoundland actors Mary Walsh, Gordon Pinsent and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson are shown in a scene from “The Grand Seduction,” released in 2014, when Pinsent was the tender age of 84. - Contributed

His 80s saw him working on a CD, “Down and Out in Upalong,” with Travis Good and Greg Keelor (2010) and winning Canadian Screen Awards for “Republic of Doyle” (2013) and “The Grand Seduction” (2014). Not one, but two documentary film-makers captured some of his essence: Barb Doran’s “Still Rowdy After All These Years” (2011) and Brigitte Berman’s “The River of My Dreams” (2016).

As of Sunday, July 12th, a new role is upon him: nonagenarian. Who’d’ve thought the Rowdyman would become the poster-boy for advanced-age activity? He may even give Sophocles, who did his best work in his 90s, a run for the money.

Happy 90th birthday, Gordon!

Don Nichol began his 40-year stint with Memorial University in Grand Falls in the summer of 1978 where he had a Pinsent in one of his classes. He was hired full-time as a MUN English prof in St. John’s in 1984 and retired in 2018.


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