This has been a horrible week in Canadian culture. On Monday, local actor John Dunsworth passed away at 71, after a short and unexpected illness. Then 53-year-old Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip followed him, succumbing on Wednesday to a brain cancer that was widely discussed from the moment he announced its existence more than a year ago.
Dunsworth was an early believer in the idea of a Nova Scotia film industry, a passion that risked him earning the backhanded compliment of being “a man ahead of his time.” But through some combination of Dunsworth’s tenacity behind the scenes and the whims of cross-continental economics, he is better remembered as a founding father of the local film economy.
He was a large presence in front of the camera, too, both as an actor and, through his Filmworks Casting agency, as an advocate for actors. Of course he worked with Ellen Page and played Mr. Lahey on Trailer Park Boys, but he also committed to scores of smaller roles. Whether working of just being himself, he was a star, and he unselfishly shared that energy. At a Best of Halifax party, he sensed the room was a bit flat, so he did a headstand. Popped up right there on the floor of the AGNS, with no equipment or crowd-gathering preamble—although the crowd magically found him—and when he came down the party was better.
Like Dunsworth, Gord Downie had incredible charisma as a personality, while retaining humility as a person. The first time I met Downie, after he’d done a long day of interviews and rehearsals on the road before yet another giant Tragically Hip tour, we ended up hanging out in his hotel room, playing Scrabble. His opening play was the seven-letter “encages” for a Bingo, revealing the word nerd lurking beneath a rock-star exterior.
Dunsworth was apparently a voracious Scrabble player in him own right. So it’s comforting to imagine him and Downie meeting over a board somewhere in the great beyond, just a couple Canadian guys playing Scrabble, while the rest of us are trying to find the words.
Send me your Dunsworth and Downie memories at email@example.com