"No one in the whole world,” said Jackie Gleason years ago, “is like Don Francks.” A multitalented entertainer, Francks is given to strange pilgrimages and sabbaticals from his work. In an industry that usually depends on longevity and contacts to ensure success, Francks is a maverick. He is his own man and does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He may be the only person to ever leave Hollywood while riding a crest of success, to go and live on an Indian reservation—which is still his home. But that doesn’t sound like a strange move for a man who left school after Grade 9 to become a merchant sailor; a man who spent time floating around the Pacific in a small boat with the Greenpeace organization in an effort to save whales; a man who completed an exhausting shooting schedule in Toronto on a seven-week spy-fi series for CBC-TV (The Phoenix Team) and then immediately rushed to northern B.C. in an attempt to save the region’s game from trophy hunters. In response to any criticism that he should spend more time pursuing his entertainment industry career, Francks merely shrugs. “I keep living my life. You know?”
A visit to Francks and his familywife Lili, 11-year-old daughter Cree Summer and infant son Rainbow Sun— in their Toronto studio, affords a glimpse into the man’s character. The family has wrested a very workable and pleasant space from what was once an unfinished and very run-down storefront tacked onto the front of a parking garage on a small street in Toronto’s core. The place is dotted with handwoven Indian rugs on the wall, a wide assortment of musical instruments, Lili’s black doll collection and a borrowed baby grand piano. An aviary for beautiful, incessantly twittering Australian finches produces “jazz” that Francks listens to for hours. (He is heralded in the musical community as an outstanding jazz singer, and is acknowledged as one of the few who will actually improvise in concert.)
The whole place cries out at every glance the monumental amount of work the Francks put into it. Floors stripped and refinished, walls knocked out and moved, walls painted after removing layers and layers of wallpaper, the basement studio dug out by hand—all this effort in a rented facility.
The Francks’ other home is a log house on Saskatchewan’s Red Pheasant Indian Reserve, where there is no electricity, no running water and no bathroom facilities. Francks insulated the building with a traditional mud treatment-handfuls of dirt, prairie grass and well water thrown against the walls inside and out. Francks reports that the house is good down to -60° “without having the fires going all night.”
How is it that this “here again—gone again” man can come back to the entertainment industry and find work whenever he seems to want it? “He’s a star . . . He’s a good actor,” says Lawrence Mirkin, producer of the series The Phoenix Team. “When the camera is running he’s phenomenal. If the size of the lens is changed, he knows precisely how to change the size of his behavior....”
Well, there is that. He is good at his work. But Francks brings more to his acting than just craft. There are glimpses of the man himself through his characterizations, which make his work interesting and absorbing. Francks is a complex man emotionally, a mysterious, enigmatic man whose public self ranges from sunny and talkative to reserved and contained. In conversation—Francks loves to talk—poetic imagery and song come as freely to his lips as four-letter words and withering, biting satire. His face has a lived-in look. He can bring to a characterization all the complexity and awareness that his varied lifestyle has given him.
He has undertaken to direct and to act in everything from revues to Shakespeare, to mime, write, sing, dance, paint, carve, sculpt—in short, he has tried his hand at just about every form of artistic expression imaginable. He has also been a foundry worker, designer and maker of his own clothes, motorcycle enthusiast, carpenter, mechanic, handyman, bush-lawyer and bush-doctor on the Indian reserve. Anything he tries, he does at full bore. Of his ACTRA Award-winning performance in Drying Up the Streets, a hardhitting CBC drama about drug dealing and child prostitution, Toronto critic Bob Blackburn says, “He did a fantastic job.” But he adds: “There are depths in Francks that weren’t even touched by that character.”
At the ACTRA Awards ceremony, Francks’s iconoclastic side showed itself in a way that Ron Base, Toronto Star TV critic, called “one of the great whacko awards show performances.” In his acceptance speech for the Nellie, Francks
asked, “When are we going to stop recording a man’s folly and start making films about how to survive on this planet?” There was an uncomfortable stir from his peers, gathered there to pay tribute to him and the other winners of the Canadian industry’s highest accolades. The Vancouver Sun called the incident “embarrassing.” Francks insists, however, that he is not controversial. “Not at all, except for the close-minded people who consider me so because I’m openminded.”
He is an ardent, outspoken advocate of an ecologically sound lifestyle. He might possibly be considered a modernday Don Quixote, and refers to himself as a dreamer. But he insists that it is through the sharing of man’s collective dreams that survival on this planet can be assured. It’s little surprise then that Francks has enjoyed being host/narrator for the past two years on CBC-TV’s ecology-minded This Land series.
Francks was unusual right from the beginning. A child of the Depression, Francks says that he has never known his real mother and father. He was adopted around age 6 by a woman who then married a man who built the family a cabin in British Columbia. Perhaps this experience gave rise to Francks’s admiration for people who work with their hands to create a living environment. His adoptive parents gave the young Francks “a lot of freedom and love,” in his words. He roamed about B.C. hiking and camping, on his own and with friends, living off the land.
His lifelong fascination with the Indian people led to his second adoption. As a grown man he was adopted into a Plains Cree tribe and named Iron Buffalo. At the same time he was married in an Indian ceremony; his bride, Lili, was named Red Eagle. He and Lili, an actress/dancer from Texas who is part Indian, have spent various periods living on the reservation.
Despite his intermittent pursuance of a show business career, Francks has amassed an impressive list of international credits. He has appeared in over a dozen feature films, including Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. He has starred on Broadway. He has starred in numerous television series, including Jericho in the U.S., and has been featured in eight others. He has sung in bars and recorded albums. He has been a stand-up comic along the lines of Lenny Bruce. And the list goes on. Perhaps a young Don Francks saw the children of his neighborhood skipping rope and chanting the old rhyme:
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, and decided to try them all on for size.
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