Profile

The King is deadlong live the star

Bill MacVicar April 21 1980
Profile

The King is deadlong live the star

Bill MacVicar April 21 1980

The King is deadlong live the star

Profile

AI

Bill MacVicar

On March 13, Larry King sold his variety store in Toronto’s Kensington Market, a rabbit warren of antique streets where ethnic eaters buy everything from kolbassa to kohlrabi. His mother, Gladys, and stepfather, Jack Soble, were getting ready to shove off to a retirement condominium under the Florida sunshine, and Larry himself, in a last-minute plot twist, finally bit the bullet and announced that he would be marrying his longtime girl, Gwen. The assembled well-wishers raised their glasses in a toast and sang Auld Lang Syne. Thus ended the 111th and last episode of the CBC’s five-year sitcom King of Kensington called, appropriately, Movin ’ On.

King, during its run, became one of the few Canadian-made continuing shows to grab and build a loyal, affectionate audience (The Beachcombers and that North American Methuselah, Front Page Challenge, are the only oth-

ers that come to mind). Viewers lived with the King family as mother Gladys (Helene Winston) married beau Jack (Peter Boretski), and as wife Cathy (Fiona Reid) left to be supplanted by sweetheart Gwen (Jayne Eastwood). Larry King, like Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was less celebrity than neighbor, a more frequent visitor in the home than a brother-in-law. It was surely this sense of an ongoing, supportive community and family life, the feel of lower-middle-class good eats and good laughs, the all-benevolent Trudeau liberalism, that informed the show and kept the audience; certainly it was not the seltzer-bottle yuks or cardboard cameo acting. But mostly what kept people tuning in Sunday night after Sunday night, then Thursday after Thursday, was Larry King, a.k.a. AÍ Waxman.

No one has benefited from the show’s

popularity as much as ACTRA-awardwinning Waxman, 45, who has turned into something of an unofficial, populist governor-general, with duties ranging from opening shopping centres to, this year, serving as national campaign chairman for the Canadian Cancer Society. But, asked whether he’s glad or regretful the series has been put to pasture, he unhesitatingly opts for “glad.” It’s a raspy “glad,” because Waxman has a cold and his voice is going, forcing him to cancel a lecture he was scheduled to give at the University of Winnipeg, part of an extensive talk circuit he completes every year. Waxman is at his favorite table at his favorite restaurant near the CBC headquarters in Toronto, and a hurriedly fetched cup of Scotch broth seems to soothe his throat. “I knew right from the very, very beginning that King was going to be a big success,” he says. “And we had a lot of fun doing it. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that we were spreading goodwill.” He reminisces about the very first show, aired Sept. 5, 1975, when King sponsored for immigration to Canada a “stage” Pakistani (no more offensive than the exaggerated anglos, stage Scotsmen and stage Jews who peopled the show), and muses on how it forms “a set of bookends” with the last, when King sells his variety store to a young (stage) Italian couple starting out in the New World. King, indeed, was a veritable Archie Bunker in reverse, espousing grant concepts like bilingual-

ism and multiculturalism in the late ’70s, when the gilding was peeling off the Liberal lily, and he was an antibigot (all the racial and ethnic cracks, carefully defanged, were usually put into the mouths of the supporting cast). The King character became so much a part of the public perception of Waxman that he became a cross-country fixture at Canada Day festivities.

But it was Waxman himself who wanted to drop the series, and he drives a firm wedge between himself and the King. “You know, I was involved in community life when I was just plain AÍ Waxman, and my continuing involvement has not been as a fictional character. My mail is to me, not to Larry King. Right now, I’ve considered two or three pilots from the States, and I’ve said no to all of them because it makes no sense to do more of the same—even at double the price.”

It’s time to order, and he’s undecided. “You had the veal with bacon and onions last time, Mr. Waxman,” a waiter obligingly points out. Waxman opts for the scallops nouvelle cuisine. “Sure,” he goes on, perhaps thinking that he’s coming close to nipping at the hand that has fed him, “there’s a lot of Larry King in AÍ Waxman. But”—referring to the vastly less sympathetic character he recently played in an episode of the For the Record series—“there’s a lot of Frankie Walls in him, too. They both come from the same place,” and he pats the tummy that, in the five years of the sitcom, grew into almost as much of an institution as Larry King.

“The biggest sadness in my life,” he says, “is not that King of Kensington has ended—far from it—but that I could never sing.” Waxman wanted to be a crooner ever since he saw Larry Parks in The Al Jolson Story. That planted a seed that was ultimately to lead him to show business, and to subvert his Jewish family’s cherished dream of his entering one of the professions. The lad who actually spent seven childhood years in Toronto’s Kensington district did manage to complete a year at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, but shrugs it off by saying, “I managed to get a screenplay out of what I learned in my favorite course there, tort law.”

Instead, he hired himself off to that young artists’ mecca, Greenwich Village, and studied at Lee Strasberg’s studio, while supporting himself with a roster of odd jobs, most notably working as a bouncer. “You know,” he recalls, “I never had an altercation in the six months I worked as a bouncer, and I think it was my actor’s training that saved me. I knew the best ways to communicate with people.”

From then on it was a long, long haul: summer stock roles in Chocolate Soldier

and Finian’s Rainbow at the Niagara Falls Summer Theatre, secondary roles in Hollywood movies, spots in television shows in Britain, the U.S. and Canada, television commercials for Nabisco Shredded Wheat and Listerine, the whole gruelling cursus honorum of the fledgling actor.

But, like a smart corporation, AÍ Waxman knew enough to diversify. He started to write, to direct (both features and commercials, and regrets not having been able to direct any King episodes because they were live-to-tape) and to produce. He was doing so much he often forgot what he was doing, but reflects that “Al Waxman’s head is big enough that he can wear a lot of hats. But that head is finally screwed on

right enough that he chooses to wear the right hat at the right time.”

But the headgear that brought it all together was Larry King’s crown. Now he’s doffed that one, and the abdicated Waxman is moving on to other things. To be released later this year are four movies ( Wild Horse Hank, Double Negative, Atlantic City, U.S.A. and Tulips). He’s agreed to host more episodes of a CBC circus show (“a lot of fun, and they’re quick to do”). He crisscrosses the country on lecture tours and charitable work. And of course he’s turning down those U.S. sitcom offers (“my New York agent hung up on me when I told her”). And watching that famous waistline.

His wife, Sara, is the cook in the fam-

ily—“If I ate only her cooking, I’d have no problem with my weight,” he says, fending off waiters who want to foist a trolley of luxurious desserts on him, finally settling for fresh chocolatedipped strawberriés—but occasionally he entertains with his specialty, Kensington Casserole. “It’s basically a rice pilaf,” he explains, “but into it you slice a piece of every kind of salami hanging in every window in the market, and dice up every vegetable on every stand. When I make it, people line up for it.” He didn’t have time to make it after the very last taping of the very last King, for the on-the-set party that continued after the fictional farewells, as the ensemble of actors, staff, crew and yet more well-wishers crowded around to share some memories and sniffle back some tears for the end of the series (except, of course, for the reruns, with which no doubt we’ll be greeting 1990, and for the increasingly popular U.S. syndication). But Waxman has no regrets; he’s moving on, too. The King is dead, long live AÍ Waxman.