How John Colicos plays himself: BIGGER THAN LIFE

The Stratford Festival is gambling a million dollars in ticket sales that a Montrealer who thinks and acts like a theatrical dandy of the Eighteenth Century is a genuine star in the Twentieth. To look at television's recent costume spectacles, could anybody doubt it?

ANTONY FERRY June 1 1963

How John Colicos plays himself: BIGGER THAN LIFE

The Stratford Festival is gambling a million dollars in ticket sales that a Montrealer who thinks and acts like a theatrical dandy of the Eighteenth Century is a genuine star in the Twentieth. To look at television's recent costume spectacles, could anybody doubt it?

ANTONY FERRY June 1 1963

How John Colicos plays himself: BIGGER THAN LIFE

The Stratford Festival is gambling a million dollars in ticket sales that a Montrealer who thinks and acts like a theatrical dandy of the Eighteenth Century is a genuine star in the Twentieth. To look at television's recent costume spectacles, could anybody doubt it?


THIS PAST YEAR a big, unhandsome Montrealer named John Colicos has played some of the richest dramatic roles in Canadian theatre, radio and television while telling most of the people who cast actors in Canada what they could do if they don't like the prices he demands or the performances he gives.

He has had nothing but top-flight parts in CBC radio and TV this season. He was the star of six important dramas on the CBC’s Festival and Playdute series, played Hamlet (for the third time) on CBC radio, commanded some of the highest fees ever paid a Canadian actor on television, and turned down two Broadway roles. For the first eight years of the Stratford Festival he had to pay to get in, but in the past two seasons Stratford has hired him for secondary

roles. This June he becomes the undoubted focus of attention when he plays the title roles in both Cyrano de Bergerac and Timon of A thens.

As leading man of an all-Canadian cast of featured players at Stratford, C'olicos is the key figure in a million-dollar gamble. Director Michael Langham has staked that much in potential ticket sales on the premise that Canadian players like C'olicos can attract large crowds without the box-office pull of an imported “star.” C'olicos already thinks like a star and acts like a star. It only remains to be seen if he can arouse audiences like a star.

C'olicos has eyes that flicker with a kind of arrogant self-assurance when he talks, and he's inclined to see himself as an actor in the grand manner of another age. He manages to wear a single-breasted overcoat as if it were a cape, he sits in an armchair with the erect com-

posure of a dancing master, and he conducts a conversation with an ear to his own timbrous cadences. His own opinion (high) of his acting impresses him more than any critic’s.

“We are conditioned as actors to expect kicks in the teeth,” he says. “I know that most critics arc going to do the obvious thing, and pad out their reviews with comparisons. It’s an easy way out for them, and for that reason I don't respect them. In the end, though, it's entirely up to the audiences.”

He dislikes talking for publication, and has a healthy, if arrogantly phrased contempt, for what he calls “popular chitchat about actors in newspapers and magazines. My job is on stage. I don’t want any other kind of attention. The rest ought to be private. Closed.” Some time ago, as a defense against either chitchat or boredom, he gave up continued on page 42

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Colicos, who is “inclined to see himself as an actor in the grand manner of another age,” has accepted only starring roles on Canadian TV.

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He could make a theatrical act out of taking a streetcar ride

reading newspapers and magazines, and he says it’s an effort for him to watch the I I p.m. national newscast on TV.

In any contemporary sense, in fact. Colicos is a self-sustaining anachronism — and, as such, a pleasure to have around. (He winced when the phrase was used, but it's the opinion of some of his closest friends.) His taste for acting is grounded in the eighteenth century, and his favorite actors arc dead ones. The object of his deepest hero worship is Edmund Kean, an actor who died in 1833. Portraits of Kean hang museum-like through Colicos’ Toronto home. His

own acting concentrates on technique and relies little on instinct. “I can't bear this psychology-probing Method acting,” he says. “I prefer to be — methodical.’'

The drama critic of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Herbert Whittaker, says Colicos’ absorption with things past has made him “probably the most knowledgeable actor on theatre history in North America.” He often begins his own work on a part by studying accounts of how another

actor played the part two centuries ago. Very few of his personal interests are contemporary.

His favorite sport is fencing. He believes there are more highly developed creatures than man, somewhere in outer space; professes no interest in contemporary politics; has no ideology; and has pretty well “discarded the whole idea of Christianity.” Mostly, he longs for the days when a man had stride, passions were displayed on a grand scale, and actors were expected to behave with undiminished panache.

A CBC producer named David Gardner says, “Colicos has blamed, damned and hated Canada for its lack of theatrical tradition, and he has charged around the world looking for the kind of acceptance and sense of achievement his own country couldn’t give him. He’s worked and lived with a furious energy, always narrowly missing what he wanted most. It's ironic, after ten years, that his biggest recognition should come at last from the country that he hated — where his twisted but real roots are.”

Colicos grew up in a tough slum section of Montreal, where he was beaten up as often as they could catch him by gangs of French-Canadian kids. Though he fought back, and learned to speak a good gutter French in self-defense, his real retreat was around a corner, into a second-hand bookshop, and back to another century. He spent so much time in the bookstore that more or less naturally he tried writing his favorite kind of escape literature — horror stories — himself. In his early teens he thought of writing professionally when three of his stories were published in U. S. pulp magazines. Then he came across Shakespeare — “and right there I decided those words were so fabulous, that whole concept of man was so titanic and heroic . . . my own life had been so circumscribed ... I decided to become an actor.”

By the time he was sixteen he could make a theatrical production out of taking a streetcar ride. With a tweedy overcoat thrown over his shoulders and a soft-brimmed hat on his head, he boarded streetcars in the style of John Barrymore. His purpose was to prove his impact as an actor; the test of his performance was to get past the conductor without putting in a ticket, and then, with boldly practised timing, ask for a transfer. He recalls getting away with it more than once.

At about this time Colicos encountered the spectre of Edmund Kean in a theatre book, and began to pattern himself after him. Kean was born to a whore, dropped on a doorstep and joined a circus troupe at fourteen. After a brief career as an acrobat, he turned to acting in England’s small provincial repertory companies, and at twentyseven made his London debut unknown and jeered at — in the Drury Lane theatre. In a single performance — as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice — Kean toppled all the established ideas about classical acting. His career was marked by so much suffering and success that he is said to have put every other actor of his generation into eclipse.

C olicos read everything he could

get about Kean, memorized twelve complete Shakespeare plays, and at sixteen made his stage debut playing God in an adaptation of the Book of Job. Shortly after, he began his professional training at the Montreal Repertory Theatre, with three other young students who are still rivals for recognition: Christopher Plummer,

Leo Ciceri, and Richard Easton. “You can't help thinking of them as the Four Horsemen,” says David Gardner. Easton reached Stratford first, with a small part in the opening season of 1953. He left soon after for England and his recent performance in John Gielgud's production of School for Scandal stole most of the notices. Plummer beat Colicos to Stratford as leading man by five years, and Ciceri, after succeeding Plummer on Broadway in The Lark and making a name for himself on CBC-TV played at Stratford first in 1960.

Colicos got off to the fastest start, leaving for Toronto when he was twenty-one and almost immediately becoming the youngest star of network radio. He played Hamlet on CBC radio among other things, in those last few months before the advent of the catchy new medium called television.

Most Toronto actors had been waiting for television, but Colicos had already decided to chance his future in England. Herbert Whittaker, who had directed him in a play that earned Colicos a Dominion Drama Festival award as best actor of 1951, advised him not to expect the same easy conquest of big parts when he got to London. Fair enough. But within a week of his arrival he had offers of work from Orson Welles, John Gielgud and Tyrone Guthrie. Colicos settled comfortably for Guthrie and the Old Vic.

Barely three months later, on the night of March 20, 1952, by the grace of a case of laryngitis that befell the actor he was understudying, Colicos stepped on stage at the Old Vic as King Lear. He was twenty-three, he had four hours' notice, he was stuffed up with a cold and two thirds of the company expected him to flop — including the director, whose parting words were: “Just take it at a fast clip, so that if you're bad no one will notice.”

Only a flashing image of Edmund Kean, who had dominated the stage of Drury Lane playing Shylock at twenty-seven, propelled Colicos from the wings to try to play a part that no actor of his youth and inexperience had ever betöre been trusted with by a company as august as the Old Vic or, probably, by any professional company at all. He has some vivid recollections about his performance. He got a standing ovation, he felt petrified, and immediately alter went home

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to nurse his cold. The following morning. one critic called his final scenes "astonishingly fine," another said they were “of a stature to be mentioned with Laurence Olivier’s and Donald Wolfit's Lear,” and a third tried to coin a new word. “It was powerful without being overpowering.” he said. “It was whelming.” C'olicos went on playing Lear for two weeks, and the theatrical glory of his performance lasted about two more.

His extraordinary triumph, finally, led him nowhere. West End agents telephoned enthusiastic bids for his services, only to stare with mute embarrassment when this hoy walked into their offices. He learned that actors just don't start their careers playing Lear at twenty-three, and gradually realized from his own performances how much he had to learn about playing a big part.

"Lear was the worst thing that could have happened to me," he says. “Nothing after that could possibly live up to expectations.”

He served in one more Old Vic production, understudying Timon of Athens. Then he is said to have made a grandiose offer to Tyrone Guthrie, who was just then planning to launch the Ontario Stratford Festival. If the parts were big enough, he implied, he'd be delighted to act at Stratford. Guthrie and Stratford ignored C'olicos until after Michael Langham took over.

C'olicos left the Old Vic and appeared in a series of cheap film thrillers, and several West End plays of little consequence. At the time, he talked about his career as if he was running it on a carefully worked out schedule, but he felt no real sense of direction or development and was often unemployed.

At one point he holed up for six months, wilfully destroying his voice with cheap drink and cigarettes because, he says, “I suddenly got sick with this phony nothing West End actor I'd become. I was full of contempt for everything, and I wanted to do like Barrymore and deliberately pour my talent down the drain. It was mad, but I had to go to that extreme before I could pick myself up.”

That chance came in 1955 when Orson Welles did a wildly audacious and typically Wellesian production of King Lear at the New York City Centre — with himself as Lear and C'olicos as Edmund. Like many of Welles' productions, it was an epochmaking failure. Welles sprained one ankle during rehearsal and badly twisted the other before opening night, so that he had to play Lear in a wheelchair. “We all know,” wrote Eric Bentley at the time, “that if Mr. Welles had had three legs, he would have tripped three times.”

C'olicos remained in New York at the end of the run, usually out of work. He did get offers, but his agent held out so long for better parts ( “Who needs it?“ she asked repeatedly, “You're a star”) that eventually there were no more parts to turn down, and he was living on one hamburger every two days at Nedick's on Broadway.

On borrowed money he flew to Hollywood, and found work as a seventy-year-old Apache medicine man in a movie called War Drums. “It was

so bad,” he says, “even my mother only saw it once.”

He married a Texas-born New York model, Mona McHenry, in 1957 and at about the same time his luck began to change. The television networks began hiring him for costume dramas like Wuthering Heights and The Three Musketeers, and he worked during the next two summers at Stratford. Connecticut.

Two years ago Canada's Stratford Festival made him an offer. Then CBC television began to cast him as a leading man, and the long roundabout career of John. C'olicos paused ironically with a gust of recognition from his own country.

More frequently than most Canadian actors would dare to risk it. C'olicos has refused good television parts because he felt he was being undersold. Eighteen months ago he angrily threw away the chance to play Macbeth on both radio and television because the CBC wouldn't meet his price, the corporation came within several hundred dollars of what he wanted (he won't say what that was) but C'olicos refused “on principle.”

He is one of the few actors who have fought against those Canadian program producers who have tried to hold down the rates for Canadian performers while paying far higher fees to imported American “names.” Perhaps a handful of Toronto actors now clear a thousand dollars for a TV role involving two or three weeks’ rehearsal. This price is usually pegged after years of haggling, and only after the actor has earned a certain “status" by working in the U. S. Most American imports are offered two or three times the going rate as a matter of course. C'olicos has partly won the battle, for himself at least. He now gets much the same rates as the American stars.

But apparently it isn't really money that's on his mind. At the end of his run as Timon and Cyrano he intends to close his Toronto house and move permanently to New York. His two thousand books, his collection of theatre lore, and the odds and ends of a nomadic life are stored in a warehouse on Sixtieth Street. One of his close friends says C'olicos is “the most knocked-about actor I know," and whatever his reasons he isn't through knocking around yet. ★