A histry of Charlie

Don Harron was a consummate actor, but Charlie Farquharson, now he’s yer star

David Cobb October 18 1976

A histry of Charlie

Don Harron was a consummate actor, but Charlie Farquharson, now he’s yer star

David Cobb October 18 1976

A histry of Charlie

Don Harron was a consummate actor, but Charlie Farquharson, now he’s yer star

David Cobb

This month, for the third autumn in a row, Don Harron, alias Charlie Farquharson, will publish a collection of outrageous puns that will automatically become a best seller. The book’s full title gives its essential flavor, reflecting the demented ardor of this shrewd, 52-year-old man who earns an atrocious amount of money as the country’s best-known and best-loved humorist— CHARLIE FARQUHARSON’S K.O.R.N. ALLMYNACK: Sheep and Candle Dipping. Getting Mulch? Indoor Wild Life. Curing and Tanning of Kids. Horrorscopes for People under the Infloonce. Advice fer the Future and the Pasture. And inside, under September the thot fer this munth: “There is one good thing about being poor. It don’t cost as much.”

Three scenes at random:

Lunch, Toronto restaurant. First time Harron and Maclean's meet. Harron gunshy because of story six months earlier in Toronto Star that caused him personal grief and enraged his wife—Catherine McKinnon, the singer—so much that even today, discussing it, her eyes could whiten charcoal. Harron, quiet, courteous, nursing a soda with the excessive respect of the non-drinker, remarks that he’s just learned he has to do a lunch performance for the upcoming Ontario Bean Producers Conference. “First I got wind of it,” he says.

Ontario Bean Producers lunch, Toronto hotel. The performance the bean men want, of course, is from Charlie. Charlie’s the character: Don Harron gets no mention on the title pages of the Allmynack. The bean industry is doing well, well enough to pay Charlie’s $2,000 fee for 30 minutes’ work; Harron would have been half the price. Table chat before Charlie comes on: “I’ve never met any farmer who talks like Charlie,” says a bean man from Lucan. “Do I sound like that? Dress like that?” His wife demurs: “Thirty years ago you’d’ve seen a cap like that; where on earth did he get it? And Frank down the way talks like that, you’ve got to admit.” Then on comes Charlie, one shoulder higher than the other, two days’ growth of beard, cap with the broken peak borrowed in 1952 from producer-director Norman

Jewison; mis-buttoned cardigan borrowed 24 years ago from the young Norman Campbell, later to become an Emmyaward-winning producer for the CBC; shirt by Harron’s late father; stove-pipe jeans by Don himself; size-14 farm boots by the Crippled Civilians—all of it looking slept in for a month and not at all what you’d want to get close to.

“I want you to know I’ve worked since the day I was born,” says Charlie, glaring balefully into the middle-distance. “Fer the first three months I helped my mother with the milkin’... (chuckles)... The feds tried to get us off the wheat and on to rape, but I couldn’t pass the physical . . . (laughter). They’re making’ us hold back on our milk and now they’re trying’ to make us cut the cheese, squeezin’ from both ends... (laughter and chuckles). That buncha painters, the Grope a Seven, the ones who painted by numbers, they do bams and outbuildins, I do that and don’t get paid anythin’ fer it . . . (chuckles and laughter). Bobby Orr’s knee is on the bum, a difficult transplant operation . . . (heh, heh, heh). It’s a good thing we don’t stand next to Trudeau in the washroom—if he sees yer’ve got a good thing runnin’ he’ll turn around and try to nationalize it . . . (applause, laughter). This feller was walkin’ along lookin’ fer a place to stay, so he asts this couple in a parked car and they told him to mind his own business, and all he asted was how far was the Bigwin Inn?” This last is boffo with the men, and elicits from the women those grim secret smiles that let on they understand, that boys will be boys but that they can still enjoy a touch of blue with the best of them. But if Harron as Harron had told that joke, who would have registered anything but the sharpest embarrassment? Charlie performs a curious alchemy.

Manta Sound, Toronto, some days later. Harron and his new partner Jackie Rae are producing a Charlie Farquharson album for the Christmas trade in a studio filled with visitors, many of them children from the families of Ford Motor Company employees at Oakville, Ontario. Harron is good with kids, and he does everything short of dropping his pants to make them cheerful. One of the children is Kelley Harron, six years old and the image of her mother. She is one of the children who surround Charlie as he asts them a few questions about yer Christmas. Kelley seems a little overcome by Charlie, perhaps on the grounds that she knew Charlie was really her father but wasn’t sure if the others did. “And where do you think Santa lives?” Charlie asks. “At the North Pole,” says Kelley, as if from a great distance. “And what’s the North Pole made of?” “Bricks. ” Bricks?” says Charlie, “what kinda bricks?” Too much for Kelley. “Bricks, Daddy,” she quavers, furious with Charlie’s obtuseness, which she knows isn’t her father’s, “bricks like the ones we have at our house.” Overcome, Kelley is led away in tears. Later, Harron deletes the whole scene from the album. “It didn’t work,” he says shortly.

A few days later he’s on the road north to Orillia, Stephen Leacock country, where he’s to make a special appearance at Gurney Trites’ bookshop and autograph copies of the A llmynack for those as wants. He’s putting great store on the A llmynack's success or failure south of the border: Charlie Farquharson’s Histry Of Canada (200,000 copies sold since 1972) and Jogfree Of Canada (71,000 since 1974) have both been Canadian publishing phenomena, but neither has been published in the United States—or Ewe Ass, as Charlie puts it in Jogfree. Banking on Charlie’s brief but regular stints on Hee-Haw—now entering its eighth season and syndicated to 227 U.S. stations with 36 to 40 million viewers—Harron is having [he A llmynack distributed in the States by Books Canada and hopes to sell at least 50,000 copies. “If it catches,” Harron muses, “I’ll do less personal appearance work here. I’m getting tired. I’ll spend more time with Kelley.” Spare and lanky, he is hunched over the wheel of his station wagon, the front seat so far forward that his chest is almost touching the column. Perhaps the tiny Catherine used it last and he doesn’t know that the seat can be moved. Utterly amechanical and something of an absent-minded professor, he recently got into the car in his dark garage and was appalled to find the steering wheel stolen... before he realized he was in the second row of seats.


At the bookshop close to 100 people are waiting for him, eclipsing the numbers who were there the previous day for a similar autographing ritual by The Globe and MaiFs Scott Young on behalf of his new hockey book. Charlie—live! in person!!—is greeted with a mix of affection, awe, and slack-jawed wonder, and for the next hour and a half, to-and-froing in a rocking chair, running through felt-tip pens in his cramped upside-down writing, Harron cranks out the Charlie bumpkinisms with indefatigable bonhomie. For Jim Knight? “Fer Gym Nite, from yer fan, Charlie Farquharson.” For Bruce? “Fer Bruise, yers histercly, yore fan . . .” For Doris?—“bet you can’t do much with that.” “Fer Door-Us...” For Granpa Warren? “Fer Gramper Worn (aren’t we all a bit?), yore fan . . .” For Peggy Dyment? “Fer Peggy from yore dymend in the smooth . . .” For Brenda and Gord? “Fer Brenderngored ...”

Everyone seems to love it, though the majority appears to be buying it for someone else. I am standing behind Charlie’s

chair and privately dusting off my pet Charlie Farquharson theory (that nobody actually reads him, everyone buys it for Gramper Worn) when a sturdy matron tells him: “I read your Histry when I was in hospital and laughed like hell.” “Stitches come out okay?” inquires Charlie, not missing a beat. “Yes,” she replies, shaking with laughter, “popped like crazy!” One middle-aged woman is not so cheerful. Determined and humorless, she wants to know who to pay. “Sneak out,” husks Charlie. “I can’t do that" she says, “I’ve never done that yet.” “I’ll take yer money then,” says Charlie. The buyer, feeling an urge to clarify her position: “My husband’s a fan of yours. And I love your wife.” Replies Charlie: “I get the message. Shall I desecrate this for your husband?” “No,” she sniffs, scolding a little boy for cheek: “I don’t understand that language of yours. Just sign it and I’ll be happy.” But mostly the atmosphere was unstressfully goodhumored, and some 60 minutes, a holidaying family from Mississippi and an outpatient from the Ontario mental hospital later, Charlie has signed 91 of his own books, one Guinness Book Of Olympic Records, and the rocking chair he’d been sitting in. He could have stayed until sundown, except that he had to move on and do the same thing in Barrie, Ontario.

Outside, the Jewison cap came off, signaling Harron’s return. He seemed tired. I drove. Now’s the time for a chat, I thought. But my chat went from badinage to worse, and Harron fell swiftly into one of the refueling catnaps that are the envy of his friends. So I ruminated on the Harron story alone ...

The son of Lionel and Delsia Harron (she of Yorkshire English, he of Irish heritage), both of whom died earlier this year, Don grew up early as a compulsive worker, delivering pies for a pieshop after school at the age of 11. His younger sister, Mary, also remembers him as a compulsive joker, often practical. (Twenty years later two of his daughters, Martha and Mary, loving his stories, would implore him now and then to tell them one straight. “Everything he told us was a send-up,” says Martha today. At 25, she says she has developed “a mental block about jokes” because of it.) Don developed no wish to go into the family’s Toronto dye works but became, like his father, an able cartoonist and from the age of 10 would go to service-club meetings and draw caricatures, keeping up a running flow of patter all the while. He remembers drawing one of Mussolini as a potato—“an I Irishman called Richard Murphy who changed his name to Dick Tater . . .” Charlie Farquharson would surely have approved.

After a stint with the RCAF at the end of World War II and performing Charley's A unt for the war-wounded in southern Ontario, Harron turned down a job as a cartoonist, though a friend remembers that “Don could draw anything in the style of any of The New Yorker cartoonists of the day.” Harron comments: “I never got a style of my own.” So he went to the University of Toronto and studied English and philosophy instead. He graduated in philosophy—“about the worst thing to study for someone who’d decided to become an actor. I have no use for it, and I got the Gold Medal, for God’s sake. All that jargon—that’s why Charlie makes so much fun of jargon today. So I bullshitted the professors, I made my essays fun." But Harron never fooled his English professor, the redoubtable Northrop Frye, whom he revered. “Harron, you have a tangential mind,” Dr. Frye once told him. “Some day you’ll make a good living popularizing things.” History particularly: 30 years later, Charlie’s first book is on the supplementary reading list of Ontario secondary schools.

From the start, aided by his ferocious energies, Harron made a good living out of acting. In the late Forties and into the Fifties, the national Canadian theatre was on CBC radio under Andrew Allan, and Harron was the junior member of an unofficial company, learning his craft among some of the finest radio actors in the world. He also took care to learn it onstage before live audiences. “I knew I couldn’t really compete with those radio guys,” he says, in the distinctively feathery Harron tones. “They had more flexibility of voice, more range.” But Harron had a trump of his own: unlike some of the radio giants, who were afraid of them, he found he loved live audiences and the legitimate stage. They were great years for actors, particularly for those in Ontario: any Canadian performer who passed through them will burble on about them only partly out of nostalgia. Andrew Allan and CBC Stage, Mavor Moore and the birth of Spring Thaw, and the early years at Stratford under Tyrone Guthrie: it is a golden litany, and when two or three middle-ageing Canadian actors are gathered together in theatre’s name they will mistily recite it—usually at the expense of the CBC today. Harron is no exception.

By the early Fifties he had started to write (for instance, 13 of 26 episodes of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches for CBC-TV and radio), and for years he kept up a work schedule of 16 to 18 hours a day. From actress Jane Mallett he learned comedy—“Jane and Bea Lillie are the two greatest comics we’ve ever had”—but as an actor he was mostly in demand for juvenile and straight leads. In 1953, after playing in London and New York, he was summoned by Tyrone Guthrie, the eccentrically brilliant Irishman, to a hot little office in Toronto. Guthrie wanted to talk about the upcoming season of this extraordinary experiment he was undertaking in a tent at Stratford. “I understand you’ve been doing a lot of TV,” Guthrie boomed. Yes, said Harron. “Not very good for one, is it?” No, said Harron. “Well then, what would you like to do for us?” Harron said he’d sweep out the tent, anything. Guthrie, a master of the unexpected, gave him the lead in All’s Well That Ends Well in Stratford’s opening season opposite Irene Worth (in a supporting part: Alec Guinness). “Guthrie,” breathes Harron reverentially. “Six-feet, 6V2 inches of sunshine!”

From 1950 to 1966 Harron was based in New York, London and Los Angeles, and his record of solid credits on stage and TV could fill a column. For a time in the late Fifties he was under contract to Paramount, starting at $750 a week, thanks in part to some urging by Katharine Hepbum. Paramount saw him as a combination of Montgomery Clift and Leslie Howard and therefore, after thinking about it for a bit, offered him a part as straight man to Jerry Lewis; Harron declined and the contract was ended. But the years abroad are no more than footnotes to Harron’s career today. Back home, fleetingly, in the mid-Fifties, he interested Norman Campbell, the former cardigan owner, in adapting Anne Of Green Gables as a 90-minute musical for CBC-TV: expanded for the Charlottetown Festival in 1965 (script by Harron, music by Campbell), it has just ended its twelfth season, having played to 96.7% capacity, and earns Harron $5,000 every summer. Latterly he has written a screenplay of Mordecai Richler’s The Incomparable A tuk, now being considered by Czech director Milos Foreman, and is at present working on a film treatment of Alberta novelist Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man.

It’s not to downgrade these endeavors to note that all of them are overshadowed— for the time being—by Charlie Farquharson, the yokel from Parry Sound. Charlie, whose radio scripts (for Toronto’s CFRB) Harron can toss off in minutes and whose patter he will lapse into at the trip of any number of mental hammers, has pushed Harron into the supertax class, and he is a phenomenon worth looking at closely. For one thing, despite a popular misconception, Charlie is a lot older than both his Histry and Hee-Haw. If Harron can do him in his sleep, he’s earned it: he started on the accent and the speech patterns—“like a hen’s ass, Charlie never shuts up”—in 1949, and first produced him as a fullfledged character in the 1952 Spring Thaw. At first he was a cult figure and Harron, based at that time in the United States, was never around long enough to make him anything else. The turning point came in 1965 when Ross McLean, working with

producer Doug Leiterman, hired Charlie for satirical spots on the dying weeks of the CBC’S legendary This Hour Has Seven Days. This was two years before Harron had even set foot in Parry Sound, heart of the agricultural belt of central Ontario, but he’d got the accent and character down pat. “People are always asking me how 1 managed to lose my accent,” says his daughter Martha, “and I’ve never been there at all.”

From there on it has been a steady growth of personal appearances across the country, TV appearances—primarily with Hee-Haw which, no matter how cornball, has the added rédame for Canadians of

being U.S. produced—and the books.

Charlie’s Histry came about through a nice serendipity. Catherine McKinnon, Harron’s third wife whom he married in 1969, had been to school in Halifax with Nancy Griffin. Late in 1971 the Harrons visited Nancy, now married to AÍ Mazeika, then sales supervisor for the McGraw-Hill publishing company in Canada. Mazeika and Harron (a voracious reader) started chatting about some of the books they enjoyed, Harron mentioning particularly Richard Armour’s It All Started With Columbus and 1066 And All That by Sellers and Yeatman, both books comic views of history. Mazeika: “Ever thought of doing a



funny history yourself?” Harron: “No.” Mazeika: “How about Charlie Farquharson’s history of Canada?”

Lightning bolts are sometimes like that: little noted, out of a clear sky. At first nobody at McGraw-Hill seemed struck by the idea except Mazeika and Toivo Kiil, then the company’s trade division managing editor. At one top-level meeting Charles Sweeney, McGraw president, since retired, remarked: “We’ll be lucky if we sell 3,000 copies.” Five thousand would have made it a Canadian best seller; 200,000 copies later the Histry is still selling briskly (though its author, who felt he did not have enough control at McGraw, is now with Gage Publishing, much to McGraw’s chagrined fury).

Branching out, Harron in the last three years has also developed a drag-queen character called Valerie Rosedale, a prune-voiced parody of what her creator calls “a White Anti-Sexual Protestant society matron” and trotted out by Harron at such occasions as Walter Gordon’s seventy-fifth birthday party which was, says Harron, “full of them.” But the Rosedales are small fry compared to the Charlie business, which raises one of the abiding conundrums on the Canadian entertainment scene: how is it that Canada’s best-known English-language comedians are Charlie Farquharson, Fred Dobbs, Renfrew of the Mounted, and the Member for Kicking Horse Pass? Each is an alter ego. Dobbs is a kind of Charlie with a shiv, dreamed up by Vancouver’s Mike Magee in 1955; Renfrew and the Member are Dave Broadfoot, another Vancouver-born comic, revue comedian and mainstay of CBC radio’s Royal Canadian Air Farce. Of the four, Magee’s Dobbs—a vinegary old man looking like an outraged Stephen Leacock—is the only one with a bite that cuts. He is also wickedly funny, outrageously rude, and as topical as the next edition. All this makes him dangerous, which restricts his popularity. People laugh at Dobbs; they do not love him. Renfrew, the Member, Charlie—no matter how funny you find them, how dangerous are they? Dangerous as a toothless chihuahua, and that’s why they’re so popular, Charlie most of all. “I think we get away with more behind a character—as a character you’re not really a threat,” says Magee. For his part, Harron cites Frank Shuster’s view that Canada doesn’t produce comedians, it produces actors, and agrees with Magee to a point: unlike Magee he’s never wanted to be a threat, though he has tried stand-up comedy as himself instead of Charlie. “1 died,” he says. “They thought I was a smart-ass.” His own requirements of Charlie are simple: “I insist that what he has to say is funny first, pertinent afterward. I’ll always sacrifice a political point for a laugh. Eric Nicol [Vancouver’s comic stylist] is a far more brilliant writer than I’ll ever be, but he writes from the level of a PhD. I write below the level of the average man. I talk up to people.” It’s not an attitude that goes over well with some of those who have high opinions of Harron’s abilities. “Given his intellect and the authentic character he’s created,” says Ross McLean, program director of CBC-TV’S Toronto station, CBLT, “he could have built something truly effective and pungent. He’s settled for puns and bathroom humor, which has at once broadened Charlie’s appeal and narrowed his value.” Broadfoot remembers the time, about three years ago, when he saw a Charlie performance that excited him to the core: “That night he had a philosophy! There was a point. ‘Hey,’ I thought, ‘so that’s the way he’s going to take it!’ I’ve never seen him do it again. That’s such a fabulous character, the potential phenomenal, and what he could do ...”

But whether or not you’re a fan, Harron has created a character more lasting than any fleeting portrayal he will ever make on the legitimate stage. “As a straight performer,” says a Canadian actor, “Don doesn’t quite have it. He has no star quality, he’s too cerebral, there’s nothing spontaneous about him, nothing comes from the gut.” Gene Saks, the American actortumed-director who acted with Harron in The Tenth Man 17 years ago, puts it another way: “Don’s biggest enemy as a leading man was himself. He fought against his good looks, he always wanted the character parts—which were the ones he never got.” In some ways Charlie is Harron’s flip side. Where Harron is fastidious, nonsmoking, preferring nothing stronger than tea, Charlie is a ribald slob and Harron (“There’s a lot of bumpkin in me”) delights in him. His first wife did not, nor, on occasion, does his third. Catherine has been known to complain that Charlie has taken over their lives. To me she said darkly: “Remember, I have to live with Charlie far more than anyone else.”

Married seven years, the Harrons have had a few separations, and some of their • more public rows have been lulus. On one reconciliation Harron met his returning wife at the door, carrying suitcases, with two bottles of champagne; by the end of the second bottle a new fight had erupted and Catherine departed again, still packed. “It’s called lack of communication,” says a friend. Another observes: “Relationships only work for Don if he’s the one doing the giving—it’s his way of controlling the situation. He cannot, simply cannot, let anyone in. I can understand Catherine’s hysteria.” Says a third, who once knew him closely: “He’ll lend you money, he’s generous in sharing praise and fame, but his social conversation consists of telling jokes and puns, puns, puns. 1 hate to say it, but he’s best in bed.” Everyone who knows him talks of his brilliance, his gentleness, his decency, his loyalty, and some private stories are genuinely warming in a cold world. A longtime friend calls him “one of the very few absolutely superior people I’ve ever met.” Yet once over the homage to his attributes, all were at a loss to say much further. “If anyone claims to know father intimately,” says Martha Harron, “he’s a liar. Father’s a man of a million acquaintances.” Charlie’s the one with the host of friends.

I asked him once when he was happiest. “After sex and while I’m working,” he replied. And a little later: “There are no answers. You do well in life if you find what thêxquestions are.”

I’m thinking these things over at the bus station in Barrie. Harron has driven me down and we’re having a coffee at the counter. A youth,20-ish,sidles up and asks: “Aren’t you Charlie . . . whatsisname?” Harron has his face to the wall, but nods. Hard to tell if he’s pleased or appalled at the recognition out of costume. My bus appears and he’s back to his summer place with Charlie’s acquisitions, the pool and the $15,000 tennis court, in search of more questions to which there would be no answers. Through the window of the bus station he looked very happy. I deduced he must have been going back to work.