Show Business

The Rowdyman at 45: Gordon Pinsent in pursuit of his epitaph

RON BASE June 28 1976
Show Business

The Rowdyman at 45: Gordon Pinsent in pursuit of his epitaph

RON BASE June 28 1976

The Rowdyman at 45: Gordon Pinsent in pursuit of his epitaph

Show Business

If plenty of work and a high profile were everything, Gordon Pinsent should be Canada’s happiest actor. In the past year he has hosted a CBC television special about his native Newfoundland and narrated a mini-series, The Great Canadian Culture Hunt. His play, John And The Missus (starring Pinsent), had a three-week run at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in February. Since then he has played a halfcrazed sailor in a one-hour television film, Horse Latitudes, taken part in another TV drama called His Mother and starred in an episode of a new TV series called Royal Suite, all shows to be seen during the 197677 season.

Alas, none of it is enough. At 45, Pinsent no longer simply wants to be visible and successful (his income from TV alone is $70,000 a year). He wants to do great things. “Something that is lasting,” he says, his grey-green eyes glittering with intensity. He thinks he’s close—tantalizingly close—with his creation, The Rowdyman. The Rowdyman is a shiftless, life-loving Newfie joke named Will Cole, and Pinsent has fought for him tenaciously for six years. First he was turned into a 1971 movie {The Rowdyman, starring and written by Pinsent); it bombed at the box office. Undeterred, Pinsent next turned Will Cole into a book, with which he has had better luck; it has sold about 8,800 hardcover copies so far, excellent for a first novel in Canada.

For Pinsent this isn’t sufficient. This month he tries again, with the unveiling of The Rowdyman as a $200,000-plus musical at the Charlottetown Festival. Some who have seen an early draft say it is close to being a loud, square, Maritime Oklahoma! Whatever it turns out to be, it will certainly be his. Pinsent is starring in the production, writing its book and lyrics, and co-directing the cast of 28 with veteran festival director Alan Lund. Already visions of a Broadway run are dancing in Pinsent’s head. But the prospect of making it in New York has opened up a hitherto hidden streak of ruthlessness.

He demanded—and got—veto power over the show’s music and the right to dump the composer if he didn’t think he was working out. When the lawyer for composer David Warrack balked at this high-handedness, Pinsent refused to negotiate. Instead, Bob Dubberly, executive producer of the Charlottetown Festival, reportedly told Warrack, “I only care about Gordon Pinsent, not you.” Hurt and angry, Warrack dropped out last March, taking with him the music for 12 songs he

had written for the show. Pinsent had to start from scratch with a new composer. He hired Cliff Jones, who was still recovering from the mugging he received at the hands of New York critics last winter when he turned up on Broadway with the ludicrous musical Rockabye Hamlet—another production that originated at Charlottetown.

Pinsent’s desire to achieve something better, and his frustration over his inability to do it, began early. In 1959, he arrived in Toronto, fresh from a stint at Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre Centre. For the next seven years he unhappily carried spears at Stratford and did bit parts at Toronto’s old Crest theatre, before finally clicking in the mid-Sixties with a national CBC television audience playing an honorable stuffed shirt from Moose Falls, Quentin Durgens MP. In 1969, he packed his bags and headed for Hollywood, expecting to become a star. Six years and four agents later, he had not progressed above the dubious status of television “guest artist” in such mindnumbing series as Dan A ugust and It Takes A Thief. “In Hollywood,” he says, “you run and you jump. And if you don’t, you don’t work.”

By 1970, tired of running and jumping, he began to write an outline for The Rowdyman. He drew from his own experiences growing up in Grand Falls, Newfoundland. “I was rowdy, but it was all in my head,” admits the five-foot nine-inch, 160-

pound actor. “My wrist would break if I was ever in a good fight.” Whatever the weakness of his wrist, nothing ever prevented Pinsent from bending his elbow. During his formative years he claims to have eagerly consumed everything alcoholic, including vanilla extract and liquid shoe polish. He had an eye for the ladies as well. During a three-year hitch in the army, he was once thrown into a detention centre for smuggling a girl into camp.

That sort of thing is far behind him now. He lives quietly in a fine old stone house in Toronto’s ritzy Forest Hill with his second wife, actress Charmion King. Pinsent can be witty, and he has a well-deserved reputation as a raconteur. But when he gets down to talking about his “artistry,” he can blurt out such platitudes as: “I have a great need to be constantly creative.” In the show business world he is extremely popular and his talents are highly regarded. “Whenever I think of Gordie, I think of poetry,” says actor AÍ Waxman, the King of Kensington. Whether the rest of the world ever thinks the same way will depend largely on Pinsent’s success with the Rowdyman musical. If it isn’t a hit, Pinsent will be even more frustrated, but he won’t quit. He has a drawer full of unproduced movie scripts that he wants to start peddling to Hollywood producers. “I know I could write the big American, commercial production,” he says—a feat that in the words of Rowdyman Will Cole would be “lovely-tell-your-mother.”

RON BASE