PROFILE: GORDON PINSENT

A quest to last and last and last

Warren Gerard May 18 1981
PROFILE: GORDON PINSENT

A quest to last and last and last

Warren Gerard May 18 1981

A quest to last and last and last

PROFILE: GORDON PINSENT

Warren Gerard

Gordon Pinsent’s mind is on a dozen things—acting, writing, directing, casting, business meetings, interviews, his Mercedes that’s on the fritz. His eyes, usually described as twinkling, are not today, frequently darting back and forth over his warm, mildly cluttered study, as if checking for fast exits. The tele phone rings occasionally, and each time it does, even though an answering service cuts in after two rings, he tenses, ready to answer. Outside, beyond the glass sliding doors and cedar deck, the sun is shining and green has touched the trees, but Pinsent sits with his back to the day, preoccupied beyond awareness of the changing season. This time he jumps up when the telephone rings, unable to stand it anymore: “I must get this one,” he says, seeming to know by the ring that it’s different from the others, but it’s not for him; it’s for his wife, actress Charmion King.

--With little in his life hut vork, Pinsent is driven by a constant need to top himself -

For a 50-year-old, Pinsent has the nervous energy and impatience of a fidgety teen-ager. There is little in his life other than work. He hardly reads, seldom socializes, at least not without a reason, and only occasionally listens to music. On this day, the first day of a new week, he is organizing his life into its usual workaholic routine. For the past three weeks he has been getting gj* ah‘eflve and six not morningunusual even when he’s not on a set—to shoot the $2-million made-forTV film Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper (see review, page 63), which will be shown this week. Pinsent plays the part of Canadian Ambassador Kenneth Taylor and, with glasses and a perm to curl his greying hair, the actor slightly resembles the diplomat. CBS had wanted a high-profile American actor to play Taylor, but after behind-thescenes skirmishes between producers Pinsent won. It was planned that Pinsent and Taylor would meet, for publicity purposes if nothing else, but Pinsent is glad they didn’t. “I think that might have set me back a bit,” he says. “If he had been there, standing on the set, I might have been tempted to impersonate him and that would have been wrong.”

As soon as the last scene was shot, the Canadian Caper was quickly out of Pinsent’s mind. Once again he is searching for ways to satisfy his insatiable need to keep topping himself. All too aware of the shortage of time, he alludes to his own mortality, talking now and then of epitaphs. “I don’t know if I’m scrambling or scratching at too many things and maybe overlooking the solid answer, but I’ve sure got to find that somewhere.”

Pinsent’s quest began, and will no doubt end, in Canada, but he has chased his elusive goal as far away as Hollywood. He first went there in the late 1960s after his successful three-year CBC-TV series, Quentin Durgens, MP, left him overexposed and underemployed at home. During his six years in Hollywood he acquired a reputation as a working actor, appearing in several films, including The Thomas Crown Affair, and making many guest appearances in TV series such as Cannon, Marcus Welby, M.D., Hogan’s Heroes and It Takes a Thief Twice he came close to having his own series. In one, he would have played the husband of Debbie Reynolds and, in another, one of four doctors whose father is also a doctor that would have been, save us, a medical Bonanza. “I’m glad they didn’t sell,” Pinsent says now. “I can’t imagine doing the same thing over and over again. I did Durgens for three years and by the second year I was as fat as a pig. You end up like an old car that just can’t start. No one’s going to tell me that is constantly enlightening and growing.”

He became bored with Hollywood. He saw that he wasn’t going to become a star in a hurry and that wasn’t good enough. “J don’t think he was primarily interested in series,” recalls Lawrence Dane, an actor who knew Pinsent in California. “Hollywood has a kind of aura about it, a kind of place where you cannot rid yourself of the feeling that one day you might wake up and be 65 and waiting for the phone to ring. That was never good enough for Gordon, he is a doer.”

7 have an awful feeling that there's a lot going by and I'm not part of it'

Acting wasn’t enough—as no single creative exercise is for Pinsent—and he began writing. It started with John and the Missus and that seemed to set the pattern for Pinsent’s helter-skelter productivity. It became a novel, then a play that was produced at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, and now, after script changes and a new title, Some Leave Shadows, a screenplay that Pinsent is hoping to cast for filming this summer. His other novel, The Rowdyman, was first written as a screenplay and Dane produced the film, starring Pinsent as Will Cole, a sort of Tom Jones let loose in Newfoundland. It was a film that earned Pinsent much praise and little money at the box-office.

After filming Rowdyman in Newfoundland, instead of on a back lot at Universal, Pinsent discovered the homing instinct. It seemed that during the years of fortune-hunting in Hollywood he had locked his soul in a box and left it for safekeeping in Grand Falls, the place of his childhood. He’s the son of a paper mill worker, one of six children, and he recalls a restlessness, a need for acceptance and a talent for sketching as a youngster. “Whenever I failed a subject I sketched a very flattering portrait of the teacher and I got away with an awful lot that way. Above all, I think, I wanted to be popular, but I was different. When I think back, that was the beginning, the trigger; but I missed a great deal in that period. A gap had been created by my desire to get out, get out early and grow up quickly.”

He left for the mainland in 1948, a cocky 18-year-old full of great expectations. He picked potatoes, dug ditches, and then, seemingly going nowhere, he joined the army and became a paratrooper, not for the view but for the extra $30 a month in danger pay. Three years later he was discharged in Winnipeg and took up acting.

The list of credits since has been enormous. He recently completed filming Comes a Time with Ellen Burstyn. A Gift to Last, the CBC series that Pinsent also wrote, has been a major hit in South Africa, and he has received an offer to write and act in a film of Edgar Sturgess’ exploits in the Boer War. (Edgar, played by Pinsent, was the rakish hero in A Gift.) He is writing three novels, The Cinderpath, The Place Where Vivian Fell and Easy Down Easy, whose theme, not surprisingly, is—is there life after ambition?

Ironically, ambition may be the stumbling block that prevents Pinsent from achieving lasting excellence. John Hirsch, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, first met Pinsent almost 30 years ago at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, and over the years has become his friend, adviser and critic. “He’s very, very talented,” says Hirsch, “but he doesn’t pay enough attention to single projects. He’s a missionary for the arts in Canada, but I would love to see him work more in depth.”

But, somehow, there is never time, in work or in private life, and Pinsent’s regret is evident: “I haven’t had time for silly personal things. I have an awful feeling there’s a lot going by and I’m not part of it. I don’t seem to walk around in the sunshine a lot and I don’t collaborate a lot with ordinary life, meaning the best part of it, is what I’m missing. I want to sit down and take a whole week to write a song. I know I can do it, but I don’t have that week.”

Recently, his wife persuaded him to take a holiday, and the couple went to Puerto Vallarta for a week. It was more like torture than rest. “I wanted to swim back, through shark infested waters I might add. I was not very good at it at all.” Yet his marriage to Charmion King is close. Perhaps it has to be. His relationship with his 16-year-old daughter, Leah, who also wants to be an actress, verges on the comical. Pinsent i is the cliché of the protective, jealous father who suspects every boy who comes calling.

“It’s my catching up problem,” Pinsent explains. “I’m off and running for six weeks and before I left she maybe had mentioned one boy’s name. I come back and I learn that she’s growing up without me, that she now has not only boy-friend No. 1, but Nos. 2 and 3 as well, and they all look like Anthony Quinn to me.

“I find myself curiously becoming less and less full of fun and coming back from these sojourns feeling guilty that I’ve been away and saying, ‘all right, Leah, what’s been going on’ instead of saying, ‘how’ve you been, darling’ and smiling a lot. One night, I remember, a guy took her out in a station wagon and she was supposed to be back at 11 p.m. and she wasn’t. It was a scene from every bad movie you could imagine. I got a nose bleed from my nose being pressed up against the window. But you do your best, I guess.”

More and more, it seems, Pinsent is considering whether he is, in fact, spreading himself too thin. “Sometimes,” he laughs, “I say I am spreading myself too thick. I’m not worried about where the next buck is coming from: it’s got to do with topping myself and that’s not a very good idea. I know an awful lot of people who have hurt themselves rather badly by hoping to do better and better just because it’s expected of them or because of their fear of sameness. They must change always. But that’s me. I’ve got to keep changing.”