Gordon Pinsent was having trouble getting to sleep. During the first week of filming John and the Missus in Newfoundland last summer, Pinsent said, he stayed up for three days straight. His mind roiled with unsettled details: bits of dialogue, camera angles, stray ideas that nagged at his imagination. During the rest of the six-week shoot, he rarely managed more than four hours of sleep a night. Juggling the roles of screenwriter, director and star of John and the Missus—which opens in theatres across Canada this month — Pinsent had a lot to think about. It was the first time that he had directed a feature movie and the first one that he had written since 1972’s The Rowdyman. “At night I just couldn’t wind down,” he said after the filming was over. “Maybe it’s the fear of falling asleep and having it all disappear on you, which Canadian films have a habit of doing anyway.”
Guarding the integrity of his work—and making distinctively Canadian movies—has been a long-standing obsession for the artist. And with John and the Missus, Pinsent, 56, is finally able to tell his own story in his own way. A star who remains stubbornly attached to Canada—and to his native Newfoundland—he is chagrined that his country, unlike Australia, has failed to produce a body of internationally acclaimed movies with an indigenous quality. “If one had the money or the expertise or the pride or the courage to be different and have our voice,” he said, “this stuff could have been pouring out of this country for years.”
Probably more than any other actor, Pinsent has played the role of the quintessential Canadian hero. In the 1960s he was a crusading parliamentarian in CBC TV’S series Quentin Durgens, M.P., and in 1980 he played former diplomat Ken Taylor, a thinking man’s Rambo, in the TV movie Escape from Iran: the Canadian Caper. He has also devoted much of his career to playing rugged workingmen—from the salty renegade who lets his life go to seed in The Rowdyman to the truculent farmer who fights foreclosure by setting his crop on fire in the 1983 TV drama Ready for the Slaughter. Said Allan King, who directed Pinsent in Slaughter and two feature films: “Everything he does rings
true. He is our best leading man —
and has been for some time.”
But Pinsent has not limited himself to acting. His scripts for both John and the Missus and The Rowdyman evolved from his own published novels. Acting has served as his passport to celebrity, while writing is the vehicle that he repeatedly uses to examine his roots. His determination to develop his own stories into films has often proved frustrating. In fact, it took Pinsent nearly a decade to take John and the Missus from the printed page to the big screen. He pursued the movie project with a single-mindedness worthy of the film’s hero—a worker at a dying copper mine who resists the government’s move to uproot his town.
Pinsent’s multiple responsibilities— along with the pressures of completing the $2.3-million movie on a tight production schedule—took a heavy toll. For much of the past month, the actor suffered from intense back pain, the result of an entrapped nerve that he traces directly to the ordeal of shooting John and the Missus. For a recent Maclean's interview, he lay on his living room couch, his back supported with cushions.
Pinsent lives with his second wife, actress Charmion King, in a sprawling penthouse condominium overlooking downtown Toronto. The actor’s own oil paintings are on prominent display. Above the marble-framed fireplace is a gaudy impression of
himself in The Rowdyman with costar Frank Converse. A few pieces of Pinsent’s own handmade furniture, including a squat throne fashioned out of Douglas fir, masquerade convincingly among dark wood antiques. A spiral staircase with a brass banister leads to Pinsent’s study, which has an IBM word processor and a rooftop deck.
The penthouse is worlds removed from the working-class Newfoundland in which the actor grew up. But Pinsent has not turned his back on his
past—John and the Missus, in fact, is suffused with it. He frequently revisits the province, where three sisters and one brother still live. “I’ve been away, and once you’ve done that, you’re not entirely the same in people’s eyes,” he said. “But when you go back, you’ll always find the people you feel comfortable with again, and you’ll see yourself as you used to be.”
Pinsent was born in Grand Falls. His father was a paper mill worker who died at 59—when Gordon was only nine—of what Pinsent calls an industrial “dust-related kind of disease. He quit the mill because of his health and took up fixing shoes for 10 years.” Pinsent’s family was poor, but he recalls his father as “a dignified individual” with a walrus moustache, a bowler hat and a pipe of Prince Albert tobacco—the same look Pinsent used for a ghost that appears in John and the Missus.
At the local movie theatre, the young Pinsent found a canvas for his
imagination. But an acting career was far from his thoughts when, at 16, he dropped out of school to work at the paper mill. Then, to broaden his horizons, he enlisted in the army and spent three peacetime years serving in the Royal Canadian Regiment on the mainland. In 1951 he was discharged in Winnipeg, where—with neither experience nor training—he bluffed his way onto the stage. Pinsent first appeared at the Winnipeg Repertory Theatre in Years Ago, which later became a film (The Actress) starring
Spencer Tracy. While rehearsing for that drama, he learned that there was an opening in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at another theatre. “In no time I was doing these two roles,” he recalled, “running back and forth.”
Winnipeg’s fertile theatre scene provided a good grounding for Pinsent, who moved east in 1958, aiming for the New York stage. But he got sidetracked in Toronto. At the city’s Crest Theatre, in a 1961 production of The Madwoman of Chaillot, he met Charmion King, a seasoned actress who played opposite him as the heroine. They married the next year.
In the mid-1960s the little-known actor found a national outlet for his talent. CBC television made him a populist hero in Quentin Durgens, M.P. The show lasted three years—until 1968, when Pinsent moved to Los Angeles to seek greater fame and fortune. He stayed seven years and enjoyed moderate success, with guest shots on TV’S Marcus Welby, M.D. and
Hogan ’s Heroes. His most bizarre role was as a token white detective in an all-black horror movie titled Blacula. “They had something called a ‘scare director’ on it,” he said. “They bring him in when the director is not scary enough. And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know what’s wrong here. Give me 16 vampires. Set fire to those people.’ ”
In the end Pinsent found working in Los Angeles to be a deadening experience. And, he says, he is still disturbed by the idea of young, unseasoned actors—including his own
daughter, 22-year-old Leah —attempting to make their careers in Hollywood. Leah Pinsent, who starred in 1984’s The Bay Boy, has lived there for two years. Said her father: “All knowledge stops in L.A. The acting is all heat and serve.”
During his own years in Hollywood Pinsent combated his sense of alienation by writing about Newfoundland. And by the time he moved back to Toronto in 1974, he had completed two novels in rapid succession, The Rowdyman and John & The Missus. By then he had also written and starred in a movie version of The Rowdyman, the first Canadian film shot in Newfoundland. Critically praised, the film recovered its $330,000 cost. But its failure to reach a broader audience taught Pinsent the limitations of Canada’s film industry.
Repatriated, he became one of the most sought-after actors in the country. In movies he played stalwart men with quiet charisma: Allan King’s
Who Has Seen the Wind (1976) and Silence of the North (1980). He won a Genie award for his role as a goldhungry American in 1979’s Klondike Fever. On television he starred as a wild-mannered, sentimental soldier in A Gift to Last, a 22-part CBC series that he wrote and created. And Canadian producer Les Harris insisted on casting Pinsent as Ken Taylor in Escape from Iran, although its CBS coproducers wanted an American star, accepting Pinsent only after a year’s delay.
Although Pinsent has appeared steadily on television in recent years, his moviemaking ambitions were often thwarted. But in 1985 Toronto producer Peter O’Brian (The Grey Fox, My American Cousin) expressed interest in John and the Missus. At first the possibility of having Pinsent direct the film was a contentious issue, said O’Brian. “But in the end it became clear to me that nobody else could direct it—the film was so specific to the nuances of Newfoundland behavior.”
Pinsent’s role in John and the Missus called for him to offset his natural charm with a surly air of impatience—an emotion, he explained, born of his own frustrations in the film industry. “It comes from wanting to get things done,” he said, “and being too shy to make my dreams happen to the fullest. I didn’t have the guts for a long time.”
The self-criticism seems unduly harsh. In fact, his feelings of failure mirror the historic weakness of the Canadian film industry: in Canada domestic stardom and international obscurity still go hand in hand. After a recent screening of John and the Missus, British-based film distributor Carole Myer asked, “Who is that marvellous actor Gordon Pinsent? Has he been in films before?”
Pinsent is clearly not a household name around the world, but he is known and respected in the places that matter most to him. He stops traffic when he walks through St. John’s. People get out of their cars to chat, treating him as a long-lost friend, and he is known for finding the time to talk. In 1985 Pinsent and rock star Tina Turner happened to be staying at the city’s Hotel Newfoundland at the same time. One day as Turner was leaving the lobby, a crowd of fans gathered around her. Then Pinsent emerged, and half the crowd abandoned Tina for a close-up look at the native son. The dreamer from Grand Falls left the Rock long ago, but he remains its most celebrated treasure.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.