THE END

RITA KATHLEEN TUCKETT 1909-2005

From the Blitz to the backwoods to the big screen. She was petite, ‘but she could command attention.’

CATHY GULLI January 30 2006
THE END

RITA KATHLEEN TUCKETT 1909-2005

From the Blitz to the backwoods to the big screen. She was petite, ‘but she could command attention.’

CATHY GULLI January 30 2006

RITA KATHLEEN TUCKETT 1909-2005

From the Blitz to the backwoods to the big screen. She was petite, ‘but she could command attention.’

THE END

Rita Kathleen Tuckett (née Ardouin) was born on Jan. 10,1909, in Wandsworth, England, a London borough near the River Wandle. Her mother, Daisy, who had many sisters all named after flowers, emigrated to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for work when Rita was a toddler. Charles, her father, asked an aunt and uncle to raise Rita. Eventually, she would have a half-sister in London, Netta, and half-siblings, Doris and David, in the Soo. Rita excelled in elementary school, and won a scholarship to a high school in nearby Warwick. She studied theatre, and appeared in a small vaudeville company run by her music teacher. “I discovered that while I could not sing, I could make an audience listen when I spoke,”

Rita once said. But acting was considered immoral work for women. So Rita studied art at Birmingham and Croyden colleges. She became an acclaimed artist, whose paintings and sketches were shown in England, and later throughout North America and Europe. Rita taught art at a private school. “A lot of these kids had more pocket money than she ever had,” says daughter Anne Busby, and most were taller. Rita was petite, with wavy, dark hair, high cheekbones and blue eyes.

“But she could command attention.”

When Rita was in her 20s, she married Lincoln Coakley. In 1940, during the London Blitz, Rita gave birth to their son Bruce, who was safely tucked in the hospital basement with other newborns. Six years later, Rita left England for Canada with Bruce. Her childhood piano teacher had done so years before, and had sent Rita letters, along with Anne of Green Gables books. Rita had also kept in touch with Daisy, and her half-siblings. Few know what be-

came of Lincoln—Rita just said war broke relationships.

Once in Canada, Rita taught art, at first on an Indian reserve just outside the Soo. She didn’t like the cold or bugs, and had bad reactions to black fly bites. But she loved the rugged northern beauty. She shocked in the 1950s by wearing slacks because, she insisted, skirts were impractical for tromping through the bush to paint. Rita became involved in local theatre, making costumes and sets, and acting, and directing. She starred in many plays, including The Innocents with Academy-Award winner Lila Kedrova, the wife local director Richard Howard. Rita won Quonta awards (a northern Ontario theatre honour) for her roles in The Prime of Miss ]ean Brodie, and Endgame, in which she played an aging parent. “She played that as old as you can. She did it without her teeth. That was the kind of dedication she had, she committed herself to the role,” says Harry Houston, now the president of the Sault Theatre Workshop. Rita encouraged him to audition for his first play in 1968. “Supporting the young actors was part of the teacher in her,” he says, which is why she co-founded Studio 5, a youth theatre in the Soo, as well as a district arts council. Rita also hosted two local TV art shows, one for children.

When Rita was 65, she moved to Stratford, Ont. She left behind Lewis Tuckett, a gardener and painter whom she’d married in 1955. They loved and understood each other, but “they were happily separated. There were things she wanted to do,” says Anne, born in 1950 out of another relationship, and named after the Green Gables girl.

Starting in 1974, Rita performed and directed with the Stratford Little Theatre, and sketched in the park the faces of passersby. She

starred in Shaw Festival productions such as The Suicide. In 1978, Rita moved to Toronto, and appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap for a record 3V2 years. In the 1980s and ’90s, she also did commercials and movies, including Love with Liv Ullman, The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken, Stephen King’s miniseries Storm of the Century, Pushing Tin with John Cusack, and Disney’s One Magic Christmas, in which Rita played Mrs. Claus. She also was a nun in Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God, with Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft. “We all cringed as she got older,” laughs Anne. “If she heard the word audition, you couldn’t stop her.” Not even legal blindness slowed Rita down. She hailed cabs and managed without a walking cane, which she refused to use for fear of casting discrimination.

“It’s quite unusual to have an actor that age,” says Larry Goldhar, Rita’s agent. “What was amazing about her was that she had this extraordinary energy.” At

an agency party in the late 1990s, Rita surprised everyone when she came with her walker. “She could hardly move. But she said she couldn’t miss this,” Goldhar recalls. A few years ago, Rita reluctantly phoned him to say she was retiring. Her last roles were in The Moving of Sophia Myles and Where the Money Is with Paul Newman in 2000, and a Budweiser commercial in June 2001. She never drank beer.

Rita overcame bladder cancer in 1992. She moved in with Bruce in 1994, and lived with him until last August, when her son fell ill. Rita went to a nursing home. Anne saw her last November. “In all of this, she knew Richard Monette was retiring,” she says. Rita was good at remembering. To keep her mind sharp, she memorized sections of Shakespeare and Kipling. “The one thing she worried about was being forgotten,” Anne says.

On Dec. 27, 2005, Rita Tuckett, 96, died of old age at William Osier hospital in Etobicoke. Memorials will be held this spring and fall in Stratford and the Soo. BY CATHY GULLI