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Thursday, 23 February 2017 17:39

Remembering Richard McMillan

Written by  Dennis Kucherawy
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John Van Burek, Pleiades’ Artistic Director and friend David Bednar, former manager of the CNE, reminisce about

their late friend and one of Canada’s greatest performers

By Dennis Kucherawy

“John, how will you remember Richard?”

“As an artist who possesses the perfect combination of deep spirituality and monumental talent.”

-      John Van Burek, Artistic Director, Pleiades Theatre

 

I’ll never forget Richard McMillan’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the Stratford Festival’s 1980 production of “Twelfth Night,” directed by the great Robin Phillips – 37 years ago. Only 29 years old, Richard was starring along with Brian Bedford giving an equally definitive performance as the egocentric Malvolio. I’ve seen many production of the play and have never laughed so hard and pitied such foolish character.

At approximately six feet, McMillan’s Aguecheek was a string-bean fool who would fall over if he puffed out his chest.  The name/word “Aguecheek” is Elizabethan for “pale face” and it certainly applied to McMillan’s’ distinctive features.  It was the face of a “sad clown,” as Richard Rose, Tarragon’s artistic director, so aptly described it this week following Richard’s death last Sunday, Feb. 19th after a long bout of thyroid cancer.  That was McMillan’s comic genius – while audiences would laugh hysterically at his antics, they’d also pity him, emphasizing with his poignant, sad lot.

The whupping the character Cesario gave McMillan’s Aguecheek, who has mistaken him for Oliva made your ribs ache as you gasped for air.  I’ll never forget the spanking Cesario gave Aguecheek on his rear end as McMillan’s eyes bugged out and he  screamed more in astonishment and fear than pain.

I spent a lot of time with Rick in theatres, breathing the same air, for more than 35 years, yet I never met him until 2015.  David Bednar, our mutual friend, was retiring as the CNE’s general manager, and I was delighted to finally shake his hand at David’s party there.  He was such a lovely, kind and friendly man and we had a great chat.  But he was visibly ill.

David shared his memories of his friend with us:

“I met Rick and (his wife) Anne Louise through mutual friends about 10 years ago.  This group gets together for a kind of pot-luck supper from time to time, so the friendship grew gradually over time.

“When Rick was diagnosed, we started travelling together, including trips to Italy, Pittsburgh, NYC, Newfoundland, and London.  I have seen Rick on stage, but the friendship was based on social activities.  One time, Rick took me on a kayak trip up the Rouge river from Lake Ontario almost to the 401.

“Rick played piano effortlessly, and was often asked to do so at those suppers.  He was also a talented visual artist initially of portraiture (usually anonymous faces) and later landscape.

“Unlike some other actors, he did not like to talk about himself or acting.  He was a very caring and thoughtful person, the kind of person you could talk to on any topic and you had the sense that he was 100% genuine: no mask, no filters.  That said, I think he was also a bit shy and reserved.”

Yes, McMillan was a renaissance man.  Not only was he a theatrical triple threat, he was a pilot (who had built his own plane) as well as an accomplished pianist and landscape/portrait artist as David said.

He kept active after his terminal cancer diagnosis three years ago.  In November, 2014, he and his wife, actress Anne Louise Bannon, a native of Windsor who studied theatre in Pittsburgh, agreed in “daunting circumstances” to travel from their home in Toronto’s Beach district back to Steeltown USA to present a special three-performance engagement of A.R. Guerney’s popular “Love Letters.”  Telling the story of a 50-year relationship between a man and a woman, the play is actually a series of letters that actors read sitting next to one another.  The “daunting circumstances” to which the Post-Gazette, the local newspaper, referred, was Richard’s health.  Doctors told him the previous January, 11 months earlier, that his cancer …, refractory, papillary thyroid cancer… had turned fatal.  No operation or radiation could help him.

“There’s nothing they can do,” McMillan told the reporter.  “It’s incurable.”  He did not know then how much time he had left.  “That changed our lives, of course,” Anne Louise added.

So cancer added gravitas to “Love Letters.”

Yet Richard was determined to carry on, saying “I feel pretty good.”  He then said he had just bought a motorcycle and “passed the stringent Canadian License test.”  He assured the reporter, Christopher Rawson he “wasn’t suicidal.  This is something I always wanted to do.”

Richard performed in theatre across Canada, the United States and London’s West End where he re-created his beloved performance as Pooh-Bah at the Old Vic in the Stratford Festival’s touring production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s perennial “The Mikado.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dVLS6FazQ4

Richard McMillan as Poo-Bah, “I Am So Proud,” The Mikado, Stratford Festival, 1982

In January 2014, he delivered one of his greatest performances … and one of his last in a major production … as Sandra, the irreverent drag queen, in Michel Tremblay’s Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary opposite Irene Poole.  It was the same month Richard was told his cancer was terminal.

McMillan’s performance was “triumphant,” hailed Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star.  Richard, he wrote, “takes pride of place as the preening, self-hating Sandra.

“(His eyes are) hooded like a cobra (with) limp wrists that flip with consummate disdain and a rich voice that dives headlong into his character’s raunchy sexual imagery.”

John van Burek, the show’s director, shared his memories of what it was like working on the play with McMillan.  John is the artistic director of Pleiades Theatre (Tom Highway’s “The Post Mistress.”  He was the first English translator of many of Michel Tremblay’s plays.

 

Let’s start with Richard’s association with Tremblay.  I remember seeing him in the chorus of Tarragon’s English language premiere of Saint Carmen of the Main starring Brenda Donohue and directed by Andre Brassard.  (Jan.-Feb. 1978) Besides your production of” Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary” (M,S VM) at Buddies, did he appear in other Tremblay productions?

How wonderful that you remember him in Saint Carmen of the Main! He was terrific in that equally terrific production (with one exception.) To my knowledge, those were the only two Tremblay plays he did, even though he always wanted to do more. He had a special affinity for Tremblay because of his own French Canadian origins. He always told me how much the plays meant to him because he had learned a long time ago that his birth parents were French-Canadian.

Tell me about working with Richard in that play?  Was it the first time you had worked together?  What was it like working together as he developed his character?  Anything unique from other performances?  (Did you revise the script at all)?

I first met and worked with Richard at Stratford when I did a workshop on choral speeches (1977.) Robin and Urjo (Kareda, then a dramaturge) had programmed it because they were going to be doing something the following season that would require such work (I don’t recall what.) In that workshop was a young Richard McMillan, a young Pete Donaldson, a young Bob Baker, a young Tom Wood and a raft of other actors who would go on to do amazing work at Stratford.

The following year (1978), we did Saint Carmen at Tarragon and André Brassard, (who directed many of the world premieres in Québec of Tremblay’s plays,) got Richard, Bob Baker, Robert Benson and I don’t recall who else into the chorus. I was very close to the entire rehearsal process on that and I have vivid memories of much of it.

Richard and I have been good friends ever since, even though we never got a chance to work together again until Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary. He was going to do Argan in my translation and production of Dying to be Sick (Molière's malade  imaginaire), and we had done a reading, but then that project had to be delayed and he was not available when it did happen.

…the most honest, unpretentious, self-effacing, giving and deeply spiritual actor I have known. – John Van Burek

But working with him was always a dream because he was always the most honest, unpretentious, self-effacing, giving and deeply spiritual actor I have known.

In answer to the question about “anything unique from other performances,” yes, of course. I first did that play in 1979 with Heath Lamberts and Clare Coulter, at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver. They were both absolutely stunning and it is no surprise that back then, Heath had his share of demons and found a great spiritual journey in the piece.

And since then, I had done the play in French and English but with that production the actor wanted it to be a “gay play” which it is not. Rick understood fully the perversely Catholic but inspiringly spiritual nature of the play, which is about the lasting beauty of the creative imagination. Tremblay has the courage –some would say audacity- to equate himself (or any writer) with a creator, whose characters will outlive us all.

Lastly, I went into the production thinking maybe it’s time to do an up-date on the translation. But the first thing Rick said was “Don’t change a word. The translation is beautiful.” So no, we didn’t.

I had heard Richard was torn deciding whether or not to accept the role as he was a devout Catholic and, of course, Sandra is a drag queen with monologues containing explicit language, profanities verging on sacrilege, you might say, and gay sexuality.  Is this true?  Did he talk to you about that?  If it is true, how did he overcome his struggle and, perhaps how did he use his faith to develop it?  Was this his last play?

Indeed, we did talk about all of that. Richard was thrilled when I called him to say I wanted him to do Sandra, so I took the play to him. Then I didn’t hear anything for over a week so I called him. He told me that he was always a very slow reader, that he would read part of a play, then put it down, think about it, then read some more. But he warned me that he was getting a bit apprehensive. Then he called me back to say he didn’t think he could do it because it was just too much. I recall him saying “I have a wife and a daughter, and I don’t know if I can do this, if only out of respect for them.” As it turned out, Richard still hadn’t read the entire play and was, not surprisingly, stopped dead in his tracks by that 3rd speech of Sandra’s, which is surely one of the most powerfully shocking things Tremblay has written.

We had a long talk about what the play really meant and where Tremblay would take it, I urged him to read through to the end and assured him that he would see the “terrible beauty” of the whole thing, and he agreed to do so. The next day he called to say that he absolutely wanted to do this, that it was clearly an unbelievable journey and that Tremblay’s voyage into the eternal had profound resonance for him. There was a very moving irony for both of us in that by the second week of rehearsal, he had learned that his cancer had returned and that this time he would not be a survivor. So, when he got to the end of the play, where Sandra has the last line, saying “Go on, Manon, climb. Climb to the end of your journey. And take me with you because I don’t exist either. I, too, have been invented. Look, Manon! Look! His light is coming!” he was already preparing for what was to come. But it’s wonderful that he had a full three years.

I’m so glad last September I met Richard again at a fundraising concert in North York so my wife and I could chat with him and tell him how much we enjoyed his performances over the years and thank him for sharing his many gifts.  He was moved and smiled…You don’t get that chance very often. I asked him if he would work on stage again and he said no… he simply could not remember lines anymore.

I told him he should have received a DORA for his performance as Sandra…it was that great.

I couldn’t agree more. I thought it was shocking that he didn’t even get nominated. But what else is new?

I told him how much we enjoyed him as Samuel Byck in ASSASSINS and, especially his many roles at Stratford including his Pooh Bah in Brian Macdonald’s “The Mikado” and, of course, his portrayal of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night” with Brian Bedford as Malvolio and Robin Phillips directing. 

 

I was always knocked out by his versatility and range… from comedy to villains such as SCAR in THE LION KING and bad guys like Uncle Albert in WAR HORSE.  

 

How will he be remembered?  How will you remember him?

As an artist who possesses the perfect combination of deep spirituality and monumental talent.

Richard McMillan lived longer than expected.  At his funeral mass Thursday morning at Corpus Christi church in the Beach, a eulogist, Richard Rose of Tarragon, opined he outlived predictions because of “his spirit of generosity, kindness and love.  That enabled him to carry on.”

He told the congregation how Richard’s wife, Anne Louise and daughter, Maggie, had gathered Wednesday night with friends and family on King St. W, across from the Prince of Wales theatre and Royal Alex and cheered when the lights were dimmed in memory of Stuart McLean and Richard, two of Canada’s greatest entertainers.  Then, they danced and sang when Anne Louise turned on a recording of “The Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

As family and friends left the church, singers sang a plaintive song from “War Horse:”

“Only remembered for what we have done;

Thus would we pass from this earth and its toiling.

Only remembered for what we have done.”

Tarragon Theatre will host a memorial on May 15th.

By Dennis Kucherawy

Last modified on Friday, 24 February 2017 16:45
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