In a short film titled Camera, written and directed by David Cronenberg for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival, the camera lingers on the character-lined face of actor Les Carlson. His performance, largely a monologue in which he ruminates on memory, acting and death, was a source of pride to him. In extreme close up, his blue-grey eyes brightened by tears, Mr. Carlson looks directly at the lens and says, “If I’m not acting, if I’m not playing a role, I don’t know what I’d do with my anxiety.” His heartfelt delivery drew upon truth in the actor’s own life.
As a young man, Les Carlson was a natural athlete. At high school, he was a long, lean track star who set and broke records. He played on the school basketball team and shone on the football field. However, praise at home for his achievements was non-existent. During an important high-school football game, quarterback Les caught the winning touchdown. His father’s only comment was “You bobbled that ball.” It would take the aftermath of war and the discovery of a whole new world before Mr. Carlson found the approval he craved. He died of cancer at his Toronto home on May 3. He was 81.
Mr. Cronenberg was aware of Mr. Carlson’s talent well before Camera premiered in 2000. The actor had already appeared in three Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983), The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986). Television viewers were also familiar with the actor from his work in numerous shows including The New Avengers, The X-Files, Road to Avonlea, and a CBC drama called Raku Fire that earned him an ACTRA Award.
Film and television roles were lucrative and plentiful throughout his 55-year career, but Mr. Carlson’s heart belonged to the theatre. He performed off Broadway and in London, as well as every major regional theatre in Canada, including the Stratford and Shaw festivals. He won a Dora Award for the 1996 Athol Fugard play Valley Song, in which he played dual roles. But he never boasted of his achievements. “In some ways he was a bit of a hermit,” said his son Ben Carlson, also an actor. “One of the things he wasn’t very good at in his career was blowing his own horn.”
Despite his aversion to self-promotion, Mr. Carlson’s reputation ensured that he was constantly in demand by top-notch directors. One of his great thrills was to be directed by John Hirsch in A Streetcar Named Desire at Stratford. Mr. Carlson considered Mr. Hirsch to be a great artist and, in 1989, wept when he heard news of the director’s death.
As recently as last year Mr. Carlson was working as the voice of Gallop the turtle in the animated series Babar and the Adventures of Badou. But his days on stage had come to an end. He repeatedly said that he had no further urge to tread the boards but he still loved the
theatre. Ben Carlson said: “In his bones, he was a stage man.”
Leslie Merle Carlson was born on Feb. 24, 1933, in the small town of Mitchell, S.D. His father, Darrell, was a mailman, and his mother, Dorothy, was a housewife. His parents subsequently had a daughter, Judy.
After his athletic career at high school, Mr. Carlson served in the Air Force during the Korean War. He would have liked to be a pilot but his eyesight wasn’t 20/20. Instead, he was put in charge of loading cargo onto transport planes. In 1953, after the war ended, the United States GI Bill paid for veterans to attend university. Mr. Carlson chose to attend the University of South Dakota, where he earned both a bachelor of fine arts and a master’s degree in drama. It was a field beyond the purview of his father, and where performance was recognized by applause. He’d found his métier.
The young actor moved first to New York in search of work, then to Seattle, then to a Shakespearean repertory company in Oregon, where he took on the weighty role of Hamlet. Mr. Carlson was profoundly interested in literature, adored classical theatre and loved being moved by the words he spoke as a performer. He read Shakespeare’s entire works many times over and rarely appeared anywhere without a book in hand.
In his early 20s, Mr. Carlson married dancer Donna Grasso, whom he met while they were both working at the Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota. Theirs was an impetuous young love, too immature to sustain the commitment of marriage. In Cincinnati some years later, Canadian actor Patricia Hamilton was deeply impressed the first time she set eyes on Mr. Carlson performing in the musical Oh, What a Lovely War! The two then appeared together in the play Mother Courage and Her Children and fell in love. They moved to Toronto in 1966 and married the following year. A couple of years later, they had their son Ben. They parted amicably when Ben was two years old, and remained lifelong friends.
In the early 1970s, the limited Toronto theatre scene was boosted with the opening of the fledgling Tarragon Theatre. Mr. Carlson was an important player in its first season. He appeared in an end-of-season show called Leaving Home. Richard Rose, the theatre’s current artistic director, credits Mr. Carlson’s performances with packing the houses and adding to the theatre’s coffers.
Mr. Rose had originally seen him perform in the play On Golden Pond. “Les played the young lover. The production is all about old people, but he literally stole the show. I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’” Mr. Rose said. It wasn’t until 20 years later that he had a chance to direct Mr. Carlson at Stratford in Tempest-Tossed. “I’ve never seen anyone work harder,” Mr. Rose said. “He was very generous as an actor. He elevated the bar in terms of reaching for the truth of a part and made everyone around him better. Les was truly an acting animal.” Mr. Rose added, “Les Carlson was not a star in the conventional sense but he was definitely a leading man.”
Although he loved the classics, Mr. Carlson possessed a fine sense of comedy and could send audiences into gales of laughter. “Although the words and moves on stage are the same every time, there should still be a sense of spontaneity that keeps the roles alive,” said Ben Carlson, “and I think my father enjoyed that.”
He recalled a production of The Odd Couple, in which his father played the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison. “A fly appeared onstage and kept buzzing between the face of my father and the other actor. Dad began swatting at it as he was delivering his lines. He eventually got the fly. The audience thought it was hilarious.”
In 1988, at the age of 55, Mr. Carlson became the father of a second son, Edmund, with actor, dancer and teacher Joan Warren. Ms. Warren said she had heard stories about Mr. Carlson from actor friends at Stratford. While others warmed up doing vocal exercises, Mr. Carlson took a seat in the theatre and, with book in hand, was known to take a quick snooze. She met him during a Friday night get-together with actors from The Crucible playing at the Canadian Stage in Toronto. Although she was 22 years younger, she found Mr. Carlson charming, friendly and funny. After sharing an apartment in Stratford, the two drifted into marriage and remained lovingly committed to each other. She says her husband enjoyed the company of friends but insisted on having three hours alone each day to read. As in life, he moved about the house constantly, never finding one spot to settle comfortably for long.
Mr. Carlson broke away from his own father’s harsh parenting style by being loving and supportive to his sons.
When it became clear that his eldest son was going to be an actor, he offered practical advice. “My father was both proud and nervous because he knew what a difficult life it is,” Ben Carlson said. “He told me not to listen to critics. He said, ‘Don’t allow people who are not close to the work you’re doing to affect your view of the work you’re doing.’”
Mr. Carlson’s most damaging critic had been his father, but their relationship softened over time. Just before Darrell Carlson died, he told his son, “You did the right thing. You made the right choices.”
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