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Known to be “versatile and talented,” actor Chris Wiggins played hundreds of roles in television, radio and theatre. (Paul Smith/CBC Still Photo Collection)
Known to be “versatile and talented,” actor Chris Wiggins played hundreds of roles in television, radio and theatre. (Paul Smith/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Remembering prolific actor Christopher Wiggins Add to ...

By the time he was 41, Chris Wiggins had acted in 400 television programs, 850 radio dramas and hundreds of stage performances. Though some actors tend to have a short shelf life, Mr. Wiggins, who died in Elora, Ont., on Feb. 19 at the age of 86, kept at it for another 40 years, using his protean voice to bring to life characters such as Cornelius in the animated series Babar.

“The reason he got so much work was because he was so versatile and talented,” said Larry Goldhar, who was his agent for more than 25 years. “He had a calming effect on audiences, and producers loved to work with him because he was easy to get along with. And I can only say that of a handful of people I worked with.”

One of his popular roles was Johann Robinson, the patriarch in 1976 TV series Swiss Family Robinson. And from 1987 to 1990, he played the character Jack Marshak in Friday the 13th, a TV series based on the movie. The Marshak character appeared in all 65 episodes of the series. The role was lucrative for him, since the show aired in both Canada and the United States.

Mr. Wiggins lived well. After moving to the Fergus area, northwest of Toronto, around 30 years ago he and his late wife renovated an old church where they lived for many years. After that they moved to a three-level house with a pool on the Grand River in Elora.

“They loved to entertain and hold parties, where his guests would sample his homemade wine,” said Edmund Colicos. His father, the late actor John Colicos was a close friend of Mr. Wiggins. “When he wasn’t working he was always writing. He wrote poetry, fiction and plays.”

Three children’s plays he wrote have been performed hundreds of times in theatres in Canada and the United States, and a number of documentaries he wrote appeared on CBC radio and television.

Christopher Wiggins was born on Jan. 13, 1931, in Blackpool, in northern England. His father was a banker and young Chris went to Blackpool Grammar School, whose most famous graduate was broadcaster Alistair Cooke. When he left school, Britain still had mandatory military service and he served for two years with the Royal Horse Guards in postwar Germany during the denazification period.

England in the early 1950s was a miserable place with wartime rationing still in effect. Mr. Wiggins left for Canada in 1953 and went west, working in Trail, British Columbia., before moving to Calgary. There he started appearing in amateur theatre groups. In 1955 he won the best actor award at the Dominion Drama Festival, portraying King Magnus in The Apple Cart by Bernard Shaw with a Calgary theatre group, Workshop 14.

The win encouraged him to move to Toronto to try his hand at professional acting. From the start he never lacked work. He played at the Stratford Festival, the Crest Theatre in Toronto and won a Toronto Telegram Theatre Award in 1964. Along the way there was a bottomless pit of work at the drama department of CBC Radio and then television.

“Chris organized an actors workshop in a room in a house on Jarvis Street, just down the street from the CBC in the early 1960s,” said Gordon Pinsent, who moved to Toronto in 1959. “Chris was very much the optimist and working with him in that actor’s workshop made me feel part of a dynamic group of young actors.”

The two men last worked together on Babar, with Mr. Pinsent voicing the lead role and Mr. Wiggins doing Cornelius.

One unusual incident occurred during the filming of a 1970 CBC TV production In Exile. Mr. Wiggins was playing a homeless man when he was spotted by police,

“I was picking through a garbage can in one scene and the camera was on the other side of the street. A couple of old boys eyed me, perhaps worried because I was invading their territory, and the policeman on location with us had to stop a police car from coming round to sort me out,” recalled Mr. Wiggins at the time.

The next year (1971) he landed the lead role Paul Bernard, Psychiatrist, a daytime drama series on the CBC.

He moved to the United States for a short while to act in a theatre company in Austin, Tex. He later returned to Canada and appeared in string of television dramas, including A Man Called Intrepid and Two Solitudes.

Chris Wiggins could do accents and dialects, in particular those from his native England. He once played the lead, a veterinary surgeon, in a radio version of the semi-autobiographical work Vet in A Spin, written under the pen name James Herriott. The author of the series, a British vet whose real name was James Alfred Wight, was amazed at Mr. Wiggins’s mastery of the Yorkshire dialect.

“Your variety of accents astounds me because they are so authentic and you sound like a whole lot of different people,” the author wrote in a letter. “I also rejoice in the fact that you seem to get right inside the stories. Not only the accents, but the interpretation was perfect.”

That versatility meant he was also in demand for radio and television commercials. The one he was most famous for was playing a cranky Scotsman in an oatmeal ad for TV. It ran for a long time so it was a money earner, but being recognized for something so trivial annoyed him.

Mr. Wiggins worked until about three years ago. Among his last jobs was doing the voice of Cornelius again on Babar. He continued working even when he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Chris said he couldn’t do any on-camera work because he couldn’t memorize the lines. But he could still read scripts and so we kept sending him out for voice stuff,” said his agent, Mr. Goldhar, who founded The Characters Talent Agency.

Mr. Wiggins was predeceased by his wife, Sandra Crysler-Wiggins, in 2009.

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