In the spryly comical CBC web series My 90-Year-Old Roommate, veteran Canadian actor Paul Soles plays the titular nonagenarian (although he’s only 86 himself). A capricious mix of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Chico and the Man, the 10-episode series of seven-minute shorts at cbc.ca/comedy co-stars Ethan Cole as a young adult sharing an apartment with his grandfather. The Globe and Mail spoke with the Toronto-based Soles about having the right luck and the right chops, and a knack for making up life as you go along.
Your character in My 90-Year-Old Roommate isn’t curmudgeonly. How do you, yourself, feel, about how it was in your day, as opposed to how it is now?
I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve never been in step. I’m always catching up. Which I think is fine.
Do you have any grandchildren?
I have a son. He’s not married. He has no children. But I learned some time ago that nature provides. All around us we have the possibilities and the expectations of marriage, children, grandchildren, etc. I was all set, ready to be a grandfather. But I live next to St. Lawrence Market, so every Saturday I’m down there. People bring their families and the kids are adorable. I wink at them and wave and laugh and imitate them. So, to answer your question, maybe that’s why I’m not as curmudgeonly as I might have been. It’s evolved quite organically.
The dialogue in My 90-Year-Old Roommate is partly improvised. Do you have much experience in that?
I was doing a dinner-theatre show in Edmonton some time ago. While I was there, I ended up doing an episode of what would become Sin City, an improvised soap opera directed by Ian Ferguson, whose brother is the humourist Will Ferguson. It was great fun. Eventually it came to Toronto, at the Tim Sims Playhouse at Second City. I would go and do it two or three times a month.
No training when you were younger? Isn’t that standard for actors?
Well, you’re talking to a man who was too lazy and who had no discipline and who never went to acting school. I was just lucky to be around when certain things happened. At University of Western Ontario, I got summer jobs as a radio announcer. My cousin was Bunny Cowan, who was the voice of Front Page Challenge and the Wayne and Shuster Show and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and so forth. Without his encouragement, I would have never had a career.
In 1967, for CBC Television’s Take 30, you and Adrienne Clarkson interviewed a young Moses Znaimer. He was asked about his driving force. So, let me ask you, with all you’ve done, what’s your driving force?
You raise a large series of questions there. First, let me ask you, how did Moses Znaimer answer?
I believe he said he didn’t have a great attention span. That he was restless.
He was a bright guy. He’s a driven man. He wouldn’t need to spend a lot of time on any one thing. He was dressing in three-piece suits. I remember he said he wanted to be a venture capitalist. This was a kid. He looked like he was 15 years of age. But, you know, in a short life, you get to do a lot of things.
You didn’t answer about your own driving force. Let me ask it another way. There’s an episode of My 90-Year-Old Roommate about eulogies. I don’t want to put you in your grave, but you’re 86. What would you like people to say about you when you’re gone?
Oh, my. That’s an invitation to be a little maudlin. But I’d say I was lucky. I met really good people. I mean, I never would have attempted to go to Stratford without having had six months with Glenda Jackson and Chris Plummer in Macbeth that went to Broadway. It was there for two months, and it toured for four. At the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, two prominent people in the audience that I met afterward at a cocktail party were Pierre Trudeau and Conrad Black. So, you get lucky.
You were the voice of Peter Parker in the 1967 animated series Spider-Man. In those days, the superheroes were on television and in comic books, but today they’re the stuff of blockbuster movies. What’s our fascination with superheroes?
What’s that army thing? Be everything you can be? I think it’s pretty endemic in our wiring that we admire certain abilities. We would all like to fly. But we can’t, so we take what’s second-best.
You were a pilot, yes?
Yes, and when I flew, most of my landings were scary enough. I never had to go to Canada’s Wonderland, with the rides, because I was always able to scare myself with my own landings.
Well, it’s partly comical. But it’s true. I never needed to do stunts or thrill-seeking things, because just in the flying, all of that was satisfied. The fact of the matter is that we would all like to do things that initially we’re not equipped for or suited for.
That sounds like a metaphor for the driving force of your life: jumping in, without worrying if you were ready or not.
And that goes intellectually, too. I was around when things were starting, so I never had to worry or wonder about what you actually need to do to prepare. Mind you, I was lucky enough to have the chops, I guess.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error