In many ways, the private, powerful and pioneering characters August Schellenberg portrayed on screen and on stage were a mirror image of the man himself.
The Montreal-born Mohawk actor connected with audiences around the world with his character Randolph in the Hollywood trilogy Free Willy, and became a national icon with landmark native roles in the movies Black Robe and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He made Canadian theatre history in 1969 when he starred in the first play to be shown at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the seminal aboriginal production The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
As the first native actor to graduate from Montreal’s National Theatre School, Mr. Schellenberg pushed for aboriginal actors to play roles outside their ethnicity. While he “embraced his Mohawk heritage” in acting parts, said friend and actor Lorne Cardinal, “he wanted to be much more than that.”
Mr. Schellenberg again made history last year when he realized a lifelong dream to star in an all-native cast of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the NAC, the first all-aboriginal Lear in Canadian theatre. “He was a trailblazer,” said King Lear director Peter Hinton. “He reminded everyone that what’s important about theatre is that we’re telling stories about ourselves.”
The award-winning Mr. Schellenberg, who appeared in more than 100 movie, TV and theatre roles in his 49-year acting career, died of lung cancer Aug. 15 at his Dallas home. He was 77.
“He was a positive force and he inspired us all,” said playwright Kevin Loring, a Lear cast member who grew close to Mr. Schellenberg during the production and named his newborn son August after him. “He had a heart of gold.”
With a deep, booming voice, long hair he wore in a braid and bear earring hanging from his ear, Mr. Schellenberg was a “brilliant” actor, Mr. Cardinal said. A family man who rarely travelled without his wife, he never bragged, always stuck up for friends – often with his fists – and had an ability to put people at ease.
“There was something otherworldly about Augie that drew us to him,” said Free Willy producer Lauren Shuler Donner. “He was ethereal.”
The actor – Augie or Cookie to those who knew him best – only took on historically accurate roles, showing up on set an hour early and vowing to memorize lines that evaded him in his later years.
“The spirit of the fighter was always with him,” said Mr. Hinton. During rehearsals for King Lear, Mr. Schellenberg would tell him, “Don’t you worry boss, I’m going to get it tomorrow.”
‘He worked harder than anybody else’
August Werner Schellenberg was born July 25, 1936, in Montreal, the only child of an English-Mohawk mother and a Swiss father. He grew up with a foster mother and dropped out of high school to work, first as a grocery delivery boy and later as a waiter at nightclubs El Morocco and Chez Paree. Meeting such celebrities as Liberace, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. gave Mr. Schellenberg stories he would tell cast members decades later.
“You’d be doing a scene and he had a story where he and Christopher Plummer worked together,” Mr. Hinton said.
Without ever having seen a play in his life, Mr. Schellenberg decided to try his hand at acting in 1963, when he auditioned to attend Montreal’s esteemed National Theatre School of Canada. He hoped to one day play ethnic roles like Sal Mineo, one of his favourite actors, friends said.
At 27, Mr. Schellenberg was too old to attend the school, so he lied about his age and impressed the admissions panel with his raw talent and candour – he told them he got his audition idea from a clown’s circus routine the night before.
To pay his tuition, he worked as a bouncer at a bar called the Blue Angel. When the school gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2007, he called his years studying there “some of the hardest and some of the best of my life.”