With chiselled features, a wicked wit and a physician’s penchant for precision, Jean-Louis Roux worked all his professional life to stop the arts from simply being packaged into something pretty the public could admire from afar. As an actor, director and administrator, he believed that theatre, literature, movies and television should be transformative experiences, spurring social change by making people cry, laugh and think about issues in ways they never had before. And as a passionate federalist, he believed they were powerful enough not only to bridge the gap between French and English Canada, but knit them together.
“Jean-Louis called his autobiography We Are All Actors, but he carried himself on his sleeve, genuine and persuasive,” said Max Wyman, a writer and cultural commentator who served on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts during Mr. Roux’s term as its chairman. “He had unbelievable energy, too. At the age of 80, he’d chair a council meeting during the day and then go off to act on the stage that evening.”
Once an aspiring medical student, Mr. Roux, who died in a Montreal long-term care facility on Nov. 28 at the age of 90 from age-related causes, laid aside the scalpel for the stage and launched a multifaceted career that spanned nearly seven decades. His roles were myriad, from the bitter, aging Professor Serebryakov in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to Shakespeare’s King Lear, who learns the hard way about love and loyalty. Among his most popular characters was that of Ovide Plouffe, one of the adult children in the television series La Famille Plouffe, about a working-class family in Quebec struggling to survive in the years after the Second World War. Behind the scenes, he was one of the founders of Montreal’s venerable Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and was instrumental in the creation of the bilingual National Theatre School.
His political roles were rooted in his love of both Canada and the arts. An eloquent proponent for human rights, Mr. Roux in 1994 became the first Senate appointment of Jean Chrétien‘s term as prime minister.
“I wanted to make a statement,” Mr. Chrétien said in an interview. “Arts and culture were important and I was known as a populist, the ‘gars’ from Shawinigan. So I wanted people to see our commitment. I even told him he could sit as an independent, but he said, ‘No, I would prefer to be a member of the caucus.’ He was a delight, too. He’d always ask me to spend money on artists, and I’d say, ‘They all vote against me!’ But he was hard to say no to.”
As a sometimes overly passionate spokesperson for the “No” side in the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation, Mr. Roux incited controversy when, in a speech, he compared the separatists to Nazis. The comment would come back to haunt him the next year, when Mr. Chrétien named him the province’s lieutenant-governor: At the beginning of his mandate, in an interview with a magazine journalist, he revealed that he had drawn a swastika on his lab coat while a student at the Université de Montréal and had participated in an anti-conscription protest that led to vandalism against stores thought to be owned by Jews.
In the fraught post-referendum climate, his revelations ignited a scandal and calls for his resignation. Fierce and proper, after serving barely three months in the position, he stepped down because he did not want to sully the image of the Crown or the federal government.
“The carefree attitude of youth may be an explanation, but it can’t in any way serve as an excuse and especially not as a justification,” Mr. Roux tearfully told a news conference the day after his resignation. “I committed a mistake by yielding to the anti-Semitic feelings that poisoned our minds at the time.”
Eighteen months later, Mr. Chrétien named him chairman of the Canada Council. It was a move calculated to show that a youthful indiscretion was not enough to make him disappear. Indeed, with the council, some might say he wielded more influence than he would have as the largely ceremonial Queen’s representative in a province that largely rejected the position.
He served in the post until Oct. 31, 2003, travelling the length and breadth of the country to ensure that every area was included.
“Once, we flew up to Cape Dorset to honour sculptor Kiawak Ashoona, who’d won the Molson Prize,” recalled John Goldsmith, the council’s director of stakeholder relations. “There wasn’t even a suggestion that we’d make him come to Ottawa. He always said the council had to be a thinker, a doer and a bit of a rascal.”
Mr. Wyman recalled his doggedness and talent for finding funding – so much so that when he stepped down, his friends created a poster of Mr. Roux as “Le Roi TireLear,” a play on one of his signature roles and the French word for “cashbox.”
“The council-chair position pulled together all the threads of his person,” he said. “Jean-Louis believed in the power of the arts to change us and he gave them – and us – a new authority and relevance.”
He loved becoming someone else
Jean-Louis Roux was born in Montreal on May 18, 1923, the youngest of Louis Roux and Berthe Leclerc’s six children. His father was a doctor, as was his father before him, and so the same was expected of young Jean-Louis and his older brother. Still, it wasn’t all science and service at home. There were summers spent at a Boy Scout camp in Quebec’s Outaouais region and involvement in theatre troupes that allowed him to indulge his love of acting. In one all-male production, for example, he played a spirited, tragic Joan of Arc.
As he got older, Mr. Roux continued to both fulfill and confound expectations. Beginning in 1939, he was a member of the acting troupe the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, which was founded by Father Émile Legault at the Collège Saint-Laurent and, besides Mr. Roux, proved a training ground for Quebec luminaries from actors Jean Gascon and Hélène Loiselle to poet and composer Félix Leclerc.
In 1942, Mr. Roux entered the premed program at the Université de Montréal, only to throw it over four years later to move to Paris and study acting. In the end, challenging people trumped the act of healing them; he loved becoming someone else, creating worlds in which audiences could lose and question themselves, if only for a few hours.
Returning to Montreal in 1950, he helped found the Théâtre d’Essai, the precursor of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, the beginning of a career in which he would wear many hats. He served as artistic director of the TNM, as it is known, from 1966 to 1982, leaving to become the general director of the National Theatre School.
A man who was able to lose himself in roles, he believed in writing everything down for those who came after, said Simon Brault, the school’s current chairman. His documents were templates that provided not only a vision but a plan for the future.
“Too many people busy themselves with day-to-day management, but not Jean-Louis,” Mr. Brault said. “He had the intellectual background and the ability to deal with both the everyday and the big picture. We continue to learn from him.”
Along the way, as a lover of – and great stickler for – language, Mr. Roux translated six of Shakespeare’s plays into French. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1971 and promoted to Companion in 1987; two years later, he was named a knight of the Ordre nationale du Québec. In 2004, he received a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for a lifetime devoted to the theatre in all its aspects.
Mr. Roux’s marriage to Monique Oligny, the sister of the actor Huguette Oligny, lasted more than 60 years; their son, Stéphane, became a pharmacist.
“As a father, he was often away because he worked a lot, but when he was present, he was completely there,” the son said in an interview. “When he said, ‘Go to bed,’ I listened.”
Mr. Roux enjoyed good red wine, card games and professional tennis, rued the passing of hockey as it had been elegantly played in the days of Maurice and Henri Richard, and loved in his later years to indulge his two grandsons.
“Because of my childhood, I never thought he’d be a ‘grand-papa gâteau,’ but he was. He took a lot of pleasure in spending time with us and the kids,” Stéphane Roux said.
Besides his wife and son, Mr. Roux leaves his grandchildren, Gabriel and François Roux, and legions of friends and admirers.
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