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Peter Donaldson as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival (Stratford Festival of Canada/Stratford Festival of Canada)
Peter Donaldson as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival (Stratford Festival of Canada/Stratford Festival of Canada)

Theatre

Peter Donaldson's death called a big loss for Stratford Festival Add to ...

Peter Donaldson, a Canadian stage veteran and Genie Award winner who often played opposite his wife Sheila McCarthy, died of lung cancer in Toronto on Saturday the age of 57.

Donaldson, known to television audiences as Ian Bowles on the series Emily of New Moon and Reverend Leonard on Road to Avonlea, was an in-demand talent with a strong masculine stage presence who continued to act steadily in Toronto and Stratford, Ont. - and trounce his friend, CBC broadcaster Peter Mansbridge at golf - even as he waged a battle against cancer over the last two years.

This spring, Donaldson was to return to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for his 25th season to perform in Richard III and Titus Andronicus. Next December he would have celebrated another silver anniversary - that of his marriage to McCarthy, star of the CBC series Little Mosque on the Prairie and Emily of New Moon.

"It was in the last decade, in his midlife, that he was really coming into his own," said Antoni Cimolino, general director at Stratford. "We're only left to wonder what his Lear would have been like, what his Prospero would have been like, and it's a big loss for the festival's future."

Born and raised in Midland, Ont., Donaldson attended performances at Stratford in his youth before making his debut at the festival in 1977 in a production of Romeo and Juliet where the star-crossed lovers were played by Richard Monette and Marti Maraden, both future artistic directors of the company.

Donaldson, who studied at the University of Guelph, as well in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis, returned to the youthful tragedy once again in 2008 under the direction of Des McAnuff, giving the production's guiding performance as Friar Lawrence.

That same season, Donaldson was Rufio, the gruff right-hand man to Christopher Plummer's Caesar, in a production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra that was subsequently filmed and released in cinemas across the country.

His 1994 performance at the festival as James Tyrone Jr. opposite William Hutt in Long Day's Journey Into Night was also filmed - and he went on to win a Genie Award for Best Supporting Actor for his harrowing performance.

Donaldson subsequently appeared in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, but his passion was always, first and foremost, for the stage. "Peter was never shy about putting forward his opinion on things - whether that was the direction of a show or the management, he was always outspoken," recalled Mansbridge, a close friend since the early 1990s. "When he'd see B- or C-level Americans getting jobs in this country that A-level Canadians were being passed over for - whether it was film or theatre - it would drive him crazy."

While undergoing treatment for lung cancer at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto these last two years, Donaldson had an astonishing string of stage successes in contemporary plays such as Yasmina Reza's Art at the Canadian Stage Company, Glengarry Glen Ross at Soulpepper Theatre and the world premiere of George F Walker's And So It Goes at Factory Theatre.

During this period, he would often go to chemotherapy in the morning, then rehearse or perform in the evenings. "He had such great energy - he never made you feel like he needed special treatment," recalled Walker, who also directed Donaldson in his TV series This is Wonderland and Living in my Car. "It's a great loss. People say that all the time about people. But he had so much great work in him."

"In my view, Peter was one of the greatest actors this country has produced, equally at ease with the classical repertoire and with most forms of contemporary writing," said Matthew Jocelyn, artistic and general director at the Canadian Stage Company. "His deep humanity and wry humour were in full bloom in his recent, unforgettably subtle performance in Art."

Donaldson and McCarthy were one of the country's artistic power couples. Their romance began in 1983 in London, Ont., at the Grand Theatre, when it was run by artistic director Robin Phillips. According to one version of the story, McCarthy was conducting an aerobics class for the company and Donaldson showed up to participate. "It was love at first sight," the actress told The Globe and Mail in a interview after they were married in December, 1986, at The Church, a restaurant in Stratford. (Future Tony Award winner Brent Carver sang Moon River and Nothing's Going to Harm You from Sweeney Todd at the wedding.)

In that same interview, McCarthy described Donaldson, two years her senior, as "someone who's my best bullshit detector. He's someone who's incapable of bullshitting on life or on stage."

Donaldson and McCarthy shared their real-life romance with audiences on stage and screen many times over the course of the next two decades. In Emily of New Moon, Donaldson's dapper hotelier Ian Bowles fell in love with McCarthy's Aunt Laura. (One of the couple's two daughters, MacKenzie Donaldson joined them in the series as Jenny Strang.)

The two again played married couples in The Threepenny Opera and The Scarlet Pimpernel at Stratford - as well as a divorced one in a 1992 production of Norm Foster's Wrong For Each Other at the Grand.

"They had great ease with each other and great ease with the world," said Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper, who knew the couple for more than 25 year. "Even these last weeks, they were remarkably gracious and humorous in dealing with it."

As the end neared, McCarthy greeted a non-stop stream of well-wishers into the palliative care unit at Princess Margaret. "Sheila just welcomed them as if they coming into their living room," Schultz recalled. "They were people who in their rootedness and their generosity, kind of gave dignity to the [artistic]community in a way. Everyone felt connected through them."

While Donaldson's love for the theatre and his wife were shared with the public, his lesser-known passion for golf was enjoyed privately with friends such as Mansbridge. The two were introduced in the early 1990s and bonded on the links to the point where Donaldson and McCarthy were the only two guests at Mansbridge's 1998 wedding to actress Cynthia Dale in Prince Edward Island. "He was everything except the minister - the best man, the witness, the usher," Mansbridge said.

Mansbridge initiated Donaldson into a group of golf buddies who went on an annual trip. He was the sole actor among notables immersed in Canadian politics and journalism.

On one trip to a course in Northern Scotland, Donaldson kept the group of political junkies rapt with an hour-long lecture about Shakespeare. "You could hear a pin drop," Mansbridge recalled. "People were lapping it up."

That golfing group played their last rounds together at the end October at the Redtail course in Port Stanley - a weekend of golf that Mansbridge knew would probably be Donaldson's last. "He had an 8 or 9 handicap … and retained it until the final months," the broadcaster recalled. "He was one hell of a golfer and would always leave us in his wake on the course."

Note to readers: The text of this story has been changed to incorporate the following correction: Peter Donaldson died at the age of 57.

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