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Ted Follows as Abelard in a 1978 Stratford Festival production of Heloise and Abelard. Dawn Greenhalgh, his wife at the time, played Heloise. (Robert C Ragsdale)
Ted Follows as Abelard in a 1978 Stratford Festival production of Heloise and Abelard. Dawn Greenhalgh, his wife at the time, played Heloise. (Robert C Ragsdale)

OBITUARY

Ted Follows: Canadian actor’s career spanned more than 70 years Add to ...

During his final performance, at age 89, actor Ted Follows continued to shine on stage with an energy that astounded younger members of the cast. Despite recent heart surgery, Mr. Follows dragged a real ball and chain in his role as the spectre of Jacob Marley in playwright Richard Quesnel’s Charles Dickens Writes a Christmas Carol, in Kitchener, Ont., last December. Mr. Quesnel offered to replace the props with lighter ones but the octogenarian refused. “Ted’s performance always had to be authentic,” Mr. Quesnel said. “He felt that … the rattle of real chains would add to the scare factor for children in the audience.”

A veteran of the Stratford Festival and numerous CBC productions, Mr. Follows took his work seriously, but he was also able to poke fun at his need for veracity. During a rehearsal for the show, Mr. Quesnel noted that the actor’s boots were covered in so much mud that he was standing on a significant layer of earth. When questioned Mr. Follows quipped, “I’ve just come back from the dead. What do you expect?” (The mud was actually the result of his taking a shortcut through a construction site on the way to the rehearsal hall.)

At a memorial in Kitchener for Mr. Follows, who died of cancer on Oct. 21 at the age of 89, his fellow cast member Kathleen Sheehy recalled Mr. Follows’s inventiveness when the word “ponderous” – in the line “It is a ponderous chain” – escaped him on stage, as it frequently did. In one performance he substituted the word “prodigious.” In another, the chain was pronounced to be “portentous.” Her favourite was “pondiferous.”

“After the show he’d ask me ‘Which one did I use tonight’?” she said.

In a CBC production of Macbeth in 1961, he had a sword fight with Sean Connery, then an unknown. His work with the CBC began in the early days of radio plays and eventually included key TV roles. From 1968 to 70, he played a central character in Wojeck, one of the network’s first successful dramatic TV series.

Around the same time, he starred in the title role of McQueen, a CBC drama about a newspaper columnist. It was a role he relished.

Mr. Follows directed one of Four Plays by Samuel Beckett at the Stratford Festival and acted in 18 productions there, including a turn as Abelard in Heloise and Abelard (1978).

Had he moved south of the border, like his contemporary Christopher Plummer, his name might have appeared inside the star on a walk of fame, but he was committed to his country.

Mr. Follows’s second wife, Susan Follows, said her husband eventually regretted that he didn’t move to the United States.

“We don’t have a star system here in Canada,” his son Laurence Follows said. “I think dad was a bit disappointed he didn’t get the recognition he deserved, but for him it was all about the work.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Follows received a Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal for his role in the founding of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre. In 2000, he was recognized for Lifetime Achievement by the Arts Awards Waterloo Region. This year, he was awarded a Canadian Actors Equity Life Membership Award.

Born in Ottawa on Nov. 30, 1926, Edward (Ted) James Follows was so bright that he skipped two grades in school. He was occasionally sent to read Shakespeare aloud to older kids. “You can imagine how popular that made me,” he once said.

During a peripatetic childhood as an air force brat, Ted bounced across the country from one military base to another with his parents, Edward James Follows, and mother, Isabella (née Latimer), and his younger brother, Jack.

Rarely in one place long enough to develop lasting childhood friendships, he described himself as a loner, although, at times, he could be extremely gregarious. As a teen he was captivated by the world of film, where everything was possible. He decided to become an actor.

At high school in Winnipeg, he won an acting award, the prize being a scholarship to the Banff Centre. After his father was posted to Toronto, Ted enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he earned an honours BA in psychology and acted in Hart House productions. He hoped that higher education, plus insight into the human psyche, would increase his chance of becoming a successful actor.

Beginning an acting career that would last more than 70 years, Mr. Follows made his first professional appearance in 1945, with Vancouver’s Everyman Theatre. Around this time, Mr. Follows founded (or co-founded) several companies, including Muskoka’s Straw Hat Players.

He also joined a travelling troupe called the Canadian Players. Crossing the country by bus, performing at venues that ranged from auditoriums to small clubs, and without the benefit of microphones, the actors had to be ready to improvise. Mr. Follows frequently stepped in to direct. During the tour, Mr. Follows canoodled at the back of the bus with a comely actress named Dawn Greenhalgh.

“He was one actor I always felt totally safe with on the stage no matter what. Even if the scenery fell down I knew it would be okay. He was always so well prepared that he could rescue any mishaps,” she said.

From 1952 to 55, Mr. Follows was part of the Canadian Repertory Theatre Company touring throughout Britain. By then his reputation as a gifted and disciplined actor earned him an invitation to join the three-year-old Stratford Festival. Back in Canada, Mr. Follows phoned Ms. Greenhalgh, then working in New York, and proposed over the phone. The two married in September, 1958, and soon had four children: Edwina, Laurence, Samantha and Megan.

Laurence, an actor, director and theatrical producer, remembers his father whispering into their ears at bedtime “Be a plumber. Be a doctor. Be a lawyer.” He hoped they would pursue careers with greater financial stability. All four went into show business, however. Most notably, daughter Megan played Anne in the TV miniseries Anne of Green Gables.

In 2001, the entire Follows family appeared in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, also directed by Ted Follows at the Gravenhurst Opera House. In The Globe and Mail, reviewer Ray Conlogue wrote, “Canada doesn’t have many theatrical dynasties, but the Follows family is certainly to Canadian theatre what the Redgraves are to the British stage.”

During their early years together, Mr. Follows and Ms. Greenhalgh juggled live performances, commercials, corporate videos and theatrical tours while caring for their brood of children. Despite financial stress, jealousy over flirtations and competition over reviews, the marriage lasted 21 years. The couple’s fights, however, exacerbated by alcohol, became so legendary they were known within the acting community as “The Fighting Follows.”

“They were notorious for screaming rows and brought many a cocktail party to a tumultuous halt,” a Stratford actor said.

Despite their personal difficulties Ms. Greenhalgh credits her ex-husband with being an excellent parent. “Perhaps like his own father, my father could be stern,” Laurence said. “At the same time, he could be playful and encouraged our creativity.”

After an amicable divorce, Ted Follows became involved with Susan Trethewey, a trombonist and fanfare trumpeter in the Stratford Festival orchestra.

“It was love at first sight,” she said. A second marriage proposal by phone, this time by Ms. Trethewey, took place on Feb. 29, Sadie Hawkins Day, when, according to tradition, a woman can propose. “You’ll have to ask my father,” Ted joked. The two married in December, 1988, and maintained a close relationship with his first family.

Ms. Greenhalgh says one of her ex-husband’s favourite roles was playing Jack Tanner in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. The character, which he played at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1957, was described by Shaw as: “prodigiously fluent of speech, restless, excitable … possibly a little mad.”

When directing, Mr. Follows frequently used his favourite phrase, “It works a treat.” He was not afraid to speak his mind when it didn’t. His friend and colleague Walter Learning recalls directing a production with Mr. Follows in the cast. It began with a man (Follows) carrying a woman into a room containing a four-poster bed. “I said to Ted, wouldn’t it be funny if she was carrying him instead? He thought for a moment then said, ‘You might laugh. The audience might laugh. But then the audience is going to wonder what’s wrong with him. Has he hurt his leg? Is he incapable n his wedding night? Why is she carrying him? By then they’ll miss two pages of dialogue.’ It was a great lesson.”

Ted Follows leaves his wife, Susan; ex-wife, Ms. Greenhalgh; son, Laurence; daughters, Edwina, Samantha, Megan; and six grandchildren.

“He was the last of a generation who created truly great Canadian theatre” Ms. Greenhalgh said.

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