Walter Massey was born into a life of privilege and was being groomed to take a role in the family manufacturing company, Massey-Harris, when he decided to abandon that path and take up acting – a career that would last more than 65 years.
It was a choice that ran in the family; his close relation Raymond Massey was also an actor, famous for his 1940 movie portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, although Walter later one-upped him, playing two American presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft) in separate films.
Walter Massey, who died on Aug. 4 in Montreal of complications from cancer at the age of 85, started as on stage in Boston in 1949 while at university and did his last voice-over work in July of this year as Principal Haney in the popular children’s television show Arthur.
The list of characters played by Mr. Massey runs to several pages, in stage, film and television. The highlights included a stage role in the 1950s as Brutus in Julius Caesar. It was an early production by flamboyant New York producer Joseph Papp, and morphed into the famous Shakespeare in the Park series.
“Walter was very proud of his Brutus,” said Richard Dumont, a fellow actor and director who directed Mr. Massey in 52 episodes of Papa Beaver’s Storytime, an animated TV series from France, dubbed into English in Montreal in the 1990s.
“Walter was a mainstay on any production. You could trust him to bring things to the character that even the writers hadn’t thought of,” Mr. Dumont said.
Both Walter Massey (as Mr. Tinker) and Mr. Dumont had major voice roles in the 1996 animated film How the Toys Saved Christmas, which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Tony Randall.
Mr. Massey had hundreds of roles in movies, many of them American productions filmed in Canada, including his major part as President Roosevelt opposite Rod Steiger in Cook & Peary: The Race to the Pole (1983). His other presidential role was that of Mr. Taft, in The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005).
For decades he was in demand to do voice work in cartoons such as the Emmy-winning Arthur. In the one the few times he portrayed an evil character – he was too likeable for that – he was the voice of Pollutto in an animated, environment-focused series called The Smoggies.
He was perhaps best known to television viewers for his role as Doc Stewart in the Canadian-produced series Lassie, which ran from 1997 to 1999.
“Walter was a delight to work with,” said Susan Almgren, who worked closely with him for two years on Lassie, produced by Montreal-based Cinar. “I played Timmy’s mother and I was a widow and a vet, and Walter was the avuncular Doc Stewart, my mentor. It was the last of the lavish productions and each episode took a week to shoot, because it involved children and animals. Walter and I spent a lot of time together in trailers and on sets and became quite close, like the characters in the series.”
Mr. Massey also helped to start a number of theatres in Canada. He co-founded the King’s Playhouse in Georgetown, PEI, and the Piggery Theatre in North Hatley, Que. And he was deeply involved in the now-defunct Mountain Playhouse in Montreal.
Walter Edward Hart Massey was born in Toronto on Aug. 19, 1928, into the family that was at the pinnacle of social and financial life in the city. He was named after his grandfather, who was president of Massey-Harris, the giant Canadian maker of agricultural equipment (later known as Massey Ferguson). His extended family included second cousins Raymond Massey, the actor, and his diplomat brother, Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor-general.
Young Walter attended Upper Canada College, and then the University of Western Ontario. He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering, in preparation for eventually running operations at the family’s tractor manufacturing company.
But, by chance, he discovered acting. He planned to take on some small parts at the Boston Tributary Theatre while doing homework when not on stage, but instead he was thrown into a major role, the villain Comte de Guiche in Cyrano de Bergerac. His grades at MIT dropped. He told his family he would rather be an actor than an industrialist but promised his father, Denton Massey, that he would finish his degree. He did, and wore his MIT engineer’s ring, although he didn’t complete his master’s thesis.
“His father went to see him act in Boston,” recalled Mr. Massey’s wife, Sharman Yarnell. “He told him, ‘If you want to act you’ll have to do it on your own.’”
(Denton Massey may have disapproved of Walter’s acting choice, but he had drifted from an expected career path himself. Denton also graduated from MIT, and did go to work in the family business, but he was also deeply religious. He broadcast Bible classes on radio in Toronto in the 1930s and ’40s and late in life became an Anglican priest. He was also a Conservative MP for a Toronto riding from 1935 to 1949, and ran for the party leadership in 1938.)
After his Boston foray, Walter made his way to New York. There he studied theatre at Harold Clurman’s professional workshop, where classmates included Steve McQueen, Julie Harris and Marlon Brando. The workshop was for professional actors and classes were held late at night after the Broadway shows closed. Along with working actors, it took two non-professionals; 1,200 applied and Mr. Massey was one of those accepted.
His first major role was as Brutus in Mr. Papp’s 1956 production of Julius Caesar. When the show finished, Mr. Massey went to Montreal, where he had promised to do a play; he turned down a request from Mr. Papp to return to New York.
“He was loyal and once he gave his word, he never went back on it,” Ms. Yarnell said.
Montreal became his lifelong base. He bought a house in the downtown area known as Shaughnessy Village. “It was his centenary project. The house was built in 1867 and he bought and restored it in 1967. At the time he was also in charge of the on-site entertainment at Expo 67,” Ms. Yarnell said.
She met her future husband at an audition in Montreal. In casual conversation, they discovered that each of their homes had been broken into. He suggested what was needed was a sturdy lock. He winked at a friend and said to Ms. Yarnell: “Why don’t you come up and see my double-bolt deadlock?”
“That was Jan. 18, 1975,” Ms. Yarnell recalled, “and we were together ever since.”
In 1953, he had played Jason in Medea in London, Ont., one of his first professional roles on home turf. In the decades that followed, his stage work took him across Canada, to Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg and the Fredericton Playhouse in New Brunswick.
He was well-liked by cast mates, both for his collegial support and his sense of humour.
“Walter was always laughing. He was a renowned punster and he couldn’t stop himself. He loved getting into sparring matches with puns, things that would make people both chuckle and roll their eyes,” said Thor Bishopric, a Montreal actor who played the role of Mr. Massey’s son in three separate productions. “He would always greet me, ‘Hello my son.’ Walter was very supportive of young up-and-coming actors.”
Mr. Massey was also a member of the French-speaking actors’ association, Union des Artistes. He spoke French with an English accent, but that worked well in roles such as Winston Churchill in a 1980s Radio-Canada TV program, Parc des Braves. In Les Belles Histoires du Pays en Haut, a television drama that aired live in the 1950s, he played another anglophone character speaking French.
In a more recent TV series, Edgar Allan, détective, which aired in the 1980s, he played a Scottish ghost and had to speak French with a Scottish accent. “He was a very talented actor and we got to know each other well doing that series,” said Albert Millaire, a prominent Quebec actor who also works in both languages. “His French was very good. Of course he had an accent, but that’s what we needed in the role.”
In addition to performing, Mr. Massey was active in the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), and was a member of the board of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association for 20 years.
Along with his wife, Sharman, he leaves his sister Marilyn MacKay-Smith and many nieces and nephews.
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