Long before his dramatic reading of a Justin Bieber biography went viral, Newfoundland-born actor Gordon Pinsent was a legend of Canadian stage and screen. From his Cabbagetown neighbourhood, the 81-year-old recently collaborated on an album, Down and Out in Upalong, with musicians Greg Keelor and Travis Good. And on May 7, he will take part in Scrabble with the Stars, an annual fundraiser for the city’s Performing Arts Lodges, which provide affordable housing and health services for members of the arts community.
You’ve been getting a lot of buzz for a new album you wrote with Greg Keelor and Travis Good .
Isn’t that something?
I’m still not sure how it came about.
I had done some lyrics over the years: I simply tossed off a lyric or a poem. There was a box that I threw them into and there they sat. And then I had this bio film made on me and during a pause in the shoot I recited something. Mike Boland, the camera man, asked me where I got it, and then he eventually brought over a friend, Travis Good of The Sadies. And he gave them to his friend, Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo. And they came up with this CD.
Are you going to tour with them?
Well, touring for me ain’t exactly the way it used to be. It’s like a hangover. Hangovers used to be a bit more fun than they are now. Mine take about 72 hours. So for me to go on tour … I’ll go on a few spots. But I have a feeling I’ll be at the hotel while they’re out enjoying themselves.
It’s not like you’ve really slowed down much.
I’ve just come back from Newfoundland where I hosted the Titanic exhibit and read Peter and the Wolf with the Newfoundland symphony. In fact, the conductor said “Gordon, come home!”
You were born there but have lived here most of your life. Do you still consider that home?
Oh yes. It always will be. I have a brother still living there and when I land, I feel safe and inspired.
How do you feel when you land in Toronto?
I feel as though it’s imperative that I go to work immediately. It’s so tough in this country to get things going, you just have to keep at it at all times. I foolishly think that I can’t miss a day, you know? I’ve got to keep going.
Scrabble with the Stars is a fundraiser for the Performing Arts Lodge. Do you have a personal connection with them?
Well, being a performer and knowing people who have been there and are there now. To me, it’s a wonderful way to give a home to performing artists as they move from one stage of their careers to another. It makes it possible for them to remain where they are during periods of recuperation from illness, perhaps… of times when they’re unable to work.
Are you a good Scrabble player?
Am I good? They have guides who walk around and peer over your shoulder and say, “I wouldn’t do that.” So I usually do quite well. I was among the winners one year and I went around from table to table saying: “I won. Can you believe, I won?!”
Did you beat Margaret Atwood?
She wasn’t there that year.
Where in Toronto do you live?
I live in a penthouse apartment near Carleton and Jarvis. For 24 years now. My wife and I always had houses and things and then decided to go condo style. We were lucky because then they were building larger condos than they are today. It’s home.
What do you like about the neighbourhood?
I’m 16 storeys up, so I’m looking down on Allan Gardens, which has always been great looking. And now you can’t see any crack being moved about. At the beginning there was more than there is now. I do like Cabbagetown and Riverdale. Excellent for walking through the farm and so on. I’m on my own now and it takes me only moments to get to the centre, which is going to end up being like New York in a few years, I’m afraid.
It must be difficult, seeing the city without your wife [actress Charmion King, who passed away in 2007]
Her idea of a holiday when we lived in Forest Hill was to go downtown and see all the changes. She loved the city. I love it too and I have since the beginning, when I stepped out of Union Station and the Royal York was the second-tallest building. I just took to it and it’s held me ever since. And the changes, I don’t mind them at all. Let them happen. I cursed them when they changed Maple Leaf Gardens into a Loblaws but it’s wonderful. I love it. And certainly it’s brought a whole new strain of people that I hadn’t been seeing on a daily basis.
You met your wife at a theatre here, didn’t you?
At the Crest Theatre, which is now the Regent on Mount Pleasant. It’s a movie theatre. We worked there. She was doing a play called The Madwoman of Chaillot and I played the love interest.
Which theatres in the city do you like to attend?
I love most of them. I’m not as quick to go to opening nights any more. I leave it a bit. I’m invited and I don’t always go and I should. I should support a little bit more. But this work of mine is so scattered that when I relax I just sit at home.
That’s the nice thing about living in the city. You can stay home but you never feel secluded.
Absolutely. What you have to do is not walk the victim’s walk and just be right out there in Toronto and enjoy the hell out of everything. There are tremendous people living here and it doesn’t take much to find them.
You must be meeting lots of different people through your new music buddies.
It’s amazing! They’ll mention that we’re doing a thing for Leonard Cohen, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Or they’ll say, “Let’s go to the Drake next.” I had never heard of the Drake. The Drake is a damn fine place. It’s got great food as well.
You should try the chicken and waffles.
When are you going to be there? I’ll meet you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.