The curtain had barely opened on a performance of I’m Not Rappaport on Broadway in 1985 when a Toronto actor in the audience knew the title role of an old Jewish left-winger was just his cup of Manischewitz.
When the Canadian rights to the hit Herb Gardner play were sold soon after, that actor, Paul Soles, let the powers that be know that he wished to star as Rappaport, played by Judd Hirsch in New York. He was turned down flat – in his mid-50s, he was considered too young for the part.
Not to be denied, Mr. Soles purchased an outfit of ratty clothes from a second-hand store, fogeyed his gait, hired a makeup artist to add 30 years to his appearance and marched unannounced into director Guy Sprung’s office in Toronto. An unsolicited audition won him the role.
Mr. Soles’s confidence and Mr. Sprung’s casting were both rewarded. Reviewing I’m Not Rappaport upon its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1987, The Globe and Mail’s Ray Conlogue praised a performance in which “Soles plays every scam, every fantasy, every brave hollow bluff with the utmost gusto, but never overplays a single moment, and never strikes a false note.”
An actor, voice man, pioneering television broadcaster and twinkle-eyed adventurous soul with a hair-trigger wit, Paul Soles died of natural causes in his sleep at his Toronto home on May 26. He was 90 years old and had suffered from emphysema.
Mr. Soles supplied the voices for the elven want-to-be dentist Hermey in the animated 1964 seasonal classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and for Peter Parker (and the character’s alter-ego super-hero) in Stan Lee’s original Spider-Man cartoon series from 1967 to ’70. But Mr. Soles also distinguished himself for 16 years as the co-host of the CBC television newsmagazine series Take 30, beating out, the story goes, a young Peter Jennings for the position in 1962.
On the show’s junket to London during the British Invasion period, Mr. Soles and future Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson spoke with the members of the nascent rock legends The Who backstage at a school dance. Among other notable interview subjects, Mr. Soles claimed Michael Caine as the best he ever encountered and cited author Mordecai Richler, whom he spoke with for CBC’s Canada After Dark, as the interviewee he looked forward to talking to the most.
As a thespian, Mr. Soles took pride as a Jewish Canadian in playing Shylock in a Stratford Festival production of The Merchant of Venice in 2001. He stepped in on short notice after Al Waxman, of television’s King of Kensington fame, died of complications from heart surgery.
Off stage and outside the studio, Mr. Soles indulged in his passions in the most active of ways. Not just an enthusiast of cars, he raced them. More than an aviation buff, he was commissioned as a pilot officer in the RCAF Auxiliary. Not enough to be a big-band fiend, he married a scat-singing jazzer.
“For Rudolph, he had to learn two songs,” recalled his former wife, Jean Allan. “He couldn’t read a note of music, so I taught him the songs on the piano and he went off with it with his little Hermey voice.”
The audacity that helped him land the I’m Not Rappaport role served Mr. Soles well time and time again over his lifetime. In 1959, he bluffed his way into the cross-country American International Rally by speaking only German and passing himself off as a factory driver from Mercedes. Walter Cronkite was also in the race. The famed CBS newscaster made it as far as Tennessee, where he drove into a fog and then into a lake. Mr. Soles, on the other hand, went the distance.
Despite his accomplishments, Mr. Soles was unfailingly modest. “You’re talking to a man who was too lazy and who had no discipline and who never went to acting school,” he told The Globe in 2016. “I was just lucky to be around when certain things happened ... Mind you, I was lucky enough to have the chops, I guess.”
Living his favourite aphorism (”He who laughs, lasts”), Mr. Soles played the titular nonagenarian in the CBC web series comedy My 90-Year-Old Roommate, for which he won a 2017 Canadian Screen Award for best actor in a digital series. Deep into his 80s, he was still playing older characters.
Accepting his award, Mr. Soles limped to the podium, a walking cane in one hand while the other covered his mouth, according to a story in the Canadian Jewish News. As the crowd stood in ovation, the humbled veteran actor stepped back from the microphone. Perhaps for the first time in his life he was speechless.
Since the 1990s, the actor lived at the Performing Arts Lodge, a social housing project for older artists, musicians and actors in Toronto. When he wasn’t working, he’d walk over to the nearby St. Lawrence Market, where he’d sit on a bench and entertain children passing by. Unable to make his cherished visits because of COVID-19 lockdowns, he told friends he was growing weary, and that he didn’t think he would be around much longer. A lifetime performer was being denied his audience.
Paul Robert Soles was born in Toronto on Aug. 11, 1930, to Arthur L. Soles and his wife, Lillian (née Goodfellow). They were of Polish-Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. His father was a traveling salesman for Henry Davis and Company Ltd., which dealt in children’s clothing. His mother was a homemaker and community volunteer known for her cooking skills and high fashion sense.
Born on the same day a British R100 airship first appeared over Toronto, he was captivated by flying from a young age. “Had the war not ended when he was 15, he would have enlisted in the RCAF,” said Mr. Soles’s son, Jonathan Soles. Instead he obtained a private pilot’s licence training on a Fleet 80 Canuck two-seater.
While at the University of Western Ontario, he began working at CHLO, the self-proclaimed “voice of the golden acres” in St. Thomas, Ont. “He and the other junior announcers would try to make each other laugh on air while reading the farm reports,” his son said.
For a summer job he worked the overnight shift at Toronto’s CKEY. A jazz lover, he held his nose while playing top-40 hits under the DJ pseudonym Johnny Paul Jones.
Mr. Soles dropped out of university after three years to work full-time at London’s CFPL radio. He transitioned to the visual medium in 1953 when CFPL became one of the first privately-owned companies in Canada to receive a television licence. Early forays into original programming were not sophisticated.
“The company simply put their radio talent on camera and they more or less made up the programming as they went along,” Mr. Soles’s son said.
Nothing was too outlandish for Mr. Soles, who did a bit of everything on air. Right before Marilyn Bell was famously set to swim across Lake Ontario, he greased himself up and donned a bathing cap to tackle Southwestern Ontario’s Thames River. “He re-invented himself as a marathon swimmer,” remembered friend and colleague Bill Brady. “Even though the river was only a stone’s throw wide where he crossed it.”
Growing dissatisfied at CFPL, Mr. Soles took off to England. He had hopes of finding work playing American characters in theatre, radio and television, but struggled to land a job. After spending a year as the civilian manager of a radio station on a NATO air base in West Germany and travelling with the RCAF hockey team as its play-by-play announcer, he returned to Canada in 1957.
Back at CFPL in London, Ont., he also acted with London Little Theatre and finagled his way onto a racing circuit by buying tires for cash-strapped drivers.
In 1962, Mr. Soles moved to his hometown of Toronto and began a long association with the CBC. A year later he got married and spent a two-month honeymoon with his bride driving across Europe. “I was a terrible navigator, and I ticked him off so much when I told him I didn’t want to gamble in Monte Carlo that he squished his nice aviator glasses in his hands,” said Ms. Allan.
The couple divorced in 1970, but remained close.
Once, when a Take 30 producer mentioned that a motley bunch of pilots planned to barnstorm across a big chunk of Canada, Mr. Soles’s journalistic impulses gave way to his jones for flying. Instead of covering the Great Belvedere Air Dash of 1973, he took part in the race.
In a vintage Fleet Finch open cockpit biplane with no radio and long overdue for an engine overhaul, Mr. Soles took off from Ontario bound for British Columbia. Near Calgary, the map he was using was ripped out of his hands by the wind. Low on fuel and running out of light with a thunderstorm ahead, he landed on the prairie.
Over the course of the race, Mr. Soles consistently placed last, garnering him the Tail End Charlie award. “The trip rekindled his love of flying, though,” said his son. “He intended to sell the plane once the journey was complete, but he ended up keeping it for 20 years.”
In 1988, Mr. Soles took part in a production of Macbeth starring Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson that played Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre and other North American stops on an infamous tour that literally limped – Mr. Plummer tore knee ligaments and six other cast members suffered leg and groin injuries because of a faulty stage cloth – into Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre.
In 1996, Mr. Soles was cast in the lead role of the television film Einstein: Light to the Power of 2. “With a wig and some extra eyebrow, my god he looked almost exactly like Einstein,” recalled director David Devine. “Of the 130 or so lead actors I’ve ever hired, Paul was in the top one per cent when it came to acting, attitude and on-set friendliness.”
In his 70s, Mr. Soles displayed his flair for spontaneity in Ian Ferguson’s improvised soap opera Sin City in Edmonton and Toronto. “I don’t think he’d ever done long-form improv before that,” actor Raoul Bhaneja said. “But he threw himself into it.”
Mr. Soles kept his comic verve until the very end. “I had a long phone conversation with him just this March,” said long-time acquaintance Mr. Brady, “During the middle of the call he asked, ‘Who is this?’
“His timing, as always, was exquisite.”
Mr. Soles leaves his former wife, Jean Allan; his son, Jonathan Soles; and his sister, Ruth-Ellen Soles. He is predeceased by his brother, Bill.