As a Quebec schoolboy, Albert Millaire saw Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet and was bitten by that most seductive of creatures, the theatre bug. Mr. Olivier’s archetypal performance as the melancholy Dane, his hair so blond it was “a bit silvery,” left him transfixed. “For me, it was a great discovery,” he told CBC/Radio-Canada in a 2015 interview. “I still shake when I talk about it.”
Later, at 20, Mr. Millaire paid a visit to a new Shakespeare festival being staged in a tent in Stratford, Ont., and the deal was sealed.
Enchanted by every aspect of the Stratford Festival experience, from the bright lights to the smell of the greasepaint, when he emerged into the open air, he thought, “C’est ma vie. C’est ce que je vais faire.” (“This is my life. This is what I’m going to do.”)
It did, indeed, become his life. Mr. Millaire, who died on Aug. 15 of cancer in Montreal at the age of 83, would go on to enjoy a remarkable 60-year career on stage and television. A colossus of French-Canadian classical theatre, he would also delight generations of Quebec TV viewers in roles ranging from Sir Wilfrid Laurier to the swashbuckling heroes of the historical adventure series Le courrier du roy and D’Iberville.
Mr. Millaire also worked tirelessly behind the scenes, directing, running theatres and championing new Quebec plays. But it was his versatile performances that left an indelible impression.
“To the public at large, he was the ideal figure of an actor,” said Lorraine Pintal, artistic director of Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, the scene of many of his triumphs. “He was one who could play the tragic roles but also romantic and whimsical characters.”
Sparkling-eyed, floppy-haired, with a mellifluous voice and a zesty Gallic charm, Mr. Millaire was equally adept at portraying heroes and villains – especially those devious smoothies Iago, Tartuffe and the Salieri of Amadeus. And while he could summon up the gravity to embody Laurier or Louis Riel, he was just as superb at light comedy. Fluently bilingual, he played the frothy French chef Pierre Lapierre on Road to Avonlea, his best-known TV role outside Quebec.
“He had this innate sense of humour in everything he did, even the tragic roles,” recalled actress and long-time friend Pat Galloway. “The only thing he couldn’t be was boring.”
Rodolphe Albert Millaire was born on Jan. 18, 1935, in Montreal to Emilien-Albert Millaire, a tavern owner, and the former Laura Rollet. His father was struck by a car and died when Albert was less than a year old, leaving him to be raised by his mother. He grew up in Montreal’s working-class Ville-Émard neighbourhood, with Laura working in an airplane factory during the war years to support them.
In 1948, he enrolled in the Collège de l’Assomption, initially to study for the priesthood, but soon became involved in the college’s theatrical productions. After his epiphany at Stratford, he joined the newly created Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique du Québec. From there, he immediately began acting – his first stage role was as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot – and appeared on various popular Radio-Canada series, including Le courrier du roy and the kids’ favourite Le Grand Duc.
Homegrown professional theatre was still in its infancy in Canada, so Mr. Millaire, along with his first wife, actress Rita Imbeault, and their two young daughters, set off for a period of study in Berlin, Paris and London. Upon returning to Quebec, Mr. Millaire began establishing himself as a leading classical actor, most notably at Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, where his acclaimed roles included Hamlet, Alceste in Molière’s The Misanthrope and Lorenzo in Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio. In 1971, his celebrated Tartuffe toured to Europe and the Soviet Union.
At the same time, Mr. Millaire was lending his support to Quebec playwriting. In 1969, he assumed the artistic leadership of the touring Théâtre Populaire du Québec and shook up its traditional repertoire with new work by Quebec theatre artists. Indeed, he shook things up too much, and was fired after the experimental Grand Cirque Ordinaire staged some provocative political theatre that offended the authorities. The GCO’s founder, Raymond Cloutier, recently saluted that long-ago bravery in a heartfelt tribute to Mr. Millaire, published by La Presse Plus.
Mr. Millaire had more success at TNM, directing the acclaimed 1970 dramatization of author Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir! The show toured extensively and finally brought Mr. Millaire to the Stratford stage. He scored another hit with Mr. Carrier a decade later, starring in the latter’s one-man play La céleste bicyclette.
While performing the play in English (as The Celestial Bicycle) at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1982, Mr. Millaire met his second wife. Michèle Marchand, a director with Radio-Canada, had been sent to interview him for a public affairs show. At the time, Mr. Millaire had been divorced for more than a decade.
“I interviewed him, then I married him,” Ms. Marchand joked. “We liked each other immediately.” Their 35th wedding anniversary was this month.
Mr. Millaire returned to Stratford in 1990 at the behest of Ms. Galloway, who wanted him to direct her as the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt in John Murrell’s historical drama Memoir. He remained at Stratford for the subsequent season, playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the Player King in Hamlet and Chrysalde in Molière’s The School for Wives.
Ms. Galloway said he had enormous vitality off- as well as onstage. “He was an immensely social animal – loved entertaining and was an excellent cook,” she recalled. “We always had roistering good fun.”
Although a staunch defender of the French language, Mr. Millaire was happy to make such forays into English-speaking theatre. That included occasional gigs at the Centaur, Montreal’s venerable English theatre company, where his last big role was the tyrannical James Tyrone in a 2005 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night. The company adored him. “He was a dream to work with,” said Chuck Childs, the Centaur’s general manager. “And he was so generous with everybody, from the production staff to younger actors. He knew everybody’s name.”
Offstage, Mr. Millaire played major roles in supporting his profession. He served as secretary-general for the Union des Artistes, was president of the Académie Québécoise du Théâtre and chaired the Canadian Council on the Status of the Artist. He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1989 and promoted to companion in 2001, the same year he was named to the Ordre national du Québec. He also received a Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2006.
Mr. Millaire overcame an initial bout with esophageal cancer in 2000 and remained active in the ensuing years. He toured the country in a French-language version of Jeff Baron’s sentimental crowd-pleaser Visiting Mr. Green and turned his passionate acting memoir, Mes amours de personnages, into a solo show.
Recently stricken with cancer again, this time incurable, Mr. Millaire died at his Westmount home, surrounded by his family. He leaves his widow, Ms. Marchand; his daughters, Anne, Catherine and Frédérique; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
“Canada and Quebec have lost a man of heart, an exceptional actor, a troupe leader,” Ms. Pintal said. “His love of the public, his accessibility, his contagious joie de vivre make you regret that someone of his calibre is not immortal.”