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Actress Tracy Wright in 2006.

Fermando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Tracy Wright garnered tremendous respect and admiration from peers and followers as an actor of substance and taste, but her legacy is that of an under-the-radar star.

The adventurous actor died Tuesday at the age of 50 of pancreatic cancer in Toronto. She was best known for some of her later roles, such as the marijuana-smoking, 40-something radical Linda in the 2006 comedy Monkey Warfare, one of several films she made with husband Don McKellar.

She often undertook offbeat and smaller roles with naturalistic ease, exhibiting intensity and vulnerability at the same time, and was described as warm and grounded in her private life.

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One of her most celebrated stage roles was in Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View, remounted last year and co-starring Caroline Gillis. But television appearances earlier in her career such as a 1991 spot on the classic Kids in the Hall, and in Bruce McDonald's Twitch City in 1998, left vivid and lasting impressions on many of her followers.

Modest to a fault and occasionally stubborn, Wright was seen as compassionate and far more concerned with the well-being of others than with her status, and her low profile was kept "partly by choice," according to McKellar.

"I felt she had the career she wanted, in a way," he said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find anything that had a whiff of sellout to it."

Tracy Lauren Wright was born in Toronto on Dec. 7, 1959. Her childhood was split between Mimico, Ont., and Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood after her parents, Colin Wright and Jean Archambault, separated when she was young. She was the third of Archambault's four children.

Her brother Paul Wright, now a firefighter, recalls her taking an interest in acting at a young age. By the time she was 10, she had signed up for an acting class at a community centre near Queen Street East and Connaught Avenue.

"She was the only one that remembered any of the lines and she was kind of whispering everybody else's lines to them - she was just totally into it right from the start," Paul said.

After dropping out of high school, she took a completion course to gain admission to university, and worked odd jobs that included stints at book stores and at what is now the Toronto International Film Festival, where several of her films would later be featured. She also went on to earn a black belt in Taekwondo.

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"I've seen the concrete brick that she broke [with her bare hands]" said Jennifer Jonas, who produced Monkey Warfare with partner Leonard Farlinger.

McKellar, who ran into Wright a party, had seen her in a show-stealing performance as one of the witches in Macbeth. It was perhaps appropriate foreshadowing for her ability to take small roles and make them shine brightly alongside the leads.

She was, by McKellar's account, "intimidatingly avant-garde cool" in her youth, though she didn't know it, and caught his attention when she auditioned in his bedroom for a role with his children's theatre company by performing a Sam Shepard monologue, "which was completely inappropriate for a children's theatre." She didn't get the part, but the couple began their long romantic and creative relationship shortly thereafter.

Her first professional performance was alongside McKellar in a Theatre Passe Muraille production of Discords, with future collaborator Daniel Brooks. And in 1989, Wright co-founded the Augusta Company with McKellar and Brooks, through which the trio spent several years crafting shows such as Indulgence and 86: An Autopsy.

In 1991, she appeared in The Lorca Play at the Theatre Centre, which included one scene in which the seven women in the cast walked back and forth up the stage in corridors of light. Every so often, Wright would throw herself painfully into the theatre's back wall.

"It was a very brutal and delicate manoeuvre. Then, on the very last Sunday matinee, she hit the wall so hard she went through the wall," MacIvor recalls. "It always felt like there was something really spontaneous and dangerous and unpredictable happening, but at the same time, she was in full control of what she was doing."

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In 2005, Wright earned praise for playing Nancy Herrington, a character who unknowingly gets wrapped up in an Internet romance with a six-year-old boy in Miranda July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Later in her career, Wright spent much of her time touring international experimental theatre festivals, and gave her last stage performance in Belgium in December of 2009. That same month she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Early in the New Year, on Jan. 3, she and McKellar were married at his parents' home in Toronto.

Wright continued working into her final weeks, and McKellar said the nurses and doctors who attended her in hospital seemed mesmerized by her personality. She and McKellar were to have appeared together in a new play, TTTTg ( Triple Trooper Trevor Trumpet Girl), at the Theatre Centre earlier this month, and she had hoped to perform a reading of Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo.

McDonald's new film, This Movie is Broken, which opens Friday, also features Wright in a small cameo role.

She also acted in McDonald's forthcoming film Trigger, which stands as a tribute to her colleagues' fervent determination to give her one last turn in the spotlight, and which Farlinger describes as "one of the great miracles of our film careers." After Wright became sick, Jonas and Farlinger rushed the film into production with their own money - and very little regard for where any further funding might come from. Nearly everyone involved volunteered their time and talents.

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While filming Trigger, a tired and ill Wright performed an intense musical scene alongside co-star Molly Parker as a pair of rockers playing a benefit concert at The Mod Club in Toronto. Jonas and Farlinger said it endures as a standout moment.

"I couldn't get over it," Farlinger said. "She was flawless on a 27-page day - not one mistake. That's pretty amazing."

Wright is survived by her husband, Don McKellar, her father, Colin Wright, her brother Paul, sisters Gloria and Stephanie, parents-in-law John and Kay McKellar, and their families.

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