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Frances Hyland, the Saskatchewan-born actor who has been described as the first lady of Canadian theatre, died Sunday. She was 77.

Hyland died at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto of respiratory failure due to complications from recent appendix surgery, her son Evan McCowan said Monday.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, she starred in and directed numerous productions at both the Stratford and Shaw festivals but was also known for her appearances in films and in CBC-TV shows including Road to Avonlea.

"She had been ill for a number of years," McCowan said, indicating that she had not acted for the past six years. "This came on in the last little while, the respiratory (illness). Heavy smoker, just like my dad."

Hyland's former husband, pioneer stage director George McCowan, who moved to Los Angeles to direct series television in the 1970s, died of emphysema in 1995. Evan McCowan describes his mother as one of those Canadian talents who refused to leave Canada for the United States where they could have made a lot more money.

"It still holds true today about people leaving because we can't afford to put people in the business into a place where they can save money," McCowan added, noting that his mother used to differentiate between living money and saving money.

After taking acting lessons and attending university in Regina, the teen actress moved to England, where she made her professional debut in 1950. She took an usher's job at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, played opposite Vivien Leigh at the Old Vic and at 19 snagged a tiny role on the new medium of television.

"I don't think I'd ever seen TV, and I certainly hadn't been in a studio," she said in a later interview. "We had to wear orange makeup and there were banks and banks of lights. We'd sweat like horses."

She also recalled the many ups and downs of that early career - "even a couple of times when I've had to phone the Actors' Fund and say I can't pay the rent."

Hyland had long been a champion of greater status and higher pay for Canadian actors.

"We're now equal with policemen," she said in 1986. "Although they have a very difficult and dangerous job and are probably not as well paid as they ought to be."

In a 1970s interview, she remarked that it was a good year when she earned more than $10,000.

Critics wrote of her "glorious honey-whisky voice" and her surprisingly petite frame despite her often vivacious and commanding presence onstage.

"People who see me off stage are often surprised I'm so tiny," she said in 1986.

She had been brought back to Canada by Tyrone Guthrie to help open Stratford in 1954. She co-starred there with John Colicos, Martha Henry, Douglas Rain and Bruno Gerussi in King Lear in 1964.

In 1969, she starred in the original production of George Ryga's The Ecstacy of Rita Joe with Chief Dan George as her father.

Her Shaw Festival stage credits include Noel Coward's The Vortex in 1984, Clare Boothe Luce's The Women in '85, Shaw's difficult masterpiece Back to Methusela in '86 and Major Barbara in '87. Also at Shaw, she directed Agatha Christie's murder mystery Black Coffee.

There was also her Dora Award-winning performance in The Heiress at Toronto's St. Lawrence Theatre in 1986.

In an '89 after leaving the Shaw festival, she played the curmudgeonly title role in Driving Miss Daisy in a Toronto theatre production.

Hyland played many great female characters onstage, including Elizabeth 1 (also in an episode of Patrick Watson's early '80s TV biography series The Titans), Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and Ophelia in Hamlet.

She was even honoured for her radio work, including a best-actress National Radio Award in '89 for dramas on Peter Gzowski's Morningside.

Television appearances included co-starring with Leslie Nielsen in the miniseries The Albertans - a sort of Canadian version of Dallas - in 1979, and as Nanny Louisa in Road to Avonlea.

She won the Governor-General's Performing Arts Award in 1994 from then-Gov.-Gen. Ramon Hnatyshyn, who called her the first lady of Canadian theatre. That year she was also given a lifetime achievement award at the Toronto Arts Awards.

She leaves her son, Evan, and his wife, Anne-Marie; two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. By her request there will be no funeral service, although her son expects there will be a memorial event in the next few weeks at Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge where she lived.

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