In a career that spanned 60 years on stage, radio, television and film, Charmion King was known for her dynamic stage presence, her throaty laugh, her beauty, her dedication to the theatre, and her professionalism. Of all playwrights she loved Chekhov the best and no wonder, for she delivered many of her best performances in his work.
"She was the grande dame of Canadian Theatre," Albert Schultz, artistic director of The Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, said yesterday. Ms. King joined the company in its third season (2000) to play a character in Noel Coward's Present Laughter. "We needed one of those great dames who could come on stage and convince you that she could function under a couple of martinis and be as witty as the next person in the room and bring with her a great aristocratic bearing and great wit and elegance -- and that was Charm," he said.
The only child of Charles King, a businessman who worked for Neilsen's (and was called The Candy Man, according to his granddaughter Leah) and his wife Amabel (née Reeves), Charmion King spent her earliest years in The Beach area of Toronto in a house fronting the boardwalk. Even as a five-year-old, she dreamed of becoming an actress. After the family moved to Forest Hill, she attended Bishop Strachan, the private girls' school, where she often played male roles in plays. In the summers she went to Tanamakoon, the girls' camp where the late Dora Mavor Moore had begun teaching musical theatre in the 1930s.
She enrolled in University College at the University of Toronto in the early 1940s, where she acted in college productions. In 1944, The Globe and Mail reported that she had been offered a screen test by Warner Brothers after talent scouts for the film studio had seen her perform in Thunder Rock. The 19-year-old star of the University College Players' Guild had declined, saying "this is just a school play."
Her best work was probably done at the Hart House Theatre under the direction of Robert Gill, an American actor who had worked at the Cleveland Playhouse. At the time, only men were allowed to use Hart House, the recreational and athletic facility that had been given to the university by the Massey family, but the theatre was run by a different administration, one that welcomed women on its stage after the war.
Mr. Gill, who headed Hart House Productions, was an "enormous influence," Ms. King told Susan Lawrence in 2002 for an article in the University of Toronto magazine. "He taught me professional behaviour as an actress." In her most memorable role at university, she played the title role in Saint Joan at Hart House Theatre in 1947, the year she graduated. "Her performance of Joan," The Globe and Mail critic wrote the following morning, according to Hart House records, "is a luminous portrayal, instinct with an inner fire of truth and spiritual beauty, and exquisite in its shadings of emotion and execution."
From Hart House and a year of graduate work in English literature, she did summer stock in New York, and then helped found the Straw Hat Players in 1948 with Murray and Donald Davis, two brothers who had been part of the Hart House theatre gang. The company, which included Eric House, Ted Follows and Barbara Hamilton, toured Muskoka and Port Carling and the border region of the U.S. for several summers. "In a way it was the best time I ever had on the stage," Ms. King told The Globe in 1961. "We were 10 ambitious, idealistic youngsters who thought we were building Canadian theatre and, perhaps, we were."
The Davis brothers and their sister Barbara Chilcott went on to open The Crest Theatre in a renovated cinema on Mount Pleasant Road in Toronto in 1954. At The Crest she played Masha (with Kate Reid) in Chekhov's The Three Sisters, Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard and Lady Utterword in Heartbreak House, among other roles in that theatre's ambitious and groundbreaking history.
She worked in England in the very early 1950s but returned to Canada to work in television on the fledgling CBC network and at the equally neophyte Stratford Festival, appearing as Hermione in The Winter's Tale and Lady Percy in Henry IV, Part 1 in 1958. (She returned to the Festival in 1982 as a senior member of the Shakespeare 3 company and acted in All's Well That Ends Well and A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
The following year she performed on Broadway in Robertson Davies's Love and Libel, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, and toured in a principal role in Love and Libel in Detroit, Boston and New York.
In 1962, she went back to The Crest to play opposite a Newfoundland actor named Gordon Pinsent in The Madwoman of Chaillot. They married on Nov. 2 of that year, a creative and romantic partnership that lasted more than 44 years. After her wedding, Ms. King told The Toronto Star that she "was doing Orpheus Descending at the Crest and when it ended I said I didn't want to work for a long, long time. I was tired." Their daughter, actress Leah Pinsent, was born on Sept. 20, 1968. The family moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s where Mr. Pinsent (after the end of the television show Quentin Durgens, M.P., in which he had starred) was writing and finding backers for his film The Rowdyman.
"She was my best friend," Leah Pinsent said yesterday about her mother. "Other than when I had to go away, we talked every day. She was giving and kind and warm and funny and smart and a great cook."
After having retired for most of a decade to spend more time as a wife and mother, Ms. King ended her self-imposed retreat by appearing in the Ethel Barrymore role in The Royal Family, a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, at the Shaw Festival in 1972.
She performed steadily after that on television and radio (playing Aunt Josephine on CBC-TV's Anne of Green Gables and appearing on The Newsroom, Twitch City and Wind at My Back, and playing the voice of Mrs. Gruenwald in the CBC Radio series Rumours and Boarders). She appeared in film ( Who Has Seen the Wind? and Nobody Waved Goodbye) and on stage, notably as Jessica Logan, a temperamental actress trying to make a comeback, in the premiere production of David French's showbusiness comedy Jitters in Toronto and at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 1979, a role that she revived in Toronto in 1986.
In 1990, she again performed opposite Kate Reid in a Hart House revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. In 1998 she starred in the Tarragon Theatre production of Janet Munsil's Emphysema (A Love Story) in which she shared the stage with her daughter Leah, as they both played actress Louise Brooks at different ages. Although Ms. King had been a heavy smoker, she had successfully stopped for a decade until the director asked them to smoke "real" cigarettes on stage, according to her daughter. Alas, she was hooked again.
Ms. Pinsent said it was "fabulous" working with her mother because she was "always a very generous woman. There was no ego; she always wanted to serve the writer and the theatre in the best way she possibly could."
In the last several years Ms. King performed regularly at The Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, appearing in Present Laughter in 2001, as Maria in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and in Jean Genet's The Maids in 2002. "We called her at home and we got her," Mr. Schultz said about casting her for the first time. "She always brought such humanity and elegance and wit to everything she did. She was a pleasure to have around."
Asked a few years ago by an interviewer whether she could imagine retiring, Ms. King said absolutely not. "Being an actor is something like being at university. It opens your mind and your soul and makes you tap into yourself." Her last role was as Mrs. Soames in Thornton Wilder's Our Town at Soulpepper in 2006 and she was planning to reprise the role this spring.
"To the very end, Charm stood up for the creative arts in Canada," her family said in a statement this week. She was a steadfast believer in the creative spirit of this country, its culture . . . her cry was always . . . get on with it and be proud."
Charmion King was born in Toronto on July 25, 1925. She died in Toronto of complications from emphysema on Saturday. She was 81. She is survived by her husband Gordon Pinsent, her daughter Leah Pinsent and her son-in-law Peter Keleghan. There will be a private family cremation, followed by a memorial service at a later date.