He had the piercing look, chiseled features and authoritative delivery to tell you what was up. Even his name conveyed strength.
Roy Bonisteel was Canada’s no-nonsense humanities teacher. And each week, Canadians sat up straight to listen and learn.
As host of CBC Television’s groundbreaking program Man Alive from 1967 to 1989, Mr. Bonisteel established himself as a serious yet sensitive and engaged personality who explored issues of faith, values and spirituality – topics that today might be considered either too ticklish or too highbrow.
As his 1994 Order of Canada citation summed it up: He came to symbolize “integrity and decency to Canadians because of his personal unrelenting commitment to justice and humankind.” For 22 years, in excess of one million Canadians tuned in each week to hear that rich baritone interview such religious figures as the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, the Aga Khan and Desmond Tutu.
The show’s approach was decidedly non-denominational, and it tackled a diverse range of subjects: nuclear war, Holocaust survivors, sexual abuse, Third World development, family relationships and people with disabilities.
It was prime-time programming “kind of unthinkable in today’s environment of Honey Boo Boo,” said Louise Lore, a producer and later executive producer of Man Alive. “We interviewed [Catholic dissident theologian] Hans Kung. We did a whole program on the Vatican Bank scandal. We did complicated stories.” And Mr. Bonisteel “took people through those stories in a very direct way.”
Mr. Bonisteel died of cancer at home in Quinte West, Ont., on Aug. 16 at the age of 83.
Man Alive was not a “religious” program in the traditional sense. “The show rarely, if ever, looked at a religious institution. We weren’t promoting religion in that sense,” Ms. Lore said. “We always referred to it as being about the human condition, ethical issues and values.”
Often in the TV business, she said, there is a disconnect between the way people appear on screen and how they are in person. “That wasn’t the case with Roy. He was a genuinely warm, unpretentious, caring, good-natured person. When we went on location, the first thing he would do is head for the bar.”
This was not to drink but “to chat with people. He would chat with everybody. He was just one of those people who liked people. He cared about people. I think that genuine interest in others was very apparent in his on-camera personality.”
Roy Earnest Bonisteel was born May 29, 1930 in Ameliasburgh in Prince Edward County, Ont., the youngest of 10 children of Benson and Florence (née Hunt).
Growing up, Roy was close to his Great Aunt Et, who lived with the clan and mistook the lad for her own son, Raymond, who had died after the First World War. Roy learned to tolerate, even indulge, her calling him Raymond. The two looked after each other. One day, Aunt Et laid down for a nap, folded her hands on her chest and never woke up.
An excerpt from Mr. Bonisteel’s bestselling 1991 autobiography, There Was a Time, conveyed life’s harshness but rewards growing up in a large farming family: “One year we couldn’t leave the farm for nearly a month. The old horse-drawn wooden snowplow made several attempts to get down our road without success. Food was not a problem since we had our own canned goods and staples. It was a winter I remember well, since during that month, we had to thaw tubs of snow and ice to wash clothes and take baths.
“My brother carved a huge propeller out of a cedar rail to make a wind-charger so we could recharge the wet-cell battery that ran our radio and I, starved for anything on a printed page, read the Holy Bible from cover to cover.”
While the family embraced Christian values, religion “was never a central part of our life.”
He was a teenager when he began his career as a print journalist for newspapers in Belleville and Trenton, Ont., before becoming a radio announcer at CJBQ in Belleville and CKTB in St. Catharines, Ont.
Then he moved to Vancouver as director of broadcasting for the United Church of Canada, and was later made head of radio operations for the Anglican, Roman Catholic and United churches. It was the first ecumenical appointment of its kind.
Man Alive took its name from St. Irenaeus, a second-century bishop of Lyon, who wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” The quote, and the show itself, said Mr. Bonisteel’s daughter, Mandy, “was in keeping with what my Dad believed, and that was living our life to the fullest and being curious about others and learning about how other people have really contributed to humanity, and finding a way to be like them.”
Ms. Lore recalled a scoop in the early 1970s when the show scored interviews with the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Catholic priests imprisoned for their Vietnam War-era acts of civil disobedience. Man Alive discovered the brothers were granted weekend passes to visit their dying mother, and a crew travelled to upstate New York for the exclusive.
As for the Dalai Lama, Mr. Bonisteel began their talk with, “I’ve never interviewed a living god before.” The Tibetan spiritual leader laughed, “and that broke the ice,” Ms. Lore said.
Mr. Bonisteel was replaced by a series of hosts: Peter Downie, Arthur Kent and R. H. Thomson. The show’s final broadcast was in 2000.
He spoke of his philosophy in a 1979 speech he gave at the 80th-anniversary celebration of Grace United Church in Weyburn, Sask. “We are moulded into a materialistic world where we do a lot of eating, drinking and making merry until we ask the basic question of ‘Who am I? Where am I going? What is our purpose in life?’”
He believed the coming decade would offer individuals the realization of their true selves through their relationships and responsibilities to others. Little did he and countless others realize that the 1980s would be a time of rampant consumerism and self-indulgence.
Mr. Bonisteel won several broadcasting honours, including two ACTRA Awards: the Gordon Sinclair award for excellence in broadcast journalism and the award for best television host in Canada. Later in his career, he served for two years as director of journalism and communication at the University of Regina. For seven years, he was a citizenship judge.
He leaves his daughters Mandy and Lesley, son Steve, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Bonisteel requested that he have no funeral but a celebration of his life, which is being planned at the Old Church Theatre in Johnstown, Ont., near his home. In 1994, he renovated and restored the historic building, which opened as a Methodist church in 1876 and was slated for demolition. His daughter, Lesley, and her husband currently operate a community centre there.
An interviewer once asked Mr. Bonisteel what he wanted engraved on his tombstone. Without pause, he replied, “Man dead.”
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