When someone asked Don Francks what he did for a living, he replied, “Well, first of all I try to be a good human being.” Then he listed various jobs, including carpenter, sign painter, foundry worker, merchant sailor and motorcycle rider. Most people knew him, though, as a popular jazz singer and award-winning actor.
From the time he entered show business, Mr. Francks, who died last week at his Toronto home, rarely had to wait for acting jobs. He worked as much or as little as he chose, once turning down an opportunity to work with Katharine Hepburn.
Francis Ford Coppola directed Mr. Francks in Finian’s Rainbow (1968), in which he played the romantic lead opposite singer Petula Clark. Their co-star was Fred Astaire, in the 69-year-old’s final onscreen dancing role in a musical. Mr. Francks later acted in the Robert Altman classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller, starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
On the small screen, he played close to 200 TV roles in shows as diverse as Mannix, Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood and La Femme Nikita, winning two ACTRA awards.
It wasn’t always the actor’s handsome, craggy face that was in demand; his versatile voice, with its uncanny ability to impersonate people, is heard on hundreds of commercials and in animated TV shows such as Inspector Gadget, My Dad the Rock Star and Beetlejuice.
On Broadway, Mr. Francks appeared in 280 performances, plus previews, of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. He also played the title role of Kelly, a short-lived production about a man planning to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The show had the dubious distinction of being a colossal flop. It closed after opening night. Mr. Francks attributed the failure to meddling by producers. He subsequently had a few words for them: “It’s alright for you to put in your thousands of dollars, but don’t try to put in your two cents worth.” Despite the show’s flop, Mr. Francks received good reviews.
But acting was just one facet of Mr. Francks’s stellar career. A fine jazz musician, he played the Village Vanguard in New York, singing alongside guitar virtuoso Lenny Breau. The pair began making music together in 1962 at the Purple Onion in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood.
“No one in this world is like Don Francks,” said U.S. comedian Jackie Gleason after Mr. Francks performed on his variety show. Mr. Francks liked the comment so much that he made it the title of one of his five CDs. The last, recorded live at Toronto’s Top O’ The Senator jazz club in 2002 was titled 21st Century Francks.
Switching with ease between acting and music, Mr. Francks divided his time between New York, Hollywood and various locations in Canada before finally settling in Toronto. During the early 1980s, he was a regular fixture at George’s Spaghetti House, in Toronto, where he sang with his five-piece band, and played bamboo flutes he’d made himself.
Whether the stage was big or small, Mr. Francks was supremely at ease with an audience, and never at a loss for a story or three. In 1988, he starred in a concert at Roy Thomson Hall, singing with the Jimmy Dale Big Band.
“Don couldn’t read music but he had an impeccable ear and perfect pitch. It wasn’t easy getting his musical ideas down on paper but it was always worth it,” said Steve Hunter, Mr. Francks’s musical director and friend of 36 years.
Inventive, and with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, Mr. Francks had a gift for performing “mash-ups,” the mixing of one song with another years before the term was coined by hip-hop artists. Mr. Francks wove together My Favourite Things with These Foolish Things to create My Foolish Things, a song reminiscent of both originals.
A non-conformist and a free spirit, Mr. Francks grabbed life with the fist of a warrior. He wrote poetry, championed the environment and became a Harley Davidson motorcycle enthusiast who collected antique cars, mostly Model-T Ford racing cars. In a Toronto Star article from 1997 he’s quoted as saying: “I’ve owned nearly 60 cars in my lifetime but the Model-T is especially dear to my heart.”
At one point, he owned seven models dating back as far as 1913. He customized them himself, once building a spacer – a device to increase the power of car’s carburetor – from scratch.
Not only was he adept at mechanics, Mr. Francks worked with his hands in other ways as well; he learned how to build a teepee, then later built a log cabin for his family. He was self-sufficient and spiritual, qualities that set him apart from the show-biz crowd.
When the “love and peace” ethos of the 1960s emerged, Mr. Francks embraced it. Thereafter, he never changed his hippie look.
In his personal life, when singing, and in talk show appearances, he was always the long-haired guy with the headband and hoop earrings.
From the 1960s, he wrote in his journals each day, using his own personal style of calligraphy to record poetry, prose or whatever struck his fancy.
“You never knew what he was going to do next,” Mr. Hunter said. “I remember phoning one day and asking what he was doing. He told me he was making up a new language. He was endlessly creative.”
Mr. Francks was also a bit of a prankster, getting a kick out of doing the unexpected. Once, during an outdoor concert at Toronto’s TD Centre, he sang Smokin’ Reefers. He introduced the song by saying the word “Marijuana,” allowing the provocative syllables to reverberate among his audience of Bay Street workers eating lunch.
A smoker of weed in his younger years, he was a fan of the plant. He gave up drinking when he was 21, using the First Nations term “firewater” when referring to alcohol.
Donald Harvey Francks was adopted shortly after his birth on Feb. 28, 1932.
He grew up as an only child in Burnaby, B.C., with a mother who divorced then remarried an electrician. She worked in a music store, where she played sheet music on a piano so customers could determine whether they wanted to buy the music.
Her son’s singing and acting talents emerged in elementary school, where he participated in school plays. By age 10 he was performing regularly on a Vancouver radio show, imitating singers and using the moniker Don Francks Sinatra.
The boy never received formal training, although he once attributed his voice to free elocution lessons he received from a teacher.
High school never appealed to Mr. Francks, who dropped out at 15. After a peripatetic period doing a variety of jobs, Mr. Francks got his first big break on the CBC during the mid-1950s as a regular guest on a variety show called Burns Chuckwagon from the Stampede Corral.
He quickly moved into drama, which led him to the big screen. On the set of Finian’s Rainbow, Mr. Francks noticed a young African-American dancer from San Francisco named Lili Clark and knew she was the one. His first marriage, in 1962 to Nancy Sue Johnson, a clerical worker, had ended in divorce after five years. They had two children, a son, Trane and a daughter, Tyler.
By the late 1960s, angered by the Vietnam war, Mr. Francks persuaded Lili to accompany him to the Red Pheasant native reserve in Saskatchewan. The two were married on May 4, 1968, in a field by a travelling preacher. They spent their honeymoon night participating in a peyote ceremony, praying with Cree elders.
Mr. Franks left the next day to appear on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, one of his seven appearances with the iconic host. He and his wife, Lili, subsequently had two children: Their daughter, Cree Summer, was born in 1969 and son, Rainbow Sun, was born 10 years later.
After returning home from his appearance on The Tonight Show, Mr. Francks received a call from Alan Jay Lerner asking him to return to New York at the behest of Katharine Hepburn. She wanted him to appear in her first musical production, Coco, on Broadway.
“Tell Kate I’m not coming.”
“I’m not gonna tell Kate,” Mr. Lerner sputtered. “She’s going to be very unhappy. She loves you.” Despite the compliment, Mr. Francks remained unmoved. He’d temporarily had enough of U.S. politics.
During the 1970s, while Mr. Franks lived on the reserve, the Cree chief King Bird Baptiste dubbed him Iron Buffalo. The name means someone who is strong, who knows where to go, and who provides well for his family. It was a name Mr. Francks felt he had to live up to. “I have to be careful … [or] I know I’m going to be called Ironic Basket Case,” the 82-year-old said during a television interview.
Mr. Francks’s experiences living with First Nations people deepened his connection to the land and intensified his interest in environmental conservation. Consequently, he joined Greenpeace in 1979 and boarded its ship Rainbow Warrior to take part in efforts to save whales. As he became more aware of the world’s environmental degradation he became outspoken. “His vocation became to proclaim the oneness of creation as a fellow earthling, and his pulpit was the performing arts,” Mr. Hunter said.
In an interview Mr. Francks gave to the Catholic New Times he explained, “I think we understand that water is a gift, and if we don’t have it we are going to die. So no matter what flag you wave, what book you have or what prayers you say, if you don’t have a glass of water, that other stuff don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Mr. Francks continued acting until the last year of his life. His final role was in the film The Second Time Around, which will be released this summer.
He died of cancer on April 3 at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife, Lili; sons, Trane and Rainbow Sun; daughters, Tyler and Cree Summer; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
An earlier version of this obituary said incorrectly that his final acting project was the 2014 Netflix series Hemlock Grove. In fact, his last role was in the film The Second Time Around, as indicated in this corrected version.
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