For many of Rod Coneybeare’s fans, meeting him was like walking through a portal to childhood. Wilson Coneybeare, Rod’s youngest son, grew accustomed to seeing adults melt when they met his father.
“When people realized who he was, they would immediately change,” Wilson said. “Even their faces changed. They wanted to tell him how much The Friendly Giant meant to them as children. It was important for them to tell him."
Mr. Coneybeare’s career in radio and television spanned more than 50 years, beginning when he was 15. He was best known for voicing – and ad-libbing – the puppets Rusty and Jerome on CBC’s The Friendly Giant, which ran for more than 3,000 episodes over 26 years.
He died of pneumonia on Sept. 5 in Lindsay, Ont. He was 89.
In 1958, Rod was a CBC freelancer writing television dramas. He did well financially, reportedly better than many of his peers, but it was still a tumultuous industry. Jobs were here today and gone tomorrow. With his first wife, Beth, pregnant with their first child, Monroe, the couple realized they would need extra money.
That’s when he met Bob Homme, the friendly giant himself. Mr. Homme gave Rod a giraffe puppet and asked him if he could operate it.
“My dad looked at it and said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here; this is embarrassing. I don’t want to do this,’” Wilson said.
Still, he tried on the puppet. Rod looked at what we now know to be Jerome and decided the giraffe was meant to sound like a confident, mature, smart aleck.
Mr. Homme loved it. After that, Rod’s Jerome became a foil to Mr. Homme’s giant, named Friendly, who was a nice guy but a bit of a bore, and the other puppet, Rusty the rooster, a quiet lover of music and literature.
Mr. Homme, who designed the puppets, crafted their personalities to mirror the dynamic between an older and a younger preschooler. “Jerome is more worldly, more outgoing than Rusty, who is younger, more introverted, more interested in books,” he said.
“Few people know my dad wasn’t the original Rusty,” Wilson said. “Because there were three actors at the beginning, the show had to be scripted and it got pretty crowded back there behind the wall that Friendly stands at.”
Wilson says his father was asked one day to stay behind after filming had wrapped and try using both puppets at once.
“The guy who was playing Rusty went off home and everybody pretended to be packing up,” he said. “Once he was gone, they turned the lights back on and started up the cameras.”
For the next quarter of a century Rod and Mr. Homme were the only actors on The Friendly Giant. They stopped scripting the episodes altogether, only working off a single-page outline drawn up by Mr. Homme, and ad libbed the rest of their 15-minute segments.
Rod Coneybeare was born Mar. 31, 1930, on a farm in Belleville, Ont. He was an only child and lived with his mother, Jean Cross, a secretary for the CEO of a large insurance firm, and her sisters. Rod never knew his father, Roy, which Wilson suspects made Rod into the affectionate, attentive father he later became. Little is known of Roy, but Wilson believes he left Ms. Cross and Rod for economic reasons, sparked by the stock market crash. Roy and Ms. Cross were never married, but Rod was given his father’s surname at the insistence of his grandmother.
Amid financial hardships, Rod, his mother and his aunts moved in with his grandparents on Sherwood Avenue in Toronto. This is where Rod’s lifelong love of superheroes and radio plays started, as he lived through the Great Depression on a diet of comic books and radio shows broadcast from Buffalo, N.Y.
Much to his family’s chagrin, Rod knew he wanted to go into show business as a child. At age 10, he would imitate radio shows in his bedroom with the help of a cardboard microphone. He would get his cousin, Elizabeth McIntyre, to act out his scripts, which took on such classics as the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet.
Five years later, in 1945, Rod showed up to a CBC radio audition and left feeling like he had blown it. His family didn’t offer much comfort, instead appearing “astonished and sad” that Rod would do something so embarrassing.
A little while later, a CBC producer called him back and invited him to the station to get his union card. He was in. Rod would go on to cut his teeth on bit parts in radio plays and accrue writing credits until meeting Mr. Homme, Jerome and Rusty.
With only two cameras and two shots, Rod and Mr. Homme went on to make The Friendly Giant into an undeniable cultural touchstone. The life lessons they imparted became a part of Canada’s collective consciousness and their catchphrases, “an armchair for two to curl up in,” “a rocking chair for someone who likes to rock,” and “look up, wa-a-a-ay up,” hooked themselves into the national lexicon.
Rod spent his post-Friendly Giant career writing novels, drawing and painting, appearing on television and lending his voice to cartoon series such as X-Men: The Animated Series and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3.
In 1985, Rod also collaborated with Wilson, who now works as a filmmaker, writing an episode of the television show Check It Out, which earned the pair an ACTRA nomination. This is in addition to two Nellies (the precursor to ACTRAs) Rod had previously won for broadcast excellence.
Wilson says his father was preternaturally comfortable in front of a microphone. Rod would often demonstrate this by drinking coffee and smoking a cigar while recording, timing his sips and pulls expertly.
“I don’t think that most performers, no matter how relaxed they seem, are truly relaxed in front of the camera or microphone,” he said. “There’s still a sense of trepidation, a nervousness, no matter what. But I was amazed at how comfortable my dad was. He was like a terrific jazz musician who knows exactly how to work their instrument.”
“It was magical to watch,” he added.
In Rod’s final years, he moved from Toronto to Lindsay in search of a smaller community and a quieter life. He began working on a graphic novel, which was not finished at the time of his death. Rod died at Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, where he filled his last days with the essays of Gore Vidal, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and conversations with loved ones.
Even as he neared the end of his life, Mr. Coneybeare never stopped performing. He found himself surrounded by fans at Ross Memorial and had no problem entertaining them by putting on his Rusty and Jerome voices.
“Suddenly you would see a 50-year-old doctor turn into a 5-year-old boy,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen it happen in grocery stores, in line-ups to movies. I’ve seen it my whole life. The Friendly Giant dissolves the barrier between adulthood and childhood. It represents all the quiet, thoughtful and peaceful times.”
Rod leaves his wife, Moira; children, Monroe, Cameron, Susannah and Wilson; and seven grandchildren.