Janet Wright, the Gemini and Genie Award-winning actress best known to Canadians for her long-running role as Emma Leroy on the hit sitcom Corner Gas, died Monday in Vancouver. She was 71.
Over a long career in film, television and theatre, Ms. Wright appeared on almost every major Canadian television program from The Beachcombers to Street Legal to Due South – but the Saskatoon-raised actress shot to greater prominence in 2004 when she started playing the mother of Brent Butt's character on Corner Gas, a television series set in fictional town of Dog River, Sask. The show ran for five seasons and spawned a feature film in 2014.
"Janet was like no other person I've ever met," Mr. Butt said in a statement. "She had a giant wit, a giant heart, and was one of the strongest human beings to ever stride around this planet."
The wise-cracking, crocheting Emma Leroy wasn't the only small-town Canadian character Mr. Wright received notice for playing. In 1992, Ms. Wright won a Genie Award for best actress for her leading role in Bordertown Café – Norma Bailey's film based on Kelly Rebar's play of the same name about a rural Alberta café on the border with the United States. And, in 2003, she won a Gemini for her supporting performance in the TV movie Betrayed – playing a small-town Prairie doctor trying to find the source of an E. coli outbreak.
Born in Farnborough, England, on March 8, 1945, Janet Wright immigrated to Canada with her family when she was just a year old, eventually settling in Saskatoon. She was the eldest of four siblings who all became actors.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Ms. Wright began working with Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre Company, where she ultimately appeared in or directed more than 40 productions over the years. In recent seasons, Ms. Wright staged a string of major contemporary American plays for the company, such as Katori Hall's The Mountaintop and Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced.
She also had an important impact on theatre in her hometown, co-founding Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre in 1974 with her then-husband Brian Richmond and sister Susan. The theatre company is now the largest in Saskatchewan.
In addition to her career in film and television, Ms. Wright was in demand as an actor and director at theatres across the country – and appeared on stages from Neptune Theatre in Halifax to Theatre Calgary. In the summer of 1991, she made her debut at the Stratford Festival – acting alongside her sisters Anne and Susan in director Marti Maraden's hit production of Michel Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs. The Globe and Mail's Ray Conlogue praised its fine ensemble work and declared it: "A superlative show."
Just months later, Ms Wright's sister Susan and was killed in a house fire in Stratford, along with her parents, John and Ruth Wright, who were visiting from Saskatoon for the holidays.
Ms. Wright returned to the Stratford Festival for six more seasons, the last one in 2011, playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
"Janet was an artist on an uncompromising search for the truth in all its unvarnished beauty," said Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who directed Ms. Wright in The Grapes of Wrath. "She was a profoundly talented actress, director and champion for the importance of the arts. I will never forget her passion and forever be inspired by her commitment to our work."
In 1995, Ms. Wright gave a performance, now legendary, as King Lear in Richard Rose's gender-bending production of Shakespeare's tragedy at Canadian Stage, in Toronto – becoming the first woman in Canada to take on the iconic role in a professional production.
"Wright captures brilliantly Lear's descent from unreasonable irascibility into outright madness, from poor judgment and abuse of power to poverty and powerlessness," wrote critic H.J. Kirchhoff, reviewing her performance in The Globe and Mail. "She looks the part, from regal to angry to confused, and gives exceptionally clear and emotive readings to the powerful text."
She was predeceased by her daughter Rachel Davis, who was fatally shot in Vancouver in 2004 after helping a stranger who was being beaten outside a bar. Ms. Wright is survived by her husband, Bruce Davis; daughter, Cyllene Richmond; son, Jacob Richmond; granddaughter, Renee Burford; grandson, Spencer Burford; sister, Anne Wright; and brother, John Wright.
With files from Canadian Press and and Globe staff