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Actor Tony Rosato, a veteran of sketch-comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live, helped pave the way for Italian-Canadian actors.Denise Grant/The Canadian Press

Sporting the round, innocent face of a Renaissance cherub and the slapstick sensibilities of the Three Stooges, a young Tony Rosato first tickled television viewers in the early 1980s with his recurring role as Marcello Sebastiani on SCTV. Marcello, an Italian chef overfond of his vino, hosted a chaotic cooking show in which he would end up struggling with his fresh ingredients – a live chicken, a barrel of lobsters – with the animals invariably getting the upper hand.

Mr. Rosato certainly had more inspired sketches on SCTV, such as the show's spoof of an all-star Death of a Salesman production, in which he did a dead-on impersonation of a joint-smoking John Belushi. Not to mention his routines as Chick Monk, the shaggy rock-concert roadie turned marriage counsellor turned defence lawyer, who spent more time adjusting mic levels than tending to his clients.

But when friends and colleagues reminisce about Mr. Rosato, who died Jan. 10 at 62 from a heart attack at his Toronto home, they inevitably mention his Marcello before anything else. That may be because the character, burlesque Italian accent and incompetent food prepping aside, reflected the sweet, lovable Tony they would like to remember.

It has become a cliché to seek the dark side in beloved clowns, but with Mr. Rosato that dark side became all too public in his later years and threatens to obscure his legacy as a comedian and actor. The darkness was due largely to mental illness and the publicity was prompted by his shocking two-year detention awaiting trial on harassment charges, which shone a harsh light both on the treatment of the mentally ill in the court system and on his own schizophrenic behaviour.

It was an unhappy fate for a man described by friends as gentle, humble and spiritual. For his acting peers, such as Da Vinci's Inquest star Nicholas Campbell, Mr. Rosato was an inspired improviser who could bring zing to the most hackneyed scripts, while for younger performers he was a generous mentor and role model. "He really was one of the Italian-Canadian pioneers in television," said stage and screen actor Tony Nappo. "He made it seem possible for a lot of us guys growing up."

"I found him to be like Phil Hartman, able to play anything," added long-time friend and fellow Second City alumnus Rick Wharton. Mr. Rosato's impersonations on SCTV and, later, Saturday Night Live, included not just Belushi, but Lou Costello (to Eugene Levy's Bud Abbott), singers Tony Orlando and Ella Fitzgerald, Yasser Arafat, Richard Nixon and Captain Kangaroo. Off-screen, he also did a hilariously accurate parody of his own mother, Maria. "She was one of his best characters," said another good friend, actor Jeffrey Knight, laughing at the memory.

The imitation was an affectionate one. Maria Rosato raised her son as a single mother and was devoted to him throughout her long life. "It was great to see them together," Mr. Knight said. "They had a very special relationship."

Born Antonio Rosato on Dec. 26, 1954, in Naples, Italy, Tony was the only child of Maria and Raphael Rosato. When he was four, the little family immigrated to Canada. Raphael Rosato suffered from epilepsy, however, and returned to Italy in 1961 for treatment, where he remained, dying a few years later. Tony and his mother lived in Halifax and Ottawa before moving to Toronto. Voice actor Adrian Truss, one of Mr. Rosato's close friends, said Ms. Rosato worked in a garment factory to support herself and her son. "She was this feisty little old Italian woman with a high-pitched voice," Mr. Truss said, describing her later in life, "very animated, but very sweet."

After high school, Mr. Rosato enrolled at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus and considered becoming a chiropractor, but a love of comedy led him to drop out and head downtown – to The Second City, where he found his true calling as an actor and improviser. Robin Duke was among the young comedians who shared the comedy club's stage with him. "The audience always loved Tony, they couldn't get enough of him – much to my dismay," she recalled jokingly.

One of Mr. Rosato's most popular sketches saw him playing an Italian papa giving advice to his bridegroom son – a scene that Ms. Duke said was originally eight minutes but more than doubled in length as Mr. Rosato and co-star Derek McGrath milked it for every laugh. "The audience just ate it up," she said.

Mr. Rosato and Ms. Duke were among the fresh faces recruited to join SCTV in 1980, after John Candy, Catherine O'Hara and Harold Ramis bowed out. The show's producer, Andrew Alexander, said he'd seen Mr. Rosato's appeal onstage. He had "charisma, a certain energy we were looking for," Mr. Alexander recalled. "There were obvious comparisons to Belushi."

Ms. Duke and Mr. Rosato appeared in the show's third season, shot in Edmonton, where they quickly made their mark. Ms. Duke's favourite bits with her colleague were the Chick Monk sketches. "Those were hysterical," she said. "I loved doing those. They were so easy to do, the laughs were just built in, you didn't have to work hard for them – Tony was doing all the work!"

Mr. Rosato wasn't long at SCTV before he was tapped to be part of a new cast at Saturday Night Live. Heading to New York and NBC, he made his debut in the spring of 1981. It was a tempestuous time at SNL, with the temporary departure of original producer Lorne Michaels resulting in a poorly received overhaul of the show. Mr. Rosato became a casualty of the upheaval and was turfed – along with fellow cast member Christine Ebersole and writer Michael O'Donoghue – at the end of the 1981-82 season.

After SNL came Amanda's, an ill-advised American remake of Fawlty Towers starring Bea Arthur, in which Mr. Rosato played the Manuel character. That Hollywood-shot sitcom was swiftly cancelled, but back in Toronto, Mr. Rosato landed a more successful gig on the CTV police drama Night Heat. He played the supporting role of street informant Arthur "Whitey" Morelli on the show, which aired from 1985 to 1989 both in Canada and the United States Night Heat's creator, Sonny Grosso, was so taken with Mr. Rosato that he cast him in a principal role in another 1980s series, Diamonds. The crime comedy starred Nicholas Campbell and Peggy Smithhart as two out-of-work actors who run a detective agency, with Mr. Rosato playing the cousin to Mr. Campbell's character, a colourful Italian cop.

Mr. Campbell remembered the series as a great lark. "The actual scripts left a lot to be desired and Tony wouldn't follow scripts anyway. So, we just ended up making up everything the whole three years [the show was on air] and when Sonny Grosso got mad, we'd just blame it on Tony," he said, laughing. "It was the most fun I think I've ever had on a show."

In the 1990s, Mr. Rosato moved back to Los Angeles to further his career. It was there that, friends say in retrospect, signs of mental instability began to appear. Although still a Roman Catholic, he became obsessed with New Age mysticism and when he eventually returned to Toronto, his personality had changed. Normally sweet-natured, he could now easily become edgy and irate, while a script he had written – and was trying to get to Steven Spielberg – contained, in Mr. Knight's words, "paranoid elements."

At the same time, Mr. Rosato had met Leah Murray, a woman 22 years his junior, whom he'd approached at a coffee shop on Toronto's Danforth Avenue. Four months later they married at City Hall, on New Year's Eve 2003. Ms. Murray says she was attracted to his humour and earnestness. "He told me he could 'communicate with angels,'" she recalled. "But because Tony was into New Age beliefs … I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Ms. Murray became pregnant and the couple moved into an apartment on Broadview Avenue. A daughter, Giulietta – named by Mr. Rosato after the impish Italian actress Giulietta Masina – was born Sept. 26, 2004. By then, however, Ms. Murray had witnessed some disturbing behaviour from Mr. Rosato that only grew worse after the baby was born. Fearing for the safety of their child, Ms. Murray fled with Giulietta back to her hometown of Kingston, Ont.

Mr. Rosato, meanwhile, had begun to manifest what was later diagnosed as Capgras syndrome, a delusion associated with paranoid schizophrenia in which the sufferer believes people close to him have been replaced with imposters. He was convinced his wife and daughter were doppelgangers meant to dupe him and that the real ones had been kidnapped. His repeated complaints to the police led to his being arrested for criminal harassment and sent to the Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, outside Kingston, to await trial.

Then began his legal nightmare. Every time Mr. Rosato appeared in court, he would immediately fire the lawyer provided for him, thinking he was an imposter, and be sent back to await another court date. He languished more than two years in Quinte. Friends and supporters finally rallied to his defence, including Mr. Alexander and SNL legend Dan Aykroyd. Top criminal lawyer Daniel Brodsky took on his case. Toronto Star reporter Dale Anne Freed wrote a string of articles spotlighting Mr. Rosato's plight.

Mr. Rosato was eventually tried in 2007, found guilty of harassment, but sent to a Kingston psychiatric facility. After being successfully treated, he was released in 2009. Since then he'd been slowly piecing his life back together, but it wasn't easy. The medication he was required to take had a dampening effect on his personality. "He was still active in the radio and television commercial field," said his long-time agent, Larry Goldhar, "but he wasn't doing on-camera roles any more. People wouldn't hire him because he didn't have the same sparkle in his eyes."

In 2010, Mr. Rosato and Ms. Murray were divorced and in 2012 she published a memoir of her life with him, Romancing the Buzzard. In 2014, Maria Rosato died. Lately, however, things had been looking up. Mr. Rosato moved into Toronto's Performing Arts Lodge, where he found support, he had a part-time job at a thrift store and was teaching classes at The Second City. He had also begun a serious relationship with singer Tanya Moore.

"Everything was starting to fall back into place for Tony," said Ms. Moore, who last spoke to him the night before his death.

Despite the adversity of his later years, Mr. Rosato is remembered as a man who remained full of love – a love always freely expressed. "If you bumped into him, he'd put you in a bear hug so tight," Mr. Knight said fondly. "He would just make your heart soar with how happy he was to see you."

That unabashed love was also his great asset as a comedian, Ms. Duke said. "There wasn't an ounce of edge to him. His comedy was fun and light, but with an element of truth to it – and so much warmth."

He leaves his daughter, Giulietta, and several relatives in the Toronto area.

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