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Obituary

A TV star who often played the 'handsome good guy'

Donnelly Rhodes, 81, had roles in Battlestar Galactica and Soap, as well as Da Vinci's Inquest and Danger Bay

Canadian actor Donnelly Rhodes, who died recently, had substantial roles on Canadian television shows such as Danger Bay where he played a marine veterinarian.

The time: the early 1960s. The scene: the once-sleepy burg of Stratford, Ont., which thanks to its decade-old summertime Shakespeare festival, has been invaded by city theatre folk. A few of them, including ruggedly handsome student actor Donnelly Rhodes and his future wife, actress Martha Henry, are out for some late-night drinks.

As they prepare to enter a bar, a car full of five rowdy local kids – teenagers harbouring a resentment against these thespian interlopers – pulls up. They spot a dapper William Hutt, one of the festival's stars, and begin to taunt him. Mr. Rhodes steps up to the car to stop them and the driver guns the engine, taking off.

Minutes later the teens return on foot to have it out with Mr. Rhodes. As three of them come at him, he swings his fists. Within seconds, all three attackers are left sprawling on the sidewalk, while their two pals run off.

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"He just plowed right into them," Ms. Henry recalled, still marvelling at the memory. "He didn't hurt them all that much, but he knocked them down on the ground." It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. "It was quite glamorous," Ms. Henry added with a laugh. "Donnelly was like that; he was always the one to step in and come to someone's defence."

That incident could also sum up Mr. Rhodes's destiny as an actor. While Ms. Henry would eventually join Mr. Hutt as one of Stratford's great classical interpreters, Mr. Rhodes took a different path, down to Universal Studios in Los Angeles. There, as a contract player – often in westerns, including the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – he would begin to carve out a long career, primarily on TV.

Mr. Rhodes, who died on Jan. 8 of cancer at the age of 81 in Maple Ridge, B.C., became a familiar small-screen face on both sides of the border, often playing tough guys and father figures. In the U.S., he was known for his recurring comedy role as the clueless escaped convict Dutch Leitner in the soap-opera parody Soap. In Canada, he was also beloved as a star of the CBC series Danger Bay and Da Vinci's Inquest, and as the gruff, chain-smoking Doc Cottle in the sci-fi favourite Battlestar Galactica.

His peers, such as Da Vinci's Inquest star Nicholas Campbell, admired Mr. Rhodes as "a consummate pro," an actor with a deep reservoir of tender feeling beneath his craggy exterior. Younger colleagues found him a paternal figure, as willing to impart life lessons as he was to share acting technique.

"He took me under his wing completely," said Ocean Hellman, who played his daughter for six seasons on Danger Bay. "I feel so grateful to have had him in my life."

Donnelly Rhodes Henry was born on Dec. 4, 1936, in Winnipeg, to Ann Henry and Cecil Sexsmith. His father abandoned the family and his mother raised Donnelly, his sister Loa and kid brother Timothy on her own. Ann Henry was a journalist, author and playwright, and by all accounts a remarkable woman. At the Winnipeg Tribune, she became the first female reporter to cover the city's police court and the Manitoba legislature. Later in life, she enjoyed success with her play, Lulu Street, about the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

After leaving school, Mr. Rhodes trained as a warden for Parks Canada and served as a mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He made his acting debut at the Dominion Drama Festival. "I got involved because there were some very attractive girls in the play," he said in a 1983 interview with The Globe and Mail. He went on to apprentice at the newly founded Manitoba Theatre Centre under artistic director John Hirsch. It was Mr. Hirsch who recommended he audition for the National Theatre School in Montreal.

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Mr. Rhodes was part of the school's first acting class (1961-63) and quickly charmed his fellow classmates.

Donnelly Rhodes as he appeared in 1964.

"Donnelly was sexy, goofy, really talented and very smart," recalled director-actress Diana Leblanc, who was one of them. During their movement class, she said, he would regularly break up the students and teacher by doing a gorilla routine, swinging on the ballet barre. Ms. Henry was another classmate. During those heady days the two fell in love and were married in 1962 – a brief union that didn't survive his move to L.A.

Even before graduation, Mr. Rhodes had been flirting with Hollywood. Using the name Don Rhodes, he broke into American television playing small roles in the popular westerns Maverick and Bonanza. Throughout the 1960s he would be typecast in detective and action series, including Ironside, Mannix and Mission: Impossible.

His career highlight in that decade was a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He portrayed a menacing card player in the opening scene, who has his gun belt shot off by Robert Redford's Sundance.

Back in Canada, Mr. Rhodes landed the lead in another feature film – a beleaguered country singer in the 1973 low-budget drama The Hard Part Begins. He also co-starred with Jonathan Welsh in a short-lived CBC cop show, Sidestreet, in 1976-77. It was followed by his most famous American TV role, as the lovable dim-bulb Dutch on Soap.

Mr. Rhodes came to the part with daytime soap experience (a run on The Young and the Restless in 1974-75), but no comedy credentials. He later explained that he'd asked his agents to find him a funny role: "I was tired of fighting crime in the streets. I was tired of being the handsome good guy – it was too much work to keep looking handsome."

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Dutch first appeared in the second season in 1978, when he escaped from prison and ended up hiding out with the wealthy Tate family. He became a regular character, eventually marrying the Tates' daughter.

Mr. Rhodes's own daughter, Seana Henry, remembers attending the sitcom's Friday night tapings as a kid. "I loved that cast," she said of an ensemble that included such ace comedians as Richard Mulligan and the young Billy Crystal, "and I loved watching my dad work. He made it seem so effortless." The Soap gang were also like family. When a flood destroyed Mr. Rhodes's house in Topanga Canyon, they raised funds to help him rebuild. "The wardrobe department even gave us clothes," Ms. Henry said. "They were amazing people on that show."

Ms. Henry was the child of Mr. Rhodes's second brief marriage to Virginia Haxall Harrison. The couple divorced in 1970 when Ms. Henry was four and Mr. Rhodes went on to raise his daughter on his own. Having grown up without a father, he took that role more seriously than any other. "He was the best dad," Ms. Henry said. "He was a constant throughout my life."

Mr. Rhodes's romantic life was rockier. He would marry and divorce three more times before meeting his sixth and last wife, Sarah Wilson. They were together for 18 years and married in 2011.

After Soap was cancelled in 1981, Mr. Rhodes returned to Canada to star in a new CBC series, Danger Bay. Shot in Vancouver, it had him portraying Dr. Grant (Doc) Roberts, a marine veterinarian with two children. According to the show's co-creator, producer Paul Saltzman, the CBC wanted a Canadian star while its partner, the Disney Channel, demanded an actor who was familiar to U.S. audiences – making Mr. Rhodes the perfect fit.

For his part, Mr. Rhodes loved the show's messages of ecological responsibility and family values, as well as its anti-violence stance. "He was delighted by the fact that when Doc Roberts disarmed a bad guy, he would never point the gun back at them," Mr. Saltzman said.

With his child co-stars, Ocean Hellman and Christopher Crabb, Mr. Rhodes's parental instincts kicked in. He took charge of Ms. Hellman, who was 12 when the series began shooting in 1983, and Mr. Crabb, who was 14, teaching and guiding them, and treating them like his own kids. "He mentored and shaped us, and loved us so much," Ms. Hellman said. "It was kind of magic."

Mr. Rhodes remained in Vancouver after Danger Bay, working on many locally-shot 1990s series, such as The X-Files and The Outer Limits. He clinched another major role when writer-producer Chris Haddock cast him as veteran homicide detective Leo Shannon in the grittily authentic coroner-and-cops series Da Vinci's Inquest. During its seven seasons, from 1998 to 2005, the role of Shannon evolved from that of a grizzled wise guy to an empathetic figure dealing with his wife's dementia. It won Mr. Rhodes a 2002 best-actor Gemini Award.

Art Foster (played by Donnelly Rhodes, right,) with daughters Allison and Kate (Liz Sagal, left and Jean Sagal, centre,) and fiancee Beth (Patricia Richardson) in the 1984 NBC-TV comedy series Double Trouble.

Mr. Campbell called Mr. Rhodes's presence "a huge enhancement" to the show – even if he could be curmudgeonly on the set. Off set was a different story. In the summers, Mr. Campbell and his three boys would get together with Mr. Rhodes and his son, Westerley. "That's when I saw a whole different side to Donnelly," he said. "I was just floored when I watched him around his son."

After the series ended, Mr. Rhodes received the Geminis' life-achievement Earle Grey Award. But he wasn't ready to retire and had already embarked on Battlestar Galactica. He appeared on the Vancouver-shot U.S. series for all four seasons as Dr. Sherman Cottle, the spaceship's crusty chief medical officer., ministering to the ill and injured with a cigarette perpetually drooping from his lip.

The part tapped into some of Mr. Rhodes's own personality, said Aaron Douglas, who played officer Galen Tyrol. "He had such a dry wit; he could deliver a one-liner like nobody's business." And while Mr. Rhodes smoked herbal cigarettes during scenes to protect his co-workers' health, as soon as a take was over he'd be out the door to fire up a real one. "Wind, rain, snow, it didn't matter – that guy could light a cigarette on the deck of a ship in a gale," Mr. Douglas said, laughing.

After Battlestar Galactica, Mr. Rhodes continued to appear in TV and film roles, from the sci-fi blockbuster TRON: Legacy in 2010 to Mr. Haddock's 2015-16 spy series The Romeo Section. By then, he was in remission after a bout with throat cancer. The cancer returned the following year and spread. He died at a hospice in Maple Ridge, surrounded by family.

A recipient of the 2008 UBCP/ACTRA Sam Payne Lifetime Achievement Award, Mr. Rhodes was also honoured by the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2006 with a star on the Granville Street Star Walk in Vancouver.

Mr. Rhodes leaves his wife, Sarah Henry; daughter, Seana Henry; son, Westerley Henry; and grandson, Talos Rhodes Henry; as well as his sister, Loa Henry; brother, Timothy Henry; stepsons, Brad LeBlanc and Chris Nickull; and stepdaughter, Amahra LeBlanc.

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