Spymaster, gangster's wife, bereaved mother, politician – those were just some of the many roles played by Alberta Watson during her 40-year career in film and television.
Ms. Watson, who died on March 21 in Toronto at the age of 60 after a lengthy battle with cancer, made her mark in film but was perhaps best known in recent years for her television work. Her high-profile roles included the murderous Madeline in the series La Femme Nikita (1997-2001); counter-terrorism agent Erin Driscoll in 24, co-starring with Kiefer Sutherland (2004-2005); and Senator Madeline Pierce in Nikita (2011-2012).
"She was a big star – as much as we have in this country," said Celia Chassels, who once worked as Ms. Watson's agent. "She was incredibly elegant. Alberta could look great in a winter coat and a tuque."
In 1997, Ms. Watson starred in the Academy Award-nominated film The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan. She played Risa, a woman in British Columbia who has lost a child in a bus accident.
"Alberta was fun, fearless and ferociously talented. It was fantastic to work with her on The Sweet Hereafter, where her brilliant contribution helped us win for Best Ensemble Cast from the National Board of Review that year," Mr. Egoyan said. "She was there to help celebrate in New York, and we stayed in touch over the years. She'll be sorely missed."
She also appeared in Sarah Polley's 2006 critically acclaimed film Away From Her, which starred Julie Christie and Gorden Pinsent. In 2011, Ms. Watson won a Gemini Award for a guest role on the CBC television series Heartland.
One of her best-known roles was in David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey, a low-budget independent that became a surprise success, winning the audience award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. Because of its controversial theme of mother-son intimacy, several well-known actresses, including Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, had turned down the role of the mother.
"I took it because it was a heck of a challenge. And I'm not a name with an image to protect. The subject was incest. It didn't scare me at all. I seized the character and made her something," Ms. Watson later recalled.
She played that character at 38, and, unlike many actresses, kept landing good roles as she aged.
"It's very different approaching work as a mature actress. There are fewer parts and the ones that are there, well, the producers still want you to look decades younger," Ms. Watson explained to an interviewer in 2010. "The pressure on actresses to go to drastic ends to achieve a look of frozen youth has had some scary effects that I think we've all seen. All I can do is keep showing up and doing my best."
Faith Susan Alberta Watson was born in Toronto on March 6, 1955. Although she kept her personal life private, her official biography notes that her mother, Grace, was a factory worker.
She began acting at 15 with an amateur theatre group at Bathurst Street United Church and got her first professional role at 19 in a CBC production, Honor Thy Father. A few years later she played Mitzi in George Kaczender's 1978 film In Praise of Older Women, a performance that garnered her a Genie nomination.
Like many successful Canadian actors, Ms. Watson spent many years in the United States; she moved to Los Angeles in 1979, shifting to New York a few years later and then settling across the river in New Jersey for eight years. Her acting work there included episodes on the TV drama Law and Order.
When she returned to Canada, she decided to concentrate on work in independent films. She found it in spades, but she was such a professional that television came calling and she landed major roles.
She appeared in Colleen Murphy's 1996 film Shoemaker, for which Ms. Watson also received a Genie nomination. That year, she also portrayed Victoria Gotti, the wife of John Gotti, the so-called Teflon Don, in a made-for-TV movie, Gotti.
Never short of work, her list of film and television credits runs to nearly 100 different roles. Directors loved working with her.
Thom Fitzgerald, a Halifax-based director, worked with Ms. Watson in his 2002 movie The Wild Dogs, in which she played a lead role as a diplomat's wife. Mr. Fitzgerald was only five years into his career when the movie was filmed, in Bucharest, Romania, and recalled that Ms. Watson was very easy to work with, which sometimes isn't the case with an experienced actor.
"She had been everywhere and done everything. She was a very confident performer," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "She was very warm and made people feel comfortable."
Ms. Watson was intensely private and even those she worked with knew little of her life away from the camera. Her current agent, Pam Winter, noted that she had a devoted following of fans: "Alberta used to say her fan page knew things that surprised her."
Ms. Watson was first diagnosed with cancer in 1998, during the second season of La Femme Nikita. She kept working during treatment, wearing wigs when she lost her hair during chemotherapy.
She leaves her husband, Ken Sedgwick, who was at her side when she passed away in a Toronto hospice.
A modest person, Ms. Watson was unaffected by fame. "I have mixed feelings about a star system in Canada. I don't think I'd ever want to be a star," she said in 2006. "I like being a working actor. I live a nice life, I don't live in a huge house but my life is comfortable. I don't need to have a lot. What I would like to see in place of a star system is simply more production. I just want to see actors getting more opportunities."
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