Ralph Ellis was not only one of Canada's most successful producers of television drama and entertaining nature documentaries, but also a pioneer in independent television production in this country.
After getting his start with the National Film Board in Nova Scotia in 1946, Mr. Ellis, who died last month at the age of 91, went on to produce hundreds of hours of network programming, much of it before the inception of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (later named Telefilm Canada), which provided government support for filmmakers.
"He had qualities of honesty, perseverance, charm and realism," said Bill Roberts, former CEO of Vision TV and previously managing director of TVOntario.
"He was always an articulate and humorous ambassador for Canadians and the content Canadians created, which he believed was among the best in the world," Mr. Roberts added.
One of his longest-running and best-known series was Profiles of Nature. The documentary series consisted of more than 200 half-hour and one-hour episodes. It started airing in the mid-1980s and appeared on, among others, Global, TVOntario and Discovery Channel.
"With our enormous country of forest and fauna, [nature films] can be made as well here as anywhere else. They are a natural billboard, if you like, of this aspect of Canadian life," Mr. Ellis said in an interview with the Toronto Star in 1993
In the late 1960s, Mr. Ellis ventured into television drama. After raising funds privately, he produced with William Davidson the popular television series Adventures in Rainbow Country. The drama, which ran for 26 episodes in 1970 and 1971, followed a widow raising her children in rural Northern Ontario. Shot on location on Manitoulin Island, it was said to have earned the highest ratings for a Canadian drama series until Anne of Green Gables aired.
"He just enjoyed storytelling," his son, Stephen Ellis, said. "He always saw the humour in it."
Born in the village of Milton, N.S., in 1924, Ralph Colin Ellis was the second youngest of seven children of Ida and Frank Ellis, the local postmaster. Before his 18th birthday, he graduated from high school and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He went to wireless school in Montreal. He was then posted to the Eastern Air Command and earned the rank of leading aircraftsman.
After the Second World War, he taught veterans electronics at the Nova Scotia Technical College. In 1946, he joined the National Film Board as a field representative and travelled across Nova Scotia screening 16-millimetre films in schools and church basements and gauging audience reactions. When he arrived at a school with a film, he was greeted by enthusiastic children who cheered: "Here comes the picture man!"
After three years, he moved to Ottawa as a co-ordinator of theatrical distribution.
While working at the NFB in Ottawa, he met a young woman named Eleanor Stinson. The couple married in 1951 and later had two children. After postings to Toronto and Ottawa, Mr. Ellis went to New York for three years as the NFB's commercial representative in the United States. In New York, he developed relationships with U.S. television and film executives, some of whom encouraged him to leave the NFB in the mid-1950s. He took their advice and returned to Toronto, where he set up a distribution company, with TV programs from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
In 1964, he launched KEG Productions with Jerry Kedey and Dan Gibson, two well-known nature documentarians, and decided to focus almost exclusively on nature programming. KEG's first major production was Audubon Wildlife Theatre, a series of 78 half-hours that played on the CBC between 1968 and 1974. The first episode, called Land of the Loon, won a Canadian Film Award.
A bearded, good-humoured and down-to-earth man, Mr. Ellis wasn't the creative force behind the camera. He didn't spend hours in the wilderness observing wildlife; instead, his gift was building relationships and bringing a skilled team together.
"In production, I have no pretensions of being an expert in any given area," Mr. Ellis said in a 1993 Toronto Star interview. "I don't photograph, record, edit or write music, but the talent I have is that of a generalist.
"I know what I want in my films, and perhaps most importantly, I have an eye for putting together a team of the best-qualified people to do the job. Every production is a collaborative effort and any awards I receive are due to good teamwork."
Mr. Ellis also opened his own distribution company called Ralph C. Ellis Enterprises Ltd. One of his early distribution coups was representing Britain's Granada Television. Mr. Ellis brought the popular British soap opera Coronation Street to Canada, as well as the series Upstairs, Downstairs and Jewel in the Crown.
"Ralph was a good businessman, but what set him apart was his skill at relationships with his customers," said Trina McQueen, a Canadian broadcast journalist and news executive. "He genuinely liked his clients and enjoyed their company. His immense store of terrible jokes and puns was a trademark. … I sometimes think that he deliberately picked the most dreadful ones to tease us."
Over the years, Mr. Ellis's business truly became a family affair. At one point, his wife and two children all worked in the business. In the 1970s, Stephen Ellis remembers loading the family's station wagon with 16-mm films and driving them across the border to Buffalo to distribute them throughout the United States.
"He was just a pioneer in every sense of the word," Stephen said. "He was fiercely independent."
When the Outdoor Life Network launched in Canada in 1997, KEG was one of the founders. But after the network's inception and launch, the company stepped away in 1998. About four years later, when the elder Mr. Ellis was 78, he reluctantly retired. "He loved what he was doing," Stephen said.
In retirement, he didn't spend much time watching television. Little appealed to him and he didn't approve of the move toward more personality-driven nature programming. He preferred to watch the news.
For his work, which was seen by viewers in more than 100 countries, Mr. Ellis received dozens of awards. He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2007 and recognized for his lifetime of achievement by the Canadian Society of Cinematographers, Broadcast Executives Society, and the Children's Broadcast Institute.
"He was ultimately a proud Canadian," Stephen said.
Mr. Ellis, who died of pneumonia on April 24 in Oakville, Ont., leaves his wife, Eleanor; children, Stephen and Cathy; and grandchildren, Robyn, Adrian, Alexandra and Cayman.