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Stage star Don Harron famed for his quick wit, rustic alter ego

Comedian and actor Don Harron, seen here playing Charlie Farquharson, was irreverent and observant.

Was he a clown, or was he a philosopher?

The author, comedian and actor Don Harron, a thoughtful student under Northrop Frye who went on to fame as the wisecracking, pun-crazed character Charlie Farquharson, was posed that question by the journalist Peter Gzowski in a televised interview in 1977. To Mr. Harron it wasn't an either-or proposition. "You see, I happen to think that humour is very serious," he began his answer, not a hint of a smile on his face. "I happen to think it's like poetry."

When Mr. Gzowski suggested that his Hamlet-to-Hee Haw interviewee had always wanted to be an actor, Mr. Harron disagreed, explaining that his earliest dream was to be a cartoonist, but that he had ended up as a "caricaturist with my mouth."

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And what a mouth.

Mr. Harron died of cancer on Jan. 17. He was 90. His legacy involves numerous books, a four-year stint as the host of CBC Radio's Morningside, a complicated and event-filled marital history, a time as an afternoon talk-show host on CTV in the early 1980s and an instrumental role in bringing the Canadian classic novel Anne of Green Gables from the page to the stage.

He will probably be remembered mostly for entertaining generations of North Americans with his durable comic alter ego – a sweater-wearing and language-terrorizing hayseed from Parry Sound, Ont., who held court on stage in a one-man play, on radio for Toronto's CFRB and, from 1969 to 1992, on the American television series Hee Haw, a cornfield counterpart to Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. During this period, he also frequently collaborated with this third wife, actress and singer Catherine McKinnon, in theatre productions across Canada.

The roots of the Farquharson persona reach back to a production at Victoria College in the 1940s, when Mr. Harron adopted a yokel's accent – earning him the nickname, "The hick from Vic." He later brought back the accent for CBC radio's popular lunchtime variety show The Happy Gang, drawing on his farm-work experience in Ontario for rural inspiration and vernacular.

In 1950, Mr. Harron was hired by noted Canadian actress Jane Mallett to play a second-banana role for a pair of her shows in Montreal, where he was mostly her foil but was also allowed the spotlight for brief political monologues.

Those spots, Mr. Harron recalled in his 2011 memoir, fared poorly with the audience. Later Ms. Mallett offered her advice, explaining that Mr. Harron was too young to be taken seriously, and so he should hide his identity behind a mask – a masquerade of a much older person who had acquired the wisdom associated with maturity.

It was only in 1952 that his Charlie Farquharson character came fully into being, during the Toronto comedy revue Spring Thaw. That year, the character – garbed in a sweater "borrowed" from the CBC's Norman Campbell and a hat liberated from director Norman Jewison – was seen on the television variety show The Big Revue. As Mr. Harron has explained, "I finally had enough sense to hide my own political opinions under the peak cap of Charlie."

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The character grew to be a dominant part of Mr. Harron's own legend, to the extent that his autobiography is titled My Double Life: Sexty Yeers of Farquharson around with Don Harn. The book's cover art shows both Farquharson (in his iconic threadbare cardigan and equally scruffy face) and the straight man, Mr. Harron, who appears to be chagrined in the company of his popular persona.

The dichotomy nearly defines him, and while friends and family and colleagues and cohorts unanimously describe Mr. Harron as intellectual, proper, warm of heart and quick of wit, they will also tell you he was a hard man to know deeply – a trait not unusual for men of his generation.

"He was very private," recalls Gary Michael Dault, who was Mr. Harron's Morningside producer, "and inaccessible, personally." Martha Harron, who penned the 1988 biography Don Harron: A Parent Contradiction, describes her father as complex. "Anyone who claims to know him intimately is a liar."

The baby Don Harron was born in 1924 at the family home in Toronto. His parents were keen amateur performers, chiefly in productions associated with their church (Bathurst Street United), which was the centre of their social life.

His father was a cartoonist, gifted enough, according to his son, to be offered a job with King Features Syndicate in Chicago in 1929. But because his wife wished to stay put, the husband stayed in Toronto, working for the family's cleaning and dyeing shop.

These were the Depression years though – pressed trousers were an extravagance – and so the father earned more money on the side performing as a cartoonist, travelling a circuit and taking in a not insignificant $15 per gig. "For your next banquet or entertainment," a newspaper ad read in 1935, "lightning cartoons including caricatures of some of your own members."

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His young son Don soon took up the trade, eventually replacing his father. He was 10 years old; his father couldn't compete with the novelty of a youth doing the same chalk-talk act. The precocious boy's first show happened at the Round Room, next to Eaton Auditorium and above College Street. His gift for gab led to a part-time job reading scripts for what was then called the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission.

Mr. Harron's studies at the University of Toronto's Victoria College and involvement in theatre, radio and cabaret on campus and off were interrupted by the Second World War. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where his delicate stomach suffered during the looping, swooping training exercises. It was too late to be sent oversees, however, so his training amounted to daylight sweeps not over London and Paris, but the Ontario versions of those cities. When his unit was put on indefinite leave, Mr. Harron waited out the war taking a variety of odd jobs, such as dressing up as an Easter bunny or selling shoes in Eaton's Annex with Elwy Yost, who went on to a prominent career as a television host.

When the war was over, Mr. Harron completed his education and took on acting and writing in Toronto. In 1949, he married Gloria Fisher (the first of his four spouses). In 1950, the couple relocated to London, England, where Mr. Harron found work both on stage, including the West End, and with his typewriter.

One of his jobs was to rewrite radio-drama narrations, voiced by none other than the brash genius Orson Welles. In his memoir, Mr. Harron recalled their interaction:

"I used to bring Orson my efforts while he was lunching in true Rabelaisian style at a Piccadilly restaurant. Between bites he never asked for rewrites, but I'm sure the genius ad libbed my changes later to his satisfaction. As a conversation icebreaker, I told him about the time I had met him backstage at his Lear, and he roared with glee at the memory of that production. He was eating an enormous meal but he never invited me to partake in any of it."

After London, Mr. Harron returned to Canada, landing roles in the inaugural productions of the newly created Shakespearean festival in Stratford, Ont. He was cast as a minor henchman in Richard III, but in All's Well That Ends Well, he was cast as Bertram, opposite Alec Guinness.

Stratford in the 1950s was a breeding ground, with its boards tread by thespians the rank of Lorne Greene, William Shatner, William Hutt, Maggie Smith and Christopher Plummer, who bonded tightly with Mr. Harron.

"It was his humour," Mr. Plummer told The Globe and Mail this week. "It was extraordinarily pun-ish, and it drove us nuts. But he was very clever, very quick and had a natural wit. We used to love sending up the pomposity of people, including our own."

In 1956, Mr. Harron was recruited by CBC television producer Norman Campbell to fill a 90-minute spot with a musical. It was Mr. Harron's idea to create a song-filled version of Anne of Green Gables, the beloved book by Lucy Maud Montgomery that he had been reading to his children that summer in Stratford.

What drew Mr. Harron to the novel was that it had a wealth of humour. In an interview with The Globe and Mail in 2009, he noted that "99 per cent" of the laughs were from the book's author. "I knew enough not to interfere with a good script."

After its made-for-television debut, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical found an on-stage home at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island, where it has been produced annually since 1965.

Outside of Canada, Mr. Harron found work on Broadway. One night in 1956, during a run of the drama Separate Tables at the Music Box Theatre, the red-blooded actor stopped his dialogue in mid-sentence. He had spotted the unmistakable Marilyn Monroe in the fourth row.

On another night, he opened his dressing room door to find Katharine Hepburn. "Her face was blotched with freckles like a winter apple," Mr. Harron wrote in his memoir, "but all the bones were firmly in their right place." She was there to offer him a part he had already played: Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.

Mr. Harron's acting experience and handsomeness also won him television roles in Hollywood, though the experience there in the 1960s, according to his eldest daughter, was less than fulfilling. "He was just too smart to be chasing David Janssen around the desert," says Martha Harron, referring to the drama The Fugitive. "I'm sorry, but those kind of roles were beneath him."

Hollywood would be kinder to another of Mr. Harron's daughters, Mary, a filmmaker and screenwriter best known for her films I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page.

Back in Canada, Mr. Harron took on the job as the host of current affairs program Morningside on CBC radio from 1977 to 1982. "He took to it like a duck to water," Mr. Dault remembers. "He was engaging, he was interested in people and he was very rapid in everything he did – in his speech, in his thinking and his ability to do things such as fully reading the book of any author he interviewed."

Also on radio, for more than a decade, CFRB employed Mr. Harron (in the voice of Farquharson) to deliver a weekly pair of three-minute editorials. They were more topical than the Hee Haw spots on fictional KORN, which were pretaped in bulk in Nashville.

Looking past the cornpone and mangled jargon, the CFRB commentaries showed Mr. Harron as a compassionate observer. "He was a progressive soul and fierce critic of what he called the 'retrenching of the Neanderthals,'" says Bob Rae, a family friend and former New Democratic Party premier of Ontario. "He was deeply intellectual and very decent."

In the 1977 Gzowski interview, Mr. Harron spoke about the process of writing his CFRB editorials. He combed through newspapers for subject matter, and while he had to make the spots lighthearted, he was troubled by what he saw as the "disaster and absurdity" of the world.

In those commentaries, persona and person came together. "The rustic figure who spouts wisdom," Mr. Harron explained, "is as old as the fool in King Lear."

Don Harron leaves his partner, Claudette Gareau; three daughters, Martha, Mary and Kelley; and grandchildren.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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