Skip to main content

Actor David Gardner, pictured here on May 10, 1977, performed at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival, and in London, but he did the majority of his work at home in Canada.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

David Gardner, actor, director, educator and historian shone in his role as a champion of Canadian film and theatre. His performing credits, as well as his work behind the scenes, earned him a place in the Canadian Encyclopedia of Theatre and the Canadian Who’s Who.

He performed at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival, and in London, but he did the majority of his work at home in Canada. Mr. Gardner directed and produced more than 70 dramas for CBC Television, including the network’s first feature, The Paper People, written by Timothy Findley. It won a Wilderness Award for direction in 1969. Other awards followed, including an ACTRA (1978) for Bethune, in which he played opposite Donald Sutherland, and a Gemini (1997) for his leading role in Traders, a TV series based around a Toronto investment firm. His daughter, Jennifer Gardner, however, says her father’s proudest achievement was developing a blueprint for the establishment of the National Theatre School of Canada (NTSC). The school opened in 1960, in Montreal.

In the decade following the creation of the NTSC, Mr. Gardner immersed himself in his chosen field, demonstrating that he was willing to take risks. In the early 1960s, he directed a daring Inuit interpretation of King Lear starring William Hutt for Canadian Players, a touring company formed in Stratford, Ont. His influence extended further in 1971 when, as theatre officer for the Canada Council, he convened a Canadian conference on play writing to facilitate the telling of Canadian stories in Ottawa. He arranged for various regional theatre companies to produce at least one Canadian play each season. His other noteworthy achievement in that position was lobbying successfully for more than 20 new theatres across the country to be subsidized.

“He expanded theatre for every one of us and provided work for so many people,” said Gail Carr, a casting director who was also a family friend. Mr. Gardner was also generous when it came to extending a hand to young talent.

Actor Gordon Pinsent says Mr. Gardner played a seminal role in launching his own long career. In his capacity as producer, Mr. Gardner spent an afternoon auditioning the then-unknown actor from Newfoundland before assigning him the title role of Quentin Durgens, M.P., a popular CBC Television series focused on the life of a member of Parliament.

“David was a very special kind of individual and a pleasure to work with,” Mr. Pinsent told The Globe in a telephone interview. “Bright blue eyes, wonderful energy. He knew how to bring out the best in actors because he’d been one himself.”

Mr. Gardner died of Alzheimer’s disease at Toronto General Hospital on Feb. 8 at the age of 91.

Drifting away from acting and producing in late mid-life, having earned a PhD from the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto, Mr. Gardner was drawn to the world of teaching. He wrote extensively about the history of Canadian theatre for various publications, mentored and motivated students at the University of Toronto and York University, and for 20 years ran an annual course at George Brown College called Acting for the Camera.

Canadian to the core, Mr. Gardner strove to imbue young talent with his own enthusiasm for his country’s stage and screen productions

In unpublished memoirs titled The Theatrical Adventures of a Shy Extrovert, Mr. Gardner recalled seeing his first movie, a Western, around age four. “I ducked behind the seats and returned the gunfire, startling my parents. But the fascination had begun.”

David Emmett Gardner was born on May 4, 1928, in Toronto, the eldest of two boys born to David and Madeleine Gardner. His father painted houses for a living while dabbling in landscape painting. He passed the hobby on to young David who continued it into late adulthood.

From the ages of 11 to 14, David was a basement impresario mounting puppet and marionette shows in his parents’ house. He called it Snow-Bell Theatre and charged 2 cents for admission so that he and his brother could afford to go to the Saturday afternoon matinee at the local cinema.

While attending high school at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto (1942-46) he made his professional debut on CBC radio in the fairy-tale series Once Upon a Time.

During his first stint at the University of Toronto, he earned a BA in Art and Archaeology then later, in 1974, he received his MA in drama. He became a constant presence at the university’s Hart House Theatre, starring as Macbeth, Othello and Mark Antony. Fearing the loss of his obvious talent, Hart House Theatre director Robert Gill told Mr. Gardner, “Don’t go to the States. Become a professional here.” The young man heeded this advice. He played in summer stock, making his first film for the National Film Board in 1949. CBC Television launched in 1952, providing another outlet and the daring thrill of going on-air live, where one costume would be worn underneath another to facilitate quick changes and where mishaps could, and did, occur. “He got a kick out of ad-libbing,” Ms. Gardner said. “He was good at it.”

He also acted for three seasons at the Stratford Festival.

From 1969 to 71, Mr. Gardner served as artistic director for the Vancouver Playhouse, resigning in protest when the theatre board refused to allow a production that focused on the politically sensitive October Crisis of 1970 in Quebec. He was a firm believer in freedom of speech.

During many assignments at the CBC, Mr. Gardner got to know, and eventually marry, Dorothy Rosemary Wood, a petite CBC employee who would become head of casting. Jennifer was their only child.

A quiet couple who adored movies, the Gardners could easily see 55 movies together in 10 days during Toronto’s International Film Festival.

Mr. Gardner adored his wife and her vegetarian cooking. He showered her dishes with praise. Away from her in a restaurant, though, his first choice was usually a large burger.

Even as he switched into academia, Mr. Gardner received many offers of work. He found it difficult to say no. The only way he could complete his PhD thesis on the history of Canadian theatre was to remove himself and his family from the country. They spent six months incommunicado in Barbados so he could concentrate on finishing his degree.

Academics aside, Mr. Gardner’s participation in more than 800 roles on stage, radio, film and television in Canada would seem to ensure widespread household recognition. Instead, he flew quietly beneath fame’s radar. While public recognition was never the motivating factor behind Mr. Gardner’s achievements, his daughter felt strongly that he deserved an Order of Canada. Unbeknownst to him, she nominated him for the award in 2014.

“When I heard the news he didn’t get it I thought this is madness,” Mr. Pinsent said. “It bothered me quite a bit. David was one of the forerunners who got CBC drama and Canadian theatre off the ground.”

Robert Sherrin, lifetime friend and producer of Bethune said, “David was not someone to seek the limelight. I don’t think he cared about awards. But he was extremely generous with his time and knowledge. He was all about doing the work.”

David Gardner leaves his daughter, Jennifer. He was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy, in 2011.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Hart House Theatre director Robert Gill.