Canadian actor and singer Brent Carver inhabited many roles with a masterful presence that could, at times, appear otherworldly. Between 1980 and 2017, he appeared in 20 productions at Ontario’s prestigious Stratford Festival, where he interpreted iconic characters like Hamlet and made them his own. Both at home and internationally he consistently wowed audiences and critics.
In 1979 he played Ariel to Anthony Hopkins’s Prospero, directed by John Hirsch in Los Angeles. It was noteworthy but it didn’t shoot Mr. Carver’s star into the U.S. stratosphere. That would happen more than a decade later when his portrayal of Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman made him the toast of Broadway. In the musical, Molina, a gay Argentine window-dresser, eases the pain of his mostly heterosexual Marxist cellmate by re-enacting scenes from favourite movies. Mr. Carver sings at the beginning of the show, followed by a scene in which he emotes as Molina.
During previews, singer Barbra Streisand was overheard whispering to her companion, “Geez! He can act as well!”
New York audiences were astounded by the virtuosity of this Canadian “newcomer.” The New York Times noted that the American press greeted Mr. Carver’s arrival with the amazement reserved for someone found miraculously singing and dancing under a cabbage leaf. Its powerful theatre critic Frank Rich, not one to dispense praise lightly, described the 41-year-old Mr. Carver’s performance as “riveting.” It won him the coveted 1993 Tony award for lead actor in a musical.
It was remarkable that he was able to perform at all. A recent personal trauma had left an indelible mark that would haunt him the rest of his life. In December, 1991, a fire of unknown origin broke out at his house in Stratford. At the time an adored friend, actor Susan Wright, was staying at the home along with her parents. All three perished in the blaze. At his acceptance speech for the Tony, Mr. Carver thanked “my dear, dear Susan. This is for you. And I can say: ‘Death be not proud.‘”
Mr. Carver left Kiss of the Spider Woman three months after that. His contract was up but he explained, in an interview, that he found himself unable to play any role for too long. The energy he devoted to characters, frequently anguished ones, was debilitating. One regular theatregoer who saw Mr. Carver performing as Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar at Stratford said, “He acted everyone else off the stage. I thought, the poor man. Does he have anything left over for himself?”
Few entered Mr. Carver’s private world but those who did remarked on his gentility and kindness. He once admitted that “emotional guardedness” caused him some regret as it had distanced him from love. He also explained his reluctance to divulge personal details. “I always felt that if I said anything it would just be a label they put on me. I also felt it was nobody’s business. As Hamlet says, ‘You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.’”
Aside from Molina and Hamlet, Mr. Carver cited Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and Robert Ross in Timothy Findley’s The Wars as being some of his favourite roles. The Wars was adapted into a TV movie. He also appeared in the films Shadow Dancing (1988), a thriller with Christopher Plummer; Millennium (1989), a sci-fi drama with Kris Kristofferson; and the made-for-TV movie The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which he played the lead character, Ichabod Crane.
While comfortable in front of a camera, the stage was where Mr. Carver drew raves. “No one ever delivered the Seven Ages of Man [speech] from As You Like It with as exquisite a melancholy as Mr. Carver did under the direction of Des McAnuff,” wrote Globe and Mail theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck. A former artistic director at Stratford, Mr. McAnuff also had high praise for Mr. Carver. “His work was at once sensitive and dangerous. He was a shy rock star.”
An animal lover and vegetarian, Mr. Carver dressed conservatively, preferring to remain inconspicuous in public. “He never set store in being famous,” said Janice Thomson, a long-time friend from Niagara-on-the-Lake, where Mr. Carver maintained a home for many years. “He truly believed he was just doing work like anyone else. He used to talk to me about understanding the audience, people who’d made a journey to get to the theatre. He said everyone came with different moods and expectations. He wanted to meet those expectations to the best of his ability. I never saw him wanting to be Brent Carver, the star,” Ms. Thomson said.
Another friend and neighbour from Niagara-on-the-Lake dropped by Mr. Carver’s house one day to tease him about a clue encountered in a crossword puzzle: Canada’s most prestigious actor, 11 letters down. The actor’s boyish face broke into a delighted grin. “That’s me,” he said. He then asked if he could have the crossword when it was done so he could show it to his mother.
After winning Canada’s 2014 Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, a recognition that thrilled him, Mr. Carver was the subject of a short National Film Board production titled simply Brent Carver. Accompanied by a solo cellist, within the melancholy setting of a rusting, paint-peeled warehouse, Mr. Carver’s wiry figure steps with slow, feline precision from shadows toward a single light. The song he’s about to sing is All Through the Night, a 1700s Welsh ballad that connects Mr. Carver to his Celtic family roots. In voice-over, before his ethereal tenor fills the air, and before he embarks upon a soliloquy from Hamlet, and before his blue eyes overflow with tears, he reveals a rare personal sliver of himself. “What I do is perform. In many ways it’s like a sensation of coming home. It’s the sensation of moving through all sorts of thresholds to find the heartbeat of what’s going on.”
The Carver household, overseen by Kenneth Carver, a lumber truck driver, and his wife, Lois (née Wills), was a working-class family of eight children who lived in Cranbrook, a small city in southeastern British Columbia. One of the children, a boy named Danny, drowned at age 2 when he fell into a water-filled ditch while Lois had her back turned. Brent Christopher Carver, born on Nov. 17, 1951, was a baby when the tragedy occurred. He said he learned to sing before he could talk. The first song he ever learned was Danny Boy, forever a reminder of the brother he never knew.
Patriarch Kenneth Carver played guitar and sang for fun but no one else in the family, other than Brent, had an interest in show business. “They’re all sane,” Mr. Carver once quipped. He graduated from Cranbrook’s Mount Baker Secondary School in 1969. For the valedictory address of his graduating class, he sang a Broadway show tune. Eager to get on with things, he dropped out of the University of British Columbia, where he had been studying theatre, and hit the road. The stage was set for his stellar career to begin.
In the 70s, Mr. Carver moved to Toronto where he shared a house with comedian Martin Short and his wife. Almost 15 years later they would compete for the same Tony, which Mr. Carver won.
He would return to Broadway three more times: in 1998′s Parade as Leo Frank, a doomed factory manager, for which he received a second Tony nomination, as Edgar in King Lear (2004) and in Romeo and Juliet as Friar Laurence (2014).
One award Mr. Carver received during the early 1980s was a Dora Mavor Moore Award for his portrayal of a gay man in Martin Sherman’s play Bent. The play revolves around the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.
After his success in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Los Angeles Times asked how his family reacted to him playing a gay character. “They were very moved by the show,” he replied. “They’re quite understanding. Even when they saw me in a pretty wild production of Tartuffe. It was set in the West and in one scene, I had to wear a pair of backless leather chaps with nothing on underneath. After that, they came backstage and said, ‘Yes, dear, that was fun.’ "
Home, whether actual or metaphorical, painful or pleasurable, was never far from Mr. Carver’s thoughts. Despondent over the inability to work due to COVID-19, he recently returned to his birthplace, a place he called “the most beautiful on Earth.” He once told The New York Times: “It constantly calls me back, the pine smell, the lakes, the trees, the mountains. It’s a tough place to make a living but it’s a great place to live.”
He died in Cranbrook on Aug. 4, at age 68. His family did not disclose the cause of his death. He leaves his sisters Vicki and Frankie, and brothers Randy and Shawn.
To honour the life and ferocious talent of Mr. Carver, Mirvish Productions dimmed the marquee lights of two theatres in Toronto on Aug. 7 – the Royal Alexandra, where he performed a solo show of his stories and songs in 1995; and the Princess of Wales, where he starred as Gandalf in the world premiere production of The Lord of the Rings in 2006.