At the age of 86, Antony Holland would bring audiences to tears nightly at Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre in the inspirational drama Tuesdays with Morrie, playing an elderly man succumbing to a degenerative disease. Then, on his days off, the restless Mr. Holland would call up some much-younger friends and head east to the Harrison Hot Springs resort, where he'd blow off steam with a little ballroom dancing.
With Mr. Holland, it was ever thus. The actor, teacher, producer and raconteur had an insatiable lust for life – most especially the theatre life – that kept him running full-speed for nearly a century. Mr. Holland died on July 29, aged 95, in hospital in Nanaimo, B.C., after a brief illness. Only a week before, he could be found at his usual haunt, a coffee shop on nearby Gabriola Island where he lived, busily writing his next one-man show.
"With Tony, you just expected him to go on forever," said Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Arts Club. James Hawkins, Mr. Holland's biographer, suspects he would have been disappointed to make his final exit in a hospital rather than a theatre. "He had hoped to die onstage," Mr. Hawkins said.
In March, Mr. Holland spent his 95th birthday on the boards, performing in a staged reading of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. And Kathryn Shaw, artistic director of Studio 58, was certain he would perform in September at the Vancouver theatre school's 50th anniversary celebrations. "I know he was looking forward to that," she said.
While Mr. Holland could lay fair claim to being Canada's oldest working actor, his greatest achievement was the founding of Studio 58, of which he was artistic director. He began the school with a handful of students in 1965 and built it into one of the country's major theatrical training centres.
Its graduates form the backbone of B.C.'s professional theatre community and can be found across Canada and beyond. Alumni range from comedian Colin Mochrie to the founders of Vancouver's acclaimed avant-garde Electric Company. Christopher Gaze, artistic director of the city's Bard on the Beach festival and a frequent employer of Studio 58 grads, calls it "the West Coast version of Canada's National Theatre School."
Studio 58 is noted for turning out actors who not only have an arsenal of skills, but also a clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to the business. That's part of Mr. Holland's legacy. He loved the stage, but he also had long personal experience of the hard work and hard knocks that come with pursuing his passion.
Antony Holland was born Albert Edwin Holland on March 28, 1920, in the town of Tiverton in Devon, England. He was the eldest son of Edwin Holland, a garage owner, and Beatrice (née Green), whose father had worked as a gardener for Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Antony loved performing from an early age – and the professional instinct was there from the start, too. Mr. Hawkins said the eight-year-old boy would put on solo shows for his peers, "but all the kids had to pay a ha'penny or they couldn't watch him."
As an adolescent, Antony won a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but had to turn it down when his father refused to pay his room and board in London. Undaunted, the young man attended evening classes at a smaller theatre school until the Second World War intervened and he was conscripted, at 21, into Britain's Royal Corps of Signals. He was shipped off to fight in Egypt, which became the unlikely scene of his first theatrical triumphs.
Mr. Holland loved to tell tales of his wartime exploits as a soldier-cum-actor/manager, staging shows in the desert – stories that his friend and Gabriola neighbour Mr. Hawkins assumed were exaggerated. But when he set out to write Mr. Holland's biography (the saucily titled Antony's Private Parts, published in 2011), his research proved that everything Mr. Holland said "was absolutely true."
Mr. Holland was trained as a radio operator, of which the British Army had a surfeit, so he spent much of his time boosting morale and entertaining fellow soldiers by organizing makeshift theatre groups and putting on plays. Or rather, one play – the Emlyn Williams thriller Night Must Fall, in which he invariably performed the lead role. It did so well that he was invited to stage it at the Royal Opera House in Cairo, where it was a hit. Mr. Holland was promoted to sergeant and ordered to tour North Africa with his troupe, eventually taking the show to some 50,000 soldiers. During the war he also met and married his first wife, Gusta Harman, a volunteer in the South African army.
After Mr. Holland's wartime glory, the postwar years were a disappointment. He worked for a time as assistant principal of the newly formed Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, but felt unfulfilled. In 1957 he, Gusta and their two children pulled up stakes and headed for British Columbia, where members of his mother's family had settled. In Vancouver, he drove a taxi and did odd jobs until he was hired as a librarian at the progressive Haney Correctional Institute in Maple Ridge, B.C., where his theatrical gifts again came into play. He organized the institute's young offenders into a crack troupe that won top prize in the provincial one-act drama festival in 1961.
A bigger challenge came when he was asked to start a theatre program, the future Studio 58, at Vancouver Community College. At the time, the city didn't have a school that focused on training professional actors and, according to Mr. Millerd, most students with theatrical aspirations went elsewhere: "The advent of Studio 58 was a real boon to keeping young people in the Vancouver area who were interested in pursuing an acting career."
The program moved to Langara College in 1970 and expanded into a theatre arts department, dubbed Studio 58 after the room number of its performance space. Mr. Holland brought to it his extensive knowledge of Shakespeare and the classics, as well as his experience in every facet of theatre. "All his actors had to work backstage before they could work onstage," recalled Ms. Shaw, his successor. "Studio 58 grads became known for being well-rounded theatre people, the ones who started companies."
Mr. Holland retired from Studio 58 in 1985, but refused to slow down. Divorced and remarried, he moved to Gabriola with his second wife, Catherine Cains, in 1990 and started the Gabriola Theatre Centre. He also continued to act on the mainland, in film and television (his many screen credits range from the Robert Altman classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Battlestar Galactica) as well as theatre.
In his 80s, he took on a pair of major Shakespearean roles for Studio 58. He played the lead in King Lear in 2002 ("He was amazing – the best Lear I've ever seen," Ms. Shaw said) and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 2008. "His memory [of Shakespearean text] was phenomenal," Ms. Shaw said, "although he couldn't always remember the names of his students."
But it was Tuesdays with Morrie, a dramatization of Mitch Albom's bestselling memoir about the wisdom of a dying sociology professor, that became Mr. Holland's biggest late-life triumph. Mr. Millerd directed him in the 2006 Arts Club production, which won Mr. Holland one of his three Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards and later went on tour. "I think he connected with the sentiments in the piece, what Morrie says about facing death," Mr. Millerd said. "I think he realized at his age that it was something that he understood."
Along with his three Jessies (two for acting, one for lifetime achievement), Mr. Holland's honours included the Union of B.C. Performers' Sam Payne Award for humanity, artistic integrity and encouragement of new talent, as well as induction in the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame. There is a Langara College scholarship in his name and in 2014 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.
Mr. Holland's personal life was rocky – he and Ms. Cains divorced, and he was separated from his third wife, Leslie Parrott, at the time of his death – but his daughter, Rosheen Holland, forgives him for often prioritizing the theatre over his personal relationships. "He was a great man," she said, "and great men are often obsessive. We accepted that."
And if the family's circumstances were sometimes financially perilous, he always put bread – his own freshly baked loaves – on the table. In recent years, Ms. Holland said, he switched to making scones and taking them to Gabriola's farmers' market. "But he used them to meet people and get them interested in his latest projects," she added. "It wasn't really about the scones, it was about the theatre."
Mr. Holland leaves Ms. Parrott, his daughter, Rosheen, and son, Calen Sinclaire (formerly Nelson Holland); and three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Ms. Holland said her father's great gift was communicating his belief in the power of theatre to younger generations: "He showed how it can teach us and how it can be a progressive force in society." And while his drive to act and create right to the end may have been obsessive, Ms. Shaw finds it admirable. "Where a lot of people his age have given up," she said, "he was still giving."