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Maury Chaykin as Desmond Howl in 1994's Whale Music

It would be stretching the point to suggest that Maury Chaykin owed his substantial Hollywood career to a single two-minute scene in a single film. Anyone who saw his work in the years before he was cast as Major Fambrough in Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves (1990) knew what an original and magnetic actor Chaykin could be. And his pre-Wolves resume already included a long list of memorable performances.

Still, it's safe to say that his riveting, jaw-dropping turn as the mad, shambling, incontinent and ultimately suicidal Major Fambrough caught the attention of heavyweight American producers and casting directors. Thereafter, Chaykin worked steadily, often in small, carefully chosen, off-kilter character roles in which, at times, he came close to larceny - virtually stealing the movie from bigger-name stars.

Writing about him this week, his friend Rick Salutin said: "Maury's madness was moving and ethereal, as if he knew something, saw too far, sensed the horizon of vulnerability, mortality, nullity - whatever - that surrounds us all." But it was also a madness infused by a great comic understanding, a sense of the absurd, other side of life's Janus-like coin.

Maury Alan Chaykin died July 27th in Toronto on his 61st birthday. Although his body had been ravaged in recent years by cancer and kidney disease, he'd made a valiant effort to get well, including undergoing dialysis treatments. Despite his frailty, he had completed the second season of Less Than Kind, a hit TV comedy series about a dysfunctional Jewish family in Winnipeg, and he had managed to shoot a small role in Casino Jack, a thriller scheduled to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. In the end, a sudden staph infection developed in a heart valve and roared through his vulnerable system, taking his life.

Ironic, in a way, since it was his own emotional vulnerabilities - and his willingness to share them with audiences - that made him such a gifted actor and so mesmerizing on the screen.

For producer Robert Lantos, Chaykin was "an icon - one of the greatest character actors in the world. He made a gourmet feast of every moment, creating unforgettable characters who he pushed far beyond the writing on the page."

Where to begin? How about his Unabomber-meets-karaoke host in A Life Less Ordinary? Or his Bubba, a desperate film producer fantasist in Atom Egoyan's The Adjuster. Or his raging megalomaniac, Harvey Weingard (closely resembling Miramax's adulte terrible Harvey Weinstein) in HBO's Entourage.

"The refrain that for a great actor 'no part is too small' must have been coined with him in mind," said Lantos. "Each time, he crafted a larger-than-life character who seized the viewers' attention and never let go."

And on those too rare occasions where Chaykin did have the lead, he was indelible - as Desmond Howl, for example, the Brian Wilson-based former rock star in Paul Quarrington's Whale Music, for which he won a Genie award for best actor. Or as the brutal union boss Hal Banks in the TV drama Canada's Sweetheart. Reviewing that 1985 teleplay, Globe and Mail critic Rick Groen wrote: "Chaykin is brilliant at the centre. Never letting a brutal role descend into brutish caricature, he gives us a chilling portrait of the man as amoral artist."

"I search for things that are on the dark side," Chaykin later explained to one interviewer, "because it's my nature."

Yet by all accounts, Chaykin's childhood in Brooklyn - he was one of three children born to a Canadian mother, Clarice (nee Bloomfield), a nurse, and an American father, Irving - was relatively normal.

When his first wife, film producer Ilana Frank, was introduced to her in-laws, she was "shocked at how close and tight-knit a family they were. Maury wasn't typical. He was so odd, bigger than life. I found him terrifying. He was incredibly complicated, in a good way."

Chaykin's father taught business administration at Baruch College in Manhattan. Chaykin modelled himself after him, taking a briefcase stuffed with his father's papers to kindergarten. "I wanted to be a banker," he later explained.

Instead, he went to Buffalo to study acting and, with a group of friends, formed a group known as Swamp Fox - voted the most original theatre company in America at the 1969 Yale Drama Festival.

The following year, the troupe drove to Toronto in a post office van to join Fut, an underground festival that Ken Gass - now artistic director of Factory Theatre - helped organize. "They were outrageous, dark and satirical," he recalls. "They'd dress up in blackface and go into black communities and perform." In one show, says Ilana Frank, "Maury wanted to put my grandmother in a cage."

After graduation, Chaykin continued his studies at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, and was part of a stage adaptation of Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable. He later appeared in several off-Broadway shows, but struggled to find paying acting roles, and ended up running a Brooklyn daycare centre - 32 children, some of whom were as young as nine months old. "I loved kids," he said, "and wanted to work with kids. But I wasn't qualified and it was totally illegal. But there I was, changing diapers."

Unwilling to abandon the stage, he decided to try his luck in Toronto. There, his maternal uncle, film and TV director/producer George Bloomfield gave him a job on one of his projects. And there, Gass, who was running what was then called Factory Lab Theatre, cast him in Hurrah For Johnny Canuck - for $100 a week. Because Chaykin was still technically an illegal, Gass supported his immigration, arranging a "job" with the theatre.

In the following years, Chaykin migrated between the two cities, appearing in Gass's The Boy Bishop and, in the late 1970s, off-Broadway in Barrie Keeffe's Gimme Shelter and Des McAnuff's Leave It to Beaver Is Dead (with Dianne Wiest, Brent Spiner, Mandy Patinkin and Saul Rubinek).

In Gimme Shelter, Chaykin played a tough British gym teacher. At one point in rehearsals, the playwright Keeffe appeared. He watched Chaykin's performance and became utterly convinced that a) he had been born and raised in England and b) that he had to have been a high school gym teacher. "Barrie absolutely refused to believe that Maury had been born in Brooklyn, lived his entire life in North America, and never taught gym," says McAnuff. "I had to take him backstage afterward and introduce him to Maury, just to prove my point."

McAnuff, now artistic director at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, says he wanted to hire Chaykin for two recent Broadway gigs - Guys and Dolls and The Farnsworth Invention - but he was unavailable.

Rubinek, Chaykin's friend for 40 years, says "Maury was a wonderful, gifted observer of the peculiarities and hypocrisies of human behaviour. In his acting, he was always willing to go deeper, exposing his own vulnerabilities through the character. Some of his work in films did not appear, in fact, because he'd go deeper than the producers wanted him to go."

Another early and lasting friend was Toronto actor/writer/director Hrant Alianak. "I cast him in Tony's Woman in 1974, where he met Ilana Frank, who was acting in that play, [so]in a way I was responsible for getting them together. Later, we co-wrote a screenplay with him in the leading role that almost got made."

Only three weeks ago, they met to review notes Chaykin had written for a new Alianak script - ironically, about a cancer patient with three weeks to live, desperately seeking a meaning to his life.

It was a full decade before Chaykin landed the part that catalyzed his career - as Hal Banks, the corrupt, power-hungry head of the Seafarers' International Union, at war with the then Communist-controlled Canadian Seafarers' Union.

The part, Chaykin maintained, "came to me not as an accident, but as a reward, a gift, that I had earned. It had to happen. Otherwise I really would have started to wither away. ... I think I might have started to feel bitter, God forbid. That's the worst enemy of an actor, or anyone." But he loved being the star. "Without sounding egotistical about it, it's just such a wonderful responsibility to have."

Years later, when he appeared for two seasons on cable TV as detective Nero Wolfe, Chaykin found himself in Los Angeles driving by "an extraordinary billboard on Sunset Boulevard with a humongous photograph of my face," promoting the show. "I drive by it constantly," he said, "back and forth, back and forth."

When he auditioned for Wolves, four years later, Costner had no specific part in mind. The role of Fambrough had originally been written for a 65-year-old. But his two minutes on screen, Chaykin later acknowledged, "had a phenomenal effect on my career in the U.S."

Among the hit films he subsequently appeared in were My Cousin Vinny, Beethoven's 2nd, Sommersby, Devil in a Blue Dress, and Unstrung Heroes, the latter one of several he did with Diane Keaton. In Canada, he was always in demand, appearing in dozens of movies and TV series, including five with director Atom Egoyan.

"Maury never resorted to clichés," says Egoyan. "He wanted to explore the dark corners of humanity, but it was despair alleviated with a kind of self-mocking humour."

Inevitably, Chaykin spent a fair bit of time in Los Angeles, but he never wanted to be a permanent resident. Canada, he told the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi, "has been a buffer for my sanity. I don't feel the need to be in the fray." He and second wife, actress Susannah Hoffman, owned a summer home in Nova Scotia that he called a retreat.

For the character of faded rocker Desmond Howl in Whale Music, Chaykin said he drew on "the pain that I felt, and loneliness, and the hopelessness - the things that led me to experiment with drugs in the 60s. That era is my era. That's when I grew up ...I wasn't immersed in hippie or rock culture. My friends and I created our own function in that culture by making fun of everyone, through theatre."

He identified with Howl on another level as well, "as someone who really doesn't relate to the outside world - the business world, family, civilization. He retreats into his own world. I can relate to that," he said.

And he wasn't kidding. "Maury suffered as a human being," says his first wife, Ilana Frank. "He needed to be with himself, to have a lot of alone time."

Still, friends say, the birth of his only child, daughter Rose, now 11, changed him. "I think it completed him," says Frank. Becoming a father at 50 "sobered him emotionally," agrees Rubinek. "You're not the centre of everything any longer. You join the human race in a different way."

Some of that maturity, Rubinek suggests, founds its way into Chaykin's last meaty part, as the self-destructive father, Sam Blecher, in Less than Kind. "He filled the role completely and then some," says writer and show runner Mark McKinney. "There's a moment in the third episode where the son, Josh, challenges the wisdom of his scheme to mislead a tax auditor.

Sam brusquely shuts him down, but as he settles, we see in Sam's eyes a very brief flash of panic. It was a perfectly measured glimpse into the character. Another actor [could]give you the same beats, but on repeated viewings, you would probably see it was built from blocks. Maury's performances were liquid and seamless. He was better than we even dreamed of and it made us more ambitious for the show."

In April, comedy writer Briane Nasimok invited Chaykin to be his guest at Factory Theatre's 40th anniversary gala. "He was one of the most unique individuals I have met," says Nasimok, "and surely one of the most passionate. He did not seem in the best of shape, but he came out to celebrate. He'd made a commitment to be there and he was."

Beyond the acting talent and the psychic pain, there was, finally, Chaykin's incisive humour. "Maury was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful actor," says R. H. Thomson, who worked with him through the years. "And my God was he funny. The driest and most penetrating funny bone possible. Just terrible that he has died. Very sad."

Chaykin leaves his wife Susannah Hoffman, his daughter, Rose, and a brother and sister.

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