Ron Carlyle was famous for never being seen.
As well as being a television producer, director and editor, he was also "The Watchdog," a mumbling anonymous character he helped create. The Watchdog was a regular segment on CTV's popular consumer affairs show Live It Up that ran from 1978 to 1990.
In the show, Carlyle's angular face was always hidden, more often than not by a straw cowboy hat tipped low, as he set out to check advertiser's claims or answer obscure questions that few cared about but were fun to answer anyway. Were there in fact 1,000 tiny time pills in a cold medication? Or 285 sheets in a roll of toilet paper? What percentage of different colours appeared in a package of candies? No claim was too trivial to investigate. Carlyle was game for pretty much anything, although he balked at one story suggestion. "I'll count the angels on the head of a pin," he growled. "I'll count the number of raisins in a breakfast cereal. But I'll be damned if I see how many helium balloons it would take to get me airborne."
Carlyle was a tall, extremely lean, somewhat intimidating man, with haystack hair and a knife-like crease in his jeans. His taciturn demeanour, which could be interpreted as grumpiness, covered an essential shyness. He was self-contained and irreverent with a dry wit. He either liked you, or didn't have time for you. As well as his on-air role, he functioned as the show's associate producer and director of many segments. But his specialty was music of all genres.
His collection included 2,000 vinyl albums and 33,000 songs on his iPod. Extremely well connected in the business, Carlyle had an eye for emerging talent. He brought to Live It Up such up-and-coming acts as Blue Rodeo and a singer from Quebec named Céline Dion. Before the advent of Much Music and the explosion of music videos, he produced one for the singer Dan Hill.
In many ways, Carlyle was at a disadvantage by being ahead of his time. He was not a great businessman. He bought the legendary Yorkville coffee house The Riverboat in the mid-1970s as it was on the downswing. He put his own money into a music film that went nowhere. He declined a chance to invest in Trivial Pursuit. But, as a widower, he managed to support and raise five children.
Ronald Hugh Wright Carlyle was an only child, born on May 28, 1933, in Ottawa. His father, John Carlyle, was a pioneer in CBC radio who worked on live feeds and transmissions. His mother, Jean, was a prim and proper housewife who took tea with a pinkie finger extended, and who showed her son the correct way to iron. Carlyle didn't talk much about his upbringing, telling his children only that the family moved to Toronto and that he dropped out of high school.
He began his career at the CBC as a film editor, working on such high-profile shows as This Hour Has Seven Days and the fifth estate. Staying up all night and living on coffee and cigarettes to get the show ready wasn't unusual. When This Hour was cancelled, Carlyle was kept on to work on a show called Sunday, a production so mellow that Carlyle said, "On show day you could cut the pot smoke in the office with a knife."
In the early 1970s he left CBC for CTV, becoming a film director and a field producer for W5, as well as documentaries and specials. Carlyle loved investigative journalism and the opportunities it afforded to travel the world.
He was not a complainer. In fact, few of his colleagues realized the difficulties in his personal life. In 1956 he had met the love of his life, a model turned film editor named Margaret Ann McGillion. They married in 1958 and, over the course of the next eight years, had five children: Rose Jane, Mary Ellen, Margaret Ann, John James, and Tracey Marie.
"My mother was a Catholic who wanted 10 children," says Mary Ellen. "Dad only wanted five, so they compromised by giving us each two names." Three years after the birth of their last child, Margaret died of pancreatic cancer. Carlyle was 34 years old with five children under the age of 10. The nature of his work required him to be away a lot so he hired a succession of housekeepers, none of whom the children liked. Finally, when they were 14 and 12, his two oldest daughters convinced him they could run the house on their own. Mary Ellen took care of paying the bills, while Rose Jane took care of her siblings. "Dad told us we'd be sent to Children's Aid if we didn't behave, so consequently we were real goody two-shoes," Mary Ellen says. "The younger ones, not so much."
When he was home, Carlyle inculcated his children with his love of music. Mary Ellen remembers him sitting them all down to listen to an album by The Doors and saying, "This will be a great album one day." He also introduced them to musician friends, including Chuck Mangione, Dan Hill and Ray Materick.
Family vacations were spent on Lake Rosseau at the Clevelands House resort, and birthdays at his favourite restaurant, The Keg. Carlyle was a liberal and supportive father who encouraged independence in his children. A question about what time they should be home was met with, "What time do you think you should be home?"
Always a snappy dresser, he often purchased an item he liked in several colours. He also had a weakness for watches, and belt buckles. He kept his wiry, blondish hair long, and sprayed to the point of being hard. He refused to let his children do any ironing, claiming they couldn't do it as well as he could. When travelling with a crew and staying in hotels, he'd place his jeans under the mattresses to ensure the crease stayed sharp.
After Live It Up ended in 1990, Carlyle continued for another year working for CTV Reports before being laid off. At the age of 58, he started all over again as a freelance technician, pulling cables and driving a golf cart for sporting events at SkyDome. He retired seven years ago, when his eyesight failed.
"He'd been an avid reader … just about anything he could get his hands on, so that was hard on him," Mary Ellen says. Long-time friend Jerry Lawton says Carlyle used to joke that he'd never know what he was going to hear when he selected an album from the shelves of his apartment.
Although Carlyle dated briefly when he was in his late forties, he chose to remain alone, telling his children that no one would have him because he was too set in his ways. He adored his grandchildren, to whom he was known as Papa Ron, and was a captivating storyteller, regaling them with tales from his days in the news and music business.
In his latter years he was fond of saying, "I've got a great future behind me." Ron Carlyle died from colon cancer at the age of 78 on Jan. 31 at Humber River Regional Hospital.
He leaves his children and their families, including five grandchildren.
Special to The Globe and Mail