Rest in Peace Jonathan Crombie

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jonathan crombie as gilbert & megan follows as anne shirley

I was shocked and very saddened this past weekend to hear the tragic news that Canadian actor Jonathan Crombie, best known for playing Gilbert Blythe in the Kevin Sullivan/CBC miniseries Anne of Green Gables, passed away in New York of a brain hemorrhage on April 15, 2015. He was only 48 years old.

One of the things that most people know about me is that Lucy Maud Montgomery and I are kindred spirits. She has had an incredibly profound influence on me, as a writer, a Canadian and a woman, since I was a little girl. Perhaps it’s because my grandparents were both born on Prince Edward Island, but the connection that I feel to Maud and her stories is ardent and seems to only tug firmer on my heartstrings as I grow older.

One day at the beginning of Grade 3 the friends that I played with at recess decided that they wanted to play “Anne of Green Gables,” and, to my horror, I realized that they, for some reason, all knew what this was, and I did not. This meant that they quickly called dibs on playing Anne and Diana and Josie Pye and I got stuck playing Marilla. I had no concept of who Marilla was, beyond that her name rhymed with gorilla and my friend Sarah (with a H) told me that she was the mean, old lady Anne lived with. Needless to say, I spent a few miserable recesses playing “Anne of Green Gables” trying to get a handle on the nuance of my character, and desperately wishing I had some sort of clue as to what these people were supposed to be like.

Soon afterwards, for my eighth birthday, my best friend Melissa, handed me the olive branch I was looking for, a VHS tape of the Kevin Sullivan CBC Television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) starring Megan Follows. I went home that night and immediately watched it with my mother and I was entirely enraptured. This was not my introduction to Lucy Maud Montgomery, I had dutifully watched Road to Avonlea every Sunday since it premiered in 1990, but it wasn’t until I watched Anne of Green Gables that those two worlds collided for me. Of course, as a little girl, it was Follows’ Anne who I idolized and I began to name the trees in our yard and borrowed phrases like “the depths of despair,” and often I would express myself in dramatic flourishes of heightened, unbridled emotion, like a very young heroine in a Melodrama. Clearly, it was Anne Shirley who pointed me resolutely toward the theatre.

Yet, it wasn’t just Follows’ Anne that made this movie so special, it was that every aspect of it was absolutely pitch-perfect- from the sweetness of Richard Farnsworth’s Matthew (who, coincidently always reminded me so much of an older version of Melissa’s dad), to the hilarious Patricia Hamilton’s scandalized Rachel Lynde to Colleen Dewhurst’s heartbreaking Marilla, so full of subtext- even at eight years old, Dewhurst made me proud to play that part on the playground. I loved them all. And of course, if you are eight years old and you idolize the young female protagonist in a movie and she has a love interest, he just HAS to be the most perfect young gentleman in the world to be worthy of her… and that was, without a doubt, Jonathan Crombie.

There was such a kindness in Crombie’s Gilbert, a kindness that, I think, even surpassed the way Montgomery characterized him in the novel. At the beginning of the movie he has the cockiness of a smart, indulged boy in a small town, in a small schoolhouse, and he initially tries to win Anne’s attention by showcasing how brazen and coy and confident he can be, by calling her “Carrots.” This, of course, lands him with a smashed slate over his head. Anne is stubborn and proud in her assertion that she wants nothing more to do with Gilbert Blythe, but there’s always something gentle in Crombie’s Gilbert’s lingering attention to her and a sense that he’s reconsidered how best to try to connect with a girl- a timeless lesson. He respects her as his intellectual equal, and he encourages her, even while her wild passions drive him a little crazy, to reach her dazzling potential. He does this while simultaneously rooting Gilbert in the Canada of the early 20th Century, and the Canada of the 1980s. This integrity and respect, along with his boyish charm made girls all over the World fall in love with Gilbert Blythe.

I have seen Anne of Green Gables The Musical over fifteen times and I have seen Anne and Gilbert twice. I have seen many wonderful actors play Gilbert Blythe, but the Gilbert in my heart is always Jonathan Crombie.

I always feel a little badly when a Canadian actor, like Crombie, has a resume filled with impressive theatre credits and yet his or her legacy is hinged on one television or film role, that made him or her well known to those outside the theatre community. I wish that I had seen Crombie at the Stratford Festival, or doing sketch comedy or Improv, or as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone, or in Arcadia (which I can picture him doing so perfectly!). It saddens me that that is not an experience I will ever have. I feel sheepish that I learned more about Crombie’s career in reading about his death than I knew when he was alive. I wish we didn’t wait to honour and celebrate the careers of Canadian actors, especially those who have made most of their lives in the theatre. I wish we followed our own performers’ careers more like we are forced to follow American actors’ lives, whether we want to or not.

In the outpouring of grief and shock on Facebook of the great many people I know who knew Jonathan as a friend and a colleague most have had the same words to say about him: that he was sweet and kind, funny and humble and smart. To all of them, and to his family, I send my deepest condolences.

Like Lucy Maud Montgomery, who has lived on through her glorious works of art, so will Jonathan Crombie go on to enchant thousands of others through his earnest and playful portrayal of Gilbert Blythe for many decades to come.

In my heart, Jonathan Crombie, you are forever young.