By Pat Donnelly
Douglas Campbell, the robust, unconventional Scottish-born character actor who was one of the greats of the Canadian stage and starred for years in the The Great Detective on CBC television, died yesterday in Montreal’s Hôtel-Dieu hospital. He was 87.
Campbell would never have been mistaken for a matinee idol “I am not a very glamorous person. I am not particularly good looking. I’ve got a big, bulbous nose, I’m on the heavy side,” he once said of himself. “I come across as a loud and aggressive apparently. I am not the sort of person who attracts people on the ordinary level.”
But attract attention he did, and much affection, too.
“We’ve had phone calls from all over the country. “ his wife, actor Moira Wylie, said yesterday. “People just adored him. Even though they disagreed with him. He had a good time in the theatre. He loved the actors and wished them well.”
When Campbell was admitted into the hospital last Tuesday, it was for what seemed to be a minor ailment. But longtime diabetes and resultant congestive heart disease had taken their toll. “Everything just sort of went at once,” she said. “It was just incredibly surprising. It all hit us sideways a bit. He was going to be in two plays at the Segal this year and he was really looking forward to it.”
Douglas Campbell was born in Glasgow, Scotland on June 11, 1922, to parents who were “socialists, pacifists and vegetarians,” and Campbell boasted that he, too, became all three. He came to Canada in 1953.
His father was a postal inspector. His mother an amateur actress who promoted theatre as a tool for communicating ideas to the working class. Initially Campbell wanted to be a painter but his father discouraged art as a career. Kicked out of school at 17, Campbell hitch-hiked from Scotland to work with the Old Vic which at the time was a regional theatre in Burnley.
Although The Second World War was underway Campbell declared himself a conscientious objector and was hired as a truck driver to tote the Old Vic’s stage scenery around. He was inspired to become an actor after seeing a production of King John that had been directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Guthrie gave Campbell the break he needed by allowing him to do bit parts. By the time Campbell was 19 he was touring with Dame Sybil Thorndike. In 1947 he married Thorndike’s daughter, Ann Casson (who died in 1990). They had four children, Dirk, Teresa, Thomas, and Benedic. (No T). Later he had two more with Wylie, Beatrice and Torquil.
“I had two wives and six children, and supported them all. It’s really nobody’s business but ours,” he once explained. “It’s quite a mob but we all get along well.”
Campbell came to Canada in 1953 when Guthrie, invited him to join the inaugural season of the Stratford, Ont. Festival. For the next 10 years Campbell played a major role in Stratford’s development. His Othello in 1959 was a triumph as was his appearance in Oeidpus Rex and his portrayals of Falstaff, Henry VIII and Sir Toby Belch.
Jane Needles, executive director of the Quebec Drama Federations recalled being in awe of Campbell when she was a child growing up in Stratford. “He taught as all as younger people to behave and respect our elders,” she said.
Her father, now 90, remained one of Campbell’s closest friends.
“I stood in awe of Douglas from the first moment I met him at the beginning of the Festival in 1953,” wrote Dan Needles, in an e-mail. “ I had no idea what a friend and mentor he would become in the next 56 years – always there to advise me and encourage me and give me the heart to go on in a profession in which he was a leader, along with Guinness, Worth, Guthrie and Moiseiwitsch. Despite the fact that he was somewhat younger, he became a father figure for me, latterly more concerned about my health than his. His loss is immeasurable for theatre arts and those who were privileged to be close to him.”
Campbell started his own theatre company, The Canadian Players in 1954 before there were any regional theatres in the country, designed to take highbrow drama to audiences from coast to coast. Productions were spare but imaginative, such as an Inuit King Lear set in the Arctic.
Although Lady Eaton picked up most of the bills, the company could not pay its way and and after nine years it folded.
In 1963 Campbell followed Guthrie to Minnesota as artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. But his socialist ideals, his commitment to nuclear disarmament and his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam put him at odds with the community.
Because of his left wing politics, he was often harrased at the border, and once, was even refused entry.
“I am a William Morris socialist, not a Marxist dialectical materialist,” he once told a reporter. “Like Morris, I’m interested in craft, doing things well, living life well. My intention has been to serve the craft of the theatre, not to push for my own personal image. Monetary success means little. As a socialist, I don’t believe in investing. Materialism does not improve the quality of life. We should all live more simply. ”
Campbell might have been a star, but he sacrificed his popularity to the service of good theatre and took enormous pride in his craft.
“I never went in for that PR BS. Some actors hire publicists,” he said, “I have never done anything like that, nor would I consider it proper or just to do so. And I never paid the slightest attention to what the critics wrote about me. If I did, it would be difficult to sustain my pacifism.”
When Tyrone Guthrie died in 1970 Campbell returned to England to take over management of Guthrie’s Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
He was lured back to Canada in 1975 by the CBC to play the lead in the television series The Great Detective. Thus began a 20-year interlude in Toronto and renewed connections with Stratford. He also taught at the Banff School of Fine Arts for three summers and directed at the Shaw Festival at Niagara on the Lake.
He played Broadway in Paddy Chayefsky’s Gideon, and directed the Broadway production of the Orson Wells adaptation of Moby Dick.
In 1980 he joined the National Arts Centre in Ottawa where he stayed for three seasons. His last appearance at Stratford, Ont. was in 1989 as Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady. After that he free-lanced as an actor and a director, “helping little theaters master big plays”
Campbell became a naturalized Canadian in 1990 and in 1997 was awarded the Order of Canada. He moved to Montreal the following year. He was honoured in 2003 with the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award.
His wanderings took him all over North America, to Vancouver’s Shakespeare by the Sea, and in 2002 to the Piggery in North Hatley, which he ran for a season.
Wylie was at his side, along with several other members of the family, when he passed away.
Both Campbell and Wylie were to appear in the upcoming production of Inherit the Wind at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts. But Campbell dropped out of rehearsal due to illness, then Wylie quit to look after him. Campbell was to have played the judge.
Campbell performed at Centaur Theatre many times (notably in The Gin Game and The Crucible) and in 2007 directed Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker there.