I was shocked and so saddened to hear about the passing of Peter Donaldson, a great Canadian theatre actor that I had the great privilege of seeing in three knockout productions with three different theatre companies in the past two years. Mr. Donaldson passed away from lung cancer at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto on January 8th, 2011.
Pete was born Peter Thomas Donaldson on October 29th, 1953 in Midland, Ontario to Betty and Norman Donaldson. As a student at Midland Secondary School, he performed in a production of Brigadoon and an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet and also attended productions at the Stratford Festival as a teenager before going on to study at the University of Guelph and in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis. He then made his own Stratford debut in a production of Romeo and Juliet in 1977 where the two title characters were played by Richard Monette and Marti Maraden, both future Artistic Directors of the company. Donaldson would go on to spend twenty-five years at the Festival where two of his pinnacle performances are largely considered to be his performance as Jamie in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which was later made into a film and garnered him a 1996 Genie Award and the lead role in Timon of Athens, where he brought “a hard, cold brilliance to the title role.” Other memorable Stratford performances include, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Caesar and Cleopatra (as Ruffio to Christopher Plummer’s Caesar), To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Ghosts, Antony and Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Hello Dolly!, Into the Woods, The Threepenny Opera and Guys and Dolls.
Des McAnuff, Stratford’s current Artistic Director was both “saddened” and “shocked” to hear of Donaldson’s “ultimately passing” and remarked, “”No one who enjoyed his stellar performances at Stratford and elsewhere could have doubted that even greater triumphs lay ahead of him, and our sorrow is all the deeper when we think of the King Lear or the Prospero we might someday have seen him play but now have lost forever,” Stratford’s General Director, Antoni Cimolino, echoes similar sentiments saying, “Peter was the finest actor’s actor. He was deeply admired for the conviction he brought to his work and the unsparing truth of his portrayals. He was versatile and able to give outstanding performances in modern plays, musicals and classics. But his home was Shakespeare. He spent a lifetime at the Stratford Festival and gave us a world of great performances. Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.” Of him, CBC Arts Reporter Martin Marrow said, “Peter Donaldson was one of Canada’s acting treasures, a consummate classical actor with a gorgeous voice just made for speaking Shakespeare. He was so at ease on Stratford’s Festival stage, you felt like he was in his living room.”
I was first introduced to Peter Donaldson in the original 2009 Soulpepper production of Glengarry Glen Ross directed by David Storch, in which Donaldson played the vengeful, cutthroat Moss, inhabiting brilliantly David Mamet’s electric, fiery dialogue. He had previously played the Stage Manager in Joseph Ziegler’s critically acclaimed production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 1999 also for Soulpepper. Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s Artistic Director said of Donaldson, that he was “a great actor, a great friend, and devoted and loving husband and father. His greatness in all walks of life stemmed from the fact that he was so firmly rooted in the earth. With Peter, in his life and in his art, there was such strength, power and honestly. He brought great skill and humanity to everything he did and taught an entire generation by example. Peter, through his exemplary life and body of work, brought dignity and honour to his community and will be as greatly missed as he was greatly loved.”
I was also enraptured by Donaldson’s performances in George F. Walker’s And So It Goes at Factory Theatre early last season and also in Yasmina Reza’s Art at Canadian Stage. I had no idea at the time that Donaldson had been diagnosed with lung cancer; there wasn’t an ounce of him, or his performance, that seemed sick, weak or in any way off his A-game. Both performances were formidable ones, a comic turn with Colin Mochrie and Evan Buliung in Art and an emotionally riveting portrayal of Ned with Martha Burns and Jenny Young at Factory.
According to J. Kelly Nestruck’s article about Donaldson in The Globe and Mail, during the last year of his career “he would often go to chemotherapy in the morning, then rehearse or perform in the evenings. ‘He had such great energy – he never made you feel like he needed special treatment,’ recalled (George F.) Walker, who also directed Donaldson in his TV series This is Wonderland and Living in my Car. ‘It’s a great loss. People say that all the time about people. But he had so much great work in him.’ Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic Director at Canadian Stage said poignantly, ‘In my view, Peter was one of the greatest actors this country has produced, equally at ease with the classical repertoire and with most forms of contemporary writing. His deep humanity and wry humour were in full bloom in his recent, unforgettably subtle performance in Art.’”
Onscreen, he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter (1997), as Reverend Leonard on Road to Avonlea and as Ian Bowles on the televised series Emily of New Moon, where his character fell in love with sweet Aunt Laura, played by his beloved wife of 25 years Sheila McCarthy.
Also according to Nestruck, Donaldson and McCarthy’s relationship began in 1983 in London, Ontario, at the Grand Theatre, when it was run by Artistic Director Robin Phillips. Nestruck writes, “According to one version of the story, McCarthy was conducting an aerobics class for the company and Donaldson showed up to participate. ‘It was love at first sight,’ McCarthy told The Globe and Mail in an interview after they were married in December, 1986, at The Church, a restaurant in Stratford. Apparently, Brent Carver sang “Moon River” and “Nothing’s Going to Harm You” from Sweeney Todd at the wedding (!). The couple have two daughters, MacKenzie and Drew.
Donaldson also had a longstanding friendship with legendary Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge, who he would often beat at golf, while also apparently regaling his golfing friends (mostly journalists and politicians) with lectures about Shakespeare. My favourite quote about Donaldson comes from Mansbridge, once again courtesy of Kelly Nestruck, who says, “Peter was never shy about putting forward his opinion on things – whether that was the direction of a show or the management, he was always outspoken. When he’d see B- or C-level Americans getting jobs in this country that A-level Canadians were being passed over for – whether it was film or theatre – it would drive him crazy.”
Along with Sheila, MacKenzie, Drew and his “honorary daughter” Martha, Peter was also a devoted brother to Dan Donaldson and Victoria Warwick and was a beloved uncle, friend and mentor as well as an inspiration to the acting community. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Princess Margaret Hospital would be appreciated. Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Peter’s life in Toronto to be announced. A second celebration will be held in the spring at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.