It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of another great, iconic Canadian actor, Wayne Robson, yesterday, April 5th, 2011. My Robson story is one I am slightly sheepish about, but I will tell it to you nevertheless. In October 1993 I had just turned eight years old and at this time in my life I had an exuberant, fervent fascination and deep love and appreciation for the television show Full House. Candace Cameron was the uncontested hero of my elementary school days and John Stamos’ iconic Uncle Jesse was (and if I am being entirely honest, undoubtedly still is) the dream vision of the perfect man who would come riding in on his motorcycle and sweep me off my feet blasting Beach Boys tunes with his perfect hair and dreamy guitar. But John is beside the point. The point is, that my love for Full House extended into everything else that Jeff Franklin constructed for me, and since he was packaging Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as an expanding franchise, I was eager as a little baby beaver to see their first TV movie (To Grandmother’s House We Go, 1992) and anticipated their second, a Halloween feature, Double, Double Toil and Trouble, even more ardently. I have seen this movie over a hundred times. I still watch it around October 31st each year, lately growing embarrassingly maudlin with nostalgia over it. Yet, in all seriousness, this movie, for a TV Special aimed at children, is quite delicious. There is so much to love! Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen play Lynn and Kelly Farmer respectively and their parents (played by KELLI FOX (!) and ERIC MCCORMACK (!), who I considered to be the very pinnacle of a happily married couple and perfect Mom and Dad as a child) are going through financial troubles and are on the brink of losing their house. The twins devise a plan to get the money they need from their wealthy Aunt Agatha (played by the DIVINE CLORIS LEACHMAN, I TOLD YOU THIS WAS A GOOD MOVIE!!!), who is a very evil witch and is holding their nice aunt (Agatha’s twin sister Sophia) on the other side of an enchanted mirror!! I loved this movie. It riveted me, it scared me, the ending never failed to make me tear up just a bit and it always made me laugh, mostly because of the hilarious physical comedy of the Gravedigger, played by the brilliant Wayne Robson.
Wayne Robson has had a long, eclectic and remarkable career as an actor in Canada. Indeed, the Vancouver native has appeared in over one hundred theatre productions (most recently playing Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie at the Sudbury Theatre Centre in November 2010), he won a Dora Award for his portrayal of Stan in Walking the Tightrope at Theatre Direct and a Blizzard Award in Manitoba for his work in The Diviners. He was named Actor of the Year by The Vancouver Sun; he’s appeared in thirty feature films and 120 television productions and was supposed to star as Grandpa in The Grapes of Wrath at the Stratford Festival this season. Among so many accolades and such esteemed performances, it seems, perhaps, kind of silly, but, nevertheless, Wayne Robson will always be Mr. Gravedigger to me.
For the rest of Canada, Robson is likely best known for playing Mike Hamar on The Red Green Show for twelve seasons. He also won Gemini Awards for his roles as Wally in And Then You Die and Christie Logan in The Diviners. He received Genie Nominations for playing Shorty in The Grey Fox and Hank in Bye Bye Blues. Among other notable television credits are Kids in the Hall: Death Comes To Town, Little Mosque on the Prairie and Road to Avonlea.
General Director of the Stratford Festival, Antoni Cimolino, said of Robson, “He was generous in sharing stories from his past and from his vast experience in theatre across many countries dating back to the 1960s. He was immensely practical and yet a true imaginative child of the stage light… His work as Grampa had us both in stitches and in tears. Within The Grapes of Wrath, Grampa dies suddenly and his loss forever leaves a mark on the Joad family. So too does Wayne’s parting leave a gap in our Festival family.” Artistic Director, Des McAnuff said, “I first met Wayne Robson more than 30 years ago when I offered him a part in A Mad World, My Masters at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto – which he had to turn down in order to accept a role in Robert Altman’s movie Popeye. I’d been looking for another opportunity to work with him ever since, so I was naturally delighted when he agreed to join our 2011 company…. Now I am utterly heartbroken that he has been taken from us so prematurely, with such an important contribution still to make. Wayne was an outstanding artist who had a diverse and accomplished career on stage, in film and on television, and his loss will be heavily felt not only here in Stratford but across our country.” I have heard universally from those who knew him that Wayne Robson was a kind, funny man who made those around him feel at ease and happy. I am certain that he would have been brilliant as Grampa in The Grapes of Wrath, and it seems so unfair that we have all been robbed of this opportunity to share in that experience. The Stratford Production will be dedicated, with much love, I’m sure, to his memory.
There is actually a quote from Double Double Toil and Trouble of Mr. Gravedigger’s that I sometimes reference sheepishly; “I guess that being brave isn’t about not being scared, but doing what has to be done anyway.” I have tucked it away in my heart since childhood, and I think on it when I need a boost to take the risks and to dare to leap, in both work and in play, toward my dreams, lofty goals and the scary unknown. Now it will make me think of Wayne, gone much too soon, who made me giggle every All Hallows Eve giving a truly dedicated and delightfully silly performance in an obscure Made-for-TV Olsen twins vehicle from 1993. I am very grateful for that and will always remember him.
Wayne Robson leaves behind his children, Ivy and Louis; their mother Lynn; and many, many friends and colleagues in theatre, film and television. Funeral details will be announced at a later date.