Passings… (and The Beachcombers lesson)

I was sort of in the middle of writing a series of posts delving into my (oft repeated) theme of Canadian identity and cultural references in Canadian movies and TV. But I’m interrupting this for a moment because of a couple of recent obituaries, with both actor/comedian Paul O’Sullivan and actor/writer Marc Strange passing away — the former from a car accident, the latter after a long life and battle with cancer. Celebrity deaths occur (as they do to all of us) but the proximity of two such Canadian deaths within days of each other can cause one to grow contemplative.

(And I do end up tying this into my on-going theme toward the end of this post).

I don’t really want to get carried away, or suggest I have any particular knowledge or insight into either man or their careers — better, more incisive things I’m sure will be written by others. But as a blog so much concerned with Canadian entertainment, I figured it was worth spending a few passages on.

Actually, O’Sullivan is an actor with whom I’m not that familiar — save that he was one of the stars of the CBC Radio science fiction comedy, Canadia 2056. And honestly, Canadia 2056 is one of those things that, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who happened to so much as walk by the sound booth while they were recording it deserves special notice! It was a great, arguably unique series and I keep thinking I should write about it (honestly, I’ve got a few different drafts of pieces about it sitting on my hard drive!). So hearing O’Sullivan had died — and in something as arbitrary as a car accident — can strike me simply because his voice is so familiar from that great series.

Marc Strange passed away after a long and varied career. One obit I read referred to him as a Renaissance man and reading about him, you kind of get that impression. Even though he wasn’t that famous (one reference saying he kind of flew below the radar) his successes were kind of impressive.

I’m reminded of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs is playing Black Jack (a game where the goal is to get enough cards that their face value combine to make 21) and asks if he can stand on one card. His opponent laughs, and readily agrees to such a seeming self-defeating request…until Bugs turns up his card and it’s 21! My brother used to cite that sketch, humorously but a little whimsically, and the idea that wouldn’t it be neat if in life you really could find a mythical “21” card — that you really could stand on one card, as opposed to having to repeat your successes time and time again.

Reading about Strange’s life kind of put me in mind of that — a career that encompassed folk singing, acting, screenwriting and novelist (and genetically speaking, begetting actress Sarah Strange, herself a familiar face). I mean, saying Strange was an actor kind of underplays the fact that in the 1960s and early 1970s he was actually a leading man — in movies like Isabel (opposite Genevieve Bujold) and on TV in the crime-drama The Manipulators. He didn’t just act in things…he starred in a few of them! Then in the 1970s, as a writer he and his then wife, Lynn Susan, pitched a series to the CBC about a west coast harbour town…and The Beachcombers went on to become the longest running English-Canada TV series to date. Then late in life, at a time when most people are retired, Strange started writing detective novels…and apparently received a few nominations and awards for them!

That’s a lot of “21” cards to play in various careers. I mean, I could see an actor pitching a few failed pilots, or writing a few undistinguished novels…

Of course I was generally familiar with Strange as an actor, from episodic TV roles and supporting movie roles (I was actually surprised when, a few years ago, I saw a piece about The Beachcombers and they were interviewing Strange, and I kind of wondered why they were talking to this actor I recognized — until it was explained that he had helped create the darn thing!) Even later in life, gaunt but still charismatic, Strange cropped up in series like ReGenesis (as star Peter Outerbridge’s estranged dad) and had a cameo in the quintessential Canadian road movie, One Week.

I suppose I’m writing these pieces about Marc Strange and Paul O’Sullivan in part because it can be a bit frustrating in Canada how such passings often go unnoticed in local papers…papers that nonetheless will give a few columns to some obscure American actor who hadn’t acted in years and was only known for a couple of minor roles in some old, half-forgotten TV series.

But as I was writing this…I realized it actually does tie back into the theme I’ve been expounding upon over the last few posts — about Canadian culture and identity. Specifically, when one thinks about The Beachcombers.

Now The Beachcombers holds a curiously ambivalent place in Canadiana. As mentioned, as a commercial success it holds an unchallenged spot in English-Canadian culture, running something like 19 seasons, and even then many would argue its cancellation was part of an orchestrated attempt on the part of the then CBC brass to kill it (moving it from its traditional, high rated time slot, to another night where the audience numbers dropped, then declaring the ratings drop as the reason for its cancelation). And it still airs throughout the world in reruns.

Yet in some respects…it wasn’t that great a TV series. Or rather, it was kind of reflective of some of the cliches that plagued Canadian drama for so long — cheap looking, family friendly (meaning: kind of innocuous), with uneven acting and production values. Though, ironically, when you think about the technical logistics of filming (on location, often with speed boats roaring across water) I suspect I underappreciated how much effort and skill was involved in just putting the episodes together! But as a kid I didn’t tend to watch The Beachcombers with any regularity. I can certainly recall it as a ubiquitous part of my youth, but as much from channel surfing as from actually watching an episode from beginning to end. I recall certain memorable bits (one about a Sasquatch, another involving some duelling remote-controlled planes). Though even as a kid I recognized that series stars Bruno Gerussi (as hero, Nick Adonidas) and Robert Clothier (as his rascally nemesis, Relic) were charismatic, top notch actors who easily elevated any scene they were in.

But the success of The Beachcombers, and its cultural foot print, can not be over sold. I’ve even heard of people referring to a longshoreman’s toque as a “Relic hat” in conversation (after the character’s signature garb).

But what’s intriguing about The Beachcombers, and my on going theme of Canadian cultural identity, is what the series was about — and how it tied into, and drew upon, the wider zeitgeist of its day. The Beachcombers was set on the Canadian west coast, where often the easiest way for logging businesses to transport lumber was to simply float it where it need to go (we’ve all seen old footage of log dancers and the like). And the heroes of The Beachcombers were the kind of remora fish of that industry, who made their living rounding up and salvaging stray logs that floated away from the main “fleets” — Nick and Relic often opening their throttles full as they both raced for the same free floating log. Of course, much of the action took place on shore, or around the local diner. But The Beachcombers presented its own, unique little world of dreamers and libertarians eking out a living on the fringes of mainstream culture. It was a world, and characters, not seen much in TV or in movies…a kind of fun world, against a backdrop of blue water, sandy beaches and verdant forests. It wasn’t that it reflected the whole of the Canadian experience…but it was reflecting a small section of it. You could turn on the Beachcombers and feel, well, Canadian in a way a lot of other series couldn’t make you feel.

And, again, remember I’m not even a big fan of the series…but it still left an indelible impression upon my psyche.

The Beachcombers also had a few Native Indian actors among its regulars — a theme I’ve returned to a few times, about the different ways Native people are portrayed in Canadian and American movies and TV shows. Namely: in American shows they tend not to be depicted at all!

But — and here’s the interesting bit — as a young person I had assumed that series star Bruno Gerussi was Greek-Canadian because that was his character, Nick Adonidas. I saw no “point” to the character’s ethnicity, so I just assumed the character had been written generically (maybe named James Mackenzie in the original drafts) then renamed once the role was cast to suit the star (Gerussi already a respected Canadian actor). But then later I learned Gerussi was, in truth, Italian-Canadian and that the Greek ethnicity of Nick Adonidas had been intended all along. And as it was explained (by Strange, I think, in an interview I saw) the series came about shortly after the popularity of the motion picture, Zorba the Greek. So in creating The Beachcombers, they decided to play upon that then popular archetype of the zesty, free-wheeling Greek. Years later, most people probably haven’t seen Zorba the Greek (or even heard of it) but it’s sort of interesting to look back and realize The Beachcombers was a product of its time, drawing upon the global popular culture in crafting its scenario — even if later generations might assume Zorba was an imitation of…Nick Adonidas! It can be fun to point to creative antecedents — like noting the current U.S. TV drama Revenge is basically The Count of Monte Cristo for the O.C. generation.

Had The Beachcombers been created a few years later — or earlier — how might it have influenced the final product?

But that’s what I keep getting back to about Canadian culture, and cultural identity. In The Beachcombers we had a series that wasn’t slavishly imitating Hollywood and other global cinema (by, say, imitating Zorba the Greek by simply doing a series about a Greek man in Greece, starring a Hollywood actor)…yet wasn’t fanatically insular, sticking to some rigid, culturally stagnant stereotype of what Canadiana should be. Instead, it drew upon all those influences and mixed them up, grabbing up a bit here, a bit there, taking a Greek archetype…then plopping him down (and rooting him) in a milieu so Canadian it practically bled maple syrup. Nor even as a fish-out-of-water story. I can’t remember for sure, but I don’t think there was much to indicate Nick Adonidas wasn’t Canadian — he was Greek-Canadian, but still Canadian, perhaps setting out upon the path of presenting a pluralistic multi-cultural face of Canada that was hinted at earlier by the title character’s name in Wojeck, or later by the subtle ethnicity of characters in King of Kensington and Seeing Things.

The Beachcombers ran 19 seasons by not being afraid to be in-your-face Canadian, and yet also recognizing and incorporating the global culture into its mix. And maybe that, more than its commercial success, is the series’ legacy…and Marc Strange’s, too.

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2 Responses to Passings… (and The Beachcombers lesson)

  1. Jackson Davies says:

    Thanks for your words.

  2. M. E. Huis says:

    Marc was talented & Canadian. He was funny, loved his daughter, played tennis in Kits, would sit in the basement writing & then send the pages upstairs to his then wife, Lynn Susan Strange. The product, very Canadian.

    Thank you for the article. Marc Strange truly was part of the Canadian identity.