|A death in the family
||[Jun. 10th, 2006|11:27 am]
Mutant X Discussion
Actor Leon Pownall, who played Dr. Victor Palance in the Mutant X episode "Shadows of Darkness," died of cancer last week. He was 63 years old.|
Globe and Mail article
LEON POWNALL, ACTOR, WRITER AND DIRECTOR: 1943-2006
Dedicated thespian who went from high-school drama classes to playing Shakespeare on stage at the Stratford Festival was a firebrand who found stardom. All the same, he never lost his faith in grassroots theatre companies
Canadian Press; Globe and Mail archives
STRATFORD, ONT. -- It made sense that Leon Pownall found inspiration in the work and life of Dylan Thomas. They were both born in Wales and they both worshipped the magic of language. Although the connection ended there -- Mr. Pownall left Wales as a boy and it was all over for Dylan Thomas by the time the great Welsh poet drank himself to death at 39 -- the influence remained deep and ingrained until 18 months ago when Mr. Thomas brought his play Do Not Go Gentle to the stage in Stratford, Ont.
The results were intoxicating, and had much to do with Mr. Pownall's harmonic structure. A Shakespearian actor, he had written the play in 1982 under the title Dylan Thomas Bach (bach being Welsh for dear) and judiciously mixed Thomas's poetry, recollections and all the man's demons.
It was Mr. Pownall's final venture into theatre. Appropriately enough, it was staged by PostScript Productions, a new theatre company based in Stratford, Ont., that was dedicated to Canadian playwrights. To throw in his lot with an underdog was something he had done all his life.
"He was a wonderful actor as well as a director and a writer, said Richard Monette, artistic director for the Stratford Festival. "He was last here directing Do Not Go Gentle . . . and though he could be difficult, he had a heart of gold."
Leon Pownall who, spent 14 seasons with the Stratford Festival, arrived in Canada with his family in 1957. The Pownalls settled in Hamilton, Ont., where the teenage Leon went to Hamilton's Central High School and discovered a deep fascination in acting. Inspired by his drama teacher, he was accepted to the National Theatre School of Canada in 1964. Coincidentally, he also received an offer to join the Stratford Festival for that year's season. He chose Stratford over the school in Montreal, beginning a relationship with Canada's premier theatre company that would last eight consecutive seasons, progressing from playing messengers and pages to such roles as Henry V (1966) and Laertes (1969).
From Stratford, Mr. Pownall moved to British Columbia. He took a hiatus from theatre, running his own business in Vancouver and seemed to have given up treading the boards until he started teaching drama at the Matsqui Penitentiary in Abbotsford. That experience convinced him to return to the theatre. He worked as artistic director of the White Rock Summer Theatre and took a position as artist-in-residence at the University of British Columbia.
In 1983, he also founded the Shakespeare Plus festival in Nanaimo, B.C., with high hopes that what the bard had done for Stratford he would again do for Vancouver Island. By August of 1985, the dream had faded. Labouring under a deficit of $100,000, his company had staged just three plays and only half the seats in its 300-seat theatre were sold.
By then, however, he had again been well and truly bitten by the theatre bug. In 1986, he went back to Stratford to portray Henry VIII. It was a triumphant return. He played the infamous Henry as an insolent, energetic young king who verged on the unkingly in a manner that unsettled some theatre-goers. In the scene in which a conspiracy of nobles try to exile one of Henry's appointees, the actor announced his presence on stage by absently whistling a tune from upstage. Subsequent Stratford roles included Claudius in Hamlet; Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1991); and Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra (1993).
In the meantime, Mr. Pownall continued to surface at remoter venues, as much to support small companies that he believed deserved help.
In 1987, he played an older Elvis Presley in Are You Lonesome Tonight? at the Charlottetown Festival in PEI. The play, the subject of a local furor because of its strong language, represented a new direction for the festival, which was known for family plays such as Anne of Green Gables. The play required two actors. Ben Bass impersonated the young Elvis, and Mr. Pownall impersonated the older and drug-ridden Elvis.
The production held "up a mirror to society," Mr. Pownall told a local reporter. "It takes a very good look at how society deals with success and the people who achieve it. There's a great quote at the start of Alan Bleasdale's script for Are You Lonesome Tonight? which says, essentially, that America always kills its heroes."
At the time, the head of publicity at the Charlottetown Festival was Moira Dann, now an editor at The Globe and Mail. That year, Mr. Pownall played opposite ends of the character continuum, she said. "Are You Lonesome Tonight? alternated on the main stage along with Anne Of Green Gables and Leon played Matthew in Anne and the older Elvis in Lonesome."
Mr. Pownall had a ritual for "becoming" Elvis, said Ms. Dann, who is editor of Facts & Arguments.
"It started at around 5:30 p.m. every day, long before his 7:30 call. He'd have a bite to eat in his dressing room, and start easing into bits of his costume; his voice would acquire a Southern accent as he listened to the music from the show while he put on his makeup. By the time he put on the wig [around 7:15], the transformation was complete: Leon was Elvis.
"And there was no cajoling him out of it; if you wanted to deal with Leon, you'd have to wait until after he'd cold-creamed off the last bit of makeup."
A year later, Mr. Pownall took on the operation of a small company in Toronto. It was to be yet another doomed project. In late July of 1988, he was named artistic director of Toronto Workshop Productions. The company was struggling under an accumulated debt of $250,000. "It was like, poor old dog TWP is sleeping on the sidewalk, and everybody takes a kick at it as they go by," he said. "I decided that we had to be positive and not get involved in squabbles that lead nowhere."
By October, however, the doors of TWP had been padlocked by its board of trustees after a dispute with a previous artistic director about plans to redevelop the property at 12 Alexander St., which was then the oldest continuous professional theatre in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pownall kept busy on television and in movies. Later that year, he appeared in a CBC production about the First World War called The Killing Ground in which he played Canon Frederick Scott, a middle-aged army chaplain who tragically found his son's remains on a battlefield. In 1989, he landed the role of a teacher in Dead Poet's Society opposite Robin Williams, and in 1997, he was nominated for a Gemini for his role as Dr. Ewen Cameron in The Sleep Room, an ambitious mini-series about the Montreal psychiatrist who thought he could find a dramatic cure for mental illness using psychedelic drugs and electroshock therapy. His work attracted the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency, which had its own reasons for wanting to know more about the limits of the human brain.
Mr. Pownall played Cameron as a man equally driven by ego and obsession. Cameron, he said, was no pantomime villain. "Ewen Cameron was not a monster who came out of some alien egg and suddenly appeared on the scene," he told The Globe and Mail. "This was someone who was hailed as one of the great modern minds of psychiatry. In Brandon, Man., he transformed the mental institution there from a medieval fortress into a Garden of Eden where people with various mental disorders could find the time and peace and tolerance to seek a recovery. It was only when he got into the brainwashing techniques at the Allan Institute that he took on the masque macabre."
Among Mr. Pownall's other appearances were principal parts in Bethune, How the West was Fun, Love and Hate, Million Dollar Babies and the title role in Handel's Last Chance. He also made guest appearances on The Road to Avonlea, Forever Knight, Street Legal, The Beachcombers and Slings and Arrows.
For all his success, he never failed to pitch in to show his support for struggling theatre companies. "Hell no, we're not gonna lie down and die," he declared characteristically at the opening of the 1995 Atlantic Theatre Festival in Wolfville, N.S. "We're gonna make great theatre."
Leon Pownall was born in Wrexham, in northern Wales, on April 26, 1943. He died of cancer in Stratford, Ont., on June 2. He was 63. He leaves two children, Monty and Peter.