Colm Feore’s legendary career on stage and screen celebrated with a GG award

Colm Feore. Photo: Ann Baggley

Colm Feore may have Boston on his passport as his birthplace, but his first North American home of any duration was actually in Ottawa where his Irish father got a job as a hospital radiologist. Feore’s dad had been studying in the Massachusetts city. 

Colm and his mother left Boston for Dublin and then joined his father in Bytown where they all stayed until the family landed in Windsor, Ontario, where his father got a better radiology job at the Rose City’s Hotel Dieu Hospital. 

He enjoyed life in Windsor, he said in an interview with ARTSFILE. He even worked in a car plant for a summer.

His parents sent him to a French school in Windsor, which has deep francophone roots that are evident in the city’s street names. Over the years he has polished his facility with the language of Voltaire to the point where he could voice an audio book for the current prime minister in both official languages.

But Windsor is also the end point for Highway 401 and pretty soon Feore was travelling down the highway of his life.

The 401 and I are well acquainted from Windsor to Montreal and the National Theatre School,” Feore said. The star of stage and screen, with literally dozens of credits to his name, is being honoured this week in Ottawa with an award from the Governor General for a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts. And he will be celebrated at the annual gala in the National Arts Centre on April 27, an event he has actually hosted many times in the past.

But before we get to Ottawa, there are other stops on the way.

First was Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario where Feore spent from  Grade 8 to Grade 13.  

Acting was a thing for Feore as a kid.

“I remember doing it in grade school and being embarrassed by it for reasons unknown. I was playing either the prince or the king and there was some leaf wafting and somebody was to put their fingers through my hair and that I found skin-crawlingly embarrassing.

But the idea of being king for a day appealed.

“And so I got over my distaste for it. In high school around Grade 8 or 9 I was dragooned into doing stuff and quite liked it. By the end of high school we were doing things like the Simpson Sears Drama Festival. There were intramural things going on and I tended to be in all of that.”

“To be frank, I wasn’t particularly good at anything else. I didn’t distinguish myself as a writer or a scientist.”

In his last years at Ridley, Feore had a teacher who suggested he audition for the National Theatre School.

“I had no idea what that would entail. He offered to help and even offered to drive me to the audition in Toronto. I went and did a couple of pieces for Douglas Rain who was the artistic director there at the time. I’m sure that’s the only reason I got in.”

Feore was accepted but he didn’t know about it right away.

The school had sent the official letter to his parents in Windsor who didn’t know he was applying. Feore was actually alerted by a friend at the theatre school in Montreal, who had seen his name on a list of incoming students for the fall term in 1977. 

“And, of course this occasioned much joy.”

He then nervously phoned his parents and said “‘Listen, there’s a bit of a wrinkle in the whole university thing. I think I have been accepted to the National Theatre School.’

“They said, ‘Oh yes, forgot to tell you. The acceptance was sent here so we signed on your behalf.’

“I thought that was a pretty sterling endorsement. They were as nervous as hell. It wasn’t at all what a Ridley education was supposed to get you but they supported me and I was heartened and delighted.

“Off I went to theatre school and I haven’t done anything else since.”

It has been a remarkable career. At the Stratford Festival, his credits include Romeo, King Lear, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac and MacBeth among many, many others.

His film credits are even more numerous with roles as Glenn Gould (32 Short Films about Glenn Gould), and Martin Ward the anglo officer in Bon Cop Bad Cop 1 and 2. On TV, he’s probably best remembered in Canada for Trudeau, the mini-series on the life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. 

“When one is dealing with projects — I don’t want to be coy — but I don’t want to pretend that I just sit here receiving scripts and saying yes to everything. It sounds a bit desperate.

“Everything that has come my way that I have said yes to has in some way been helpful. It’s allowed me to grow. It has changed my perspective. It’s paid a few more bills. It has kept the kids (he has three with his partner Donna, who is a performing arts dynamo in her own rite) in shoe leather.

“I say no only if it is really not something I want to do and I always do it reluctantly, so,” he admits, “maybe I am conditioned to say yes.”

He does talk with fellow actors about the luxury of saying no and what that might be like.

Still, “for lo, these 40 odd years it has been fun mostly saying yes.”

The work has taken him to places and made him do things he’d never do under normal circumstance.

He recalled playing a Russian in the move Iron Eagle 2 which was filmed in Israel. “When else am I going to get a free trip to Israel, or spend time in Budapest playing a Roman cardinal.”

But it starts really with Stratford where he worked for some 13 years and lives today.

“I have had a terrific relationship with Stratford where I have done dozens of plays which were foundational, which allowed me the confidence to do all these other things.

Stratford offers a great advantage to an actor in repertory.

“You are fully immersed in a very rigorous and demanding schedule of plays from the moment you say yes. It’s six days a week doing two, three, four, I have done as many as five plays in a season.

“You were working with Brian Bedford or Len Cariou or Richard Monette.” 

They could tell a young actor how to avoid the pitfalls of the trade.

“Monette would say: ‘Stop what you are doing right now because you are clearly an asshole’.

“This was very important. You could be there and steal everything they did. We are all callow and arrogant, thinking we are fabulous but we are not so fabulous as to not recognize when somebody did something right.

“I remember playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Monette was directing.

“I did something I thought was so cool. It was an inflection; a reading of the line after he gets stabbed and says, ‘Well, I am hurt’

“I did it kind of witty and flip. Bernard Hopkins said ‘Ah yes, the Richardson in 1953’.”

Proof, Feore says, there’s nothing new under the sun.

“We are just stealing from Henry Irving and beyond and that’s the point. You absolutely stand on the shoulders of everybody before you.”

The lessons of Stratford carried easily on to the screen big or small, Feore said. He believes the difference is technical.

“You need to understand how cameras work or an auditorium works. 

“I made it my business to study the camera when I was going to do more film and TV. All the guys I admire most, including Anthony Hopkins, whom I have had pleasure of doing a couple of things with, do that. The first guy he would make friends on a set with was the focus puller.  He’d ask what lenses he was using.

“That would explain what the frame was going to be. And so he would then know how much acting to bring to each scene. Over an 18 hour day that’s a hugely important thing to know.”

Feore finds parallels working on Stratford’s famous thrust stage.

“It’s a very dramatic space and there’s not a lot of set possible. It’s just you and the words.

“You have to tell the audience: ‘This is the wide shot’ by gesturing as big as you can. This is more intimate. So you bring it down and bring it down until you are in an extreme close up; not moving a muscle and saying the words ‘To be or not to be’. The 2.000 people in the audience are riveted to the only thing that is happening and if you understand that …”

He loves doing both, he says. 

“I like a thing that is rigorous and alive and because I am driven and trained properly I’m never quite happy with what has gone before. I’m always taking notes trying to make it better so a cloud hangs over me until the final performance.”

The Francois Girard film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is the lynchpin of Feore’s  cinema and television career.

“Francois Girard came to Stratford to audition me and sniff me up and down.”

The film appealed to Feore because of the opportunity to do so many different kinds of work in one movie.

At the end of it, Girard told Feore he should do more film work but that meant being “available” and that meant being unemployed.

Feore couldn’t see that future at the time.

But after the film was released and was out on video, he said, “‘Now I’m going’.” He had something he could show directors and producers.

Suddenly Feore was sitting down with directors like Robert Redford, Sidney Lumet and Milos Forman, “directors I had no business talking to who had seen 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.”

He saw the film again recently and he believes it has aged well. 

“It was still as clever and charming as when it first appeared.”

The film also taught him an important lesson in humility. It was up for many Genie awards and won everything except best actor.

“I thought OK. It hurt, but I thought I get it, so you can have it, but you can’t have it all.” 

But he could take boxes of cassettes and head to New York and Los Angeles and meet with and work for Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood and Julie Taymor,

“I’m good with that.”

Since he has worked in Hollywood and in Canada on smaller projects, Feore understands the differences.

“One of the things have to understand when you are working in Canadian film is that it’s not America. It is never going to be.

“We don’t have the population; there is not enough money. 

Canadian films are done for pennies instead of for millions. You could make whole Canadian shows out of some actors’ salaries in U.S., he said.

To do them then, he said, an actor has to accept all that and use one to subsidize the other.

“I did one last week for a young filmmaker, Kelly McCormack, who was also the writer, the star and the producer. It was a thrilling experience to watch a group get together to do that. I wanted to be a part of it.

“I was so pleased that they needed a goat-like balding older man and that I could bring that to the table for them.

“With a face like mine, it took me years to fall into it. I was always going to be a character guy in film and TV. I’m just to weird looking. But there is a sweet spot in weird looking where there are enough lines, the right amount of hair to look like there is some history. I thought once I fall into my face I might just be employable. There will be a range of good parts open to me.”

That has proven to be the case surely.

He recalls saying to another veteran actor, “‘One of the great things about getting older in this trade is there are now fewer of us’.” His colleague replied wryly, “‘Those who are left are good’.”

Christopher Plummer for one.

“I saw him not too long ago at a documentary celebrating his life. He was doing three films at the time. I said to him I was watching another documentary about you on the plane. I feel compelled to tell you it was on the History Channel.

“If he stopped, I’d get more work. People might look for him and find he’d be golfing then look around and ask who is old and available?” Feore said tongue firmly in cheek.

Winning a GG at 60 was a poser, but one’s age at any given time of life is a mixed blessing. 

“People say you are playing King Lear too young. Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s Lear was 36. Paul Scofield was 40. The point is if you can’t carry the girl you shouldn’t be playing Lear. I knew that as I got older, I might not have been able to do it.”

This is the spirit in which he accepts the GG:

“What will the third act be? Here’s is this sterling endorsement for the last 40 years now what have you got.”

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.