South Shore loses venerable actor

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>MICHAEL TOMPKIN PHOTO</p><p>The late John Dunsworth in the television series <em>Haven</em>, filmed in Chester.</p>
  • <p>MICHAEL TOMPKIN PHOTO</p><p>The late John Dunsworth in the television series <em>Haven</em>, filmed in Chester.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p><em>Trailer Park Boys</em> creater and director, Mike Clattenburg, told LighthouseNOW Dunsworth &#8220;played the best drunk on TV ever.&#8221; But he didn&#8217;t drink. &#8220;Never really did.&#8221;</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Tom Gallant, friend of colleague of the late John Dunsworth for 30 years, on his boat in Lunenburg.</p>

The South Shore lost one of its most venerable actors last week with the passing of John Dunsworth, 71, who was born in Bridgewater and had a home at Southwest Cove.

Colleagues and friends here were quick to recognize the significance of the loss.

"He really was one of the main icons or faces of the Nova Scotia theatre and film business," commented cinematographer Christopher Ball, who has a home on Church Lake.

"Absolutely stunned. I'm grieving pretty hard," said the actor and musician Tom Gallant from his boat in Lunenburg, who had known and worked with Dunsworth off and on for about 30 years.

"You won't see the like of him again," Gallant told LighthouseNOW.

Gallant and Dunsworth were members of what Gallant called former Neptune Theatre artistic director John Neville's "gang of Nova Scotia actors."

"He was a spectacularly good actor. And wanted for everyone to do well. So he was always helpful and kind and funny.

"A force for good. I can't ever think of any time I spent with John where I just didn't walk away feeling better about life after."

Dunsworth's daughter, Sarah, announced his passing on Twitter on October 16 and confirmed it in emails to the media.

"John left this world peacefully after a short and unexpected illness."

Dunsworth became a recognized face in households across Canada for his portrayal of the alcoholic Dartmouth trailer park superviser Jim Lahey in the comedy series Trailer Park Boys.

The creator and director of the hit series, Mike Clattenburg, who was born in Cole Harbour, commented to LighthouseNOW, " Maybe one of the reasons he was such a good actor is because he loved people, and I mean everyone."

Dunsworth was also known as the mysterious reporter Dave Teagues on the supernatural drama series Haven, which was filmed in Chester.

Ball had known Dunsworth for more than 20 years, beginning when they were both working on the film Dolores Claiborne. Dunsworth had been been casting director of the film.

Their paths crossed again on Haven.

"I always really liked him. He was very professional. Because of his background, he really knew everything about the film business. He knew what was going on in front of the camera, and he knew what was going on behind the camera.

"Nobody could ever put the wool on him because he was very knowledgeable about the whole process," Ball told LighthouseNOW in a telephone interview from Toronto.

"To me he was one of the mainstays of the Nova Scotia film industry and probably one of mainstays of the Nova Scotia theatre industry.

"He was always there. He was always involved in various projects, working behind the scenes and on camera."

Ball noted that Dunsworth had actively lobbied against the provincial government's move on the film industry tax credit.

Born in Bridgewater in 1946, Dunsworth was never far from the sea, spending a lot of his free time on his yacht and family property at Southwest Cove.

Widely regarded as one of Nova Scotia's most experienced and accomplished actors, he appeared in numerous CBC radio dramas and held leading roles in more than 25 Neptune Theatre productions.

"In 1970, long before the days of waterfront renewal, John convinced the city of Halifax to lease to him a run-down old building by the shipyards which he turned into Pier One Theatre - Halifax's first and arguably its most successful alternative theatre company," reports IMDb, an online database of information related to the entertainment industry.

According to IDMb's biography of Dunsworth, in 1987 he founded Filmworks Casting , "where he worked as Halifax's most successful casting director."

The bio indicates that Dunsworth and Clattenburg's paths first crossed in the mid-1990s when the actor auditioned for a small role in Clattenbur's short, One Last Shot.

IMD reports Dunsworth's small role "blossomed into a leading part - a part that garnered him a Best Performance award from the Atlantic Film Festival. From there, John developed that role into the character Jim Lahey, the trailer park supervisor on the series Trailer Park Boys,"

Dunsworth's recent film credits included principle roles in Sleepmurder for CTV, Blessing for CBS, Shattered City: Halifax Explosion for Salter Street Films and Three Needles, an Indie film by Thom Fitzgerald.

As well as for his acting, Dunsworth was renowned for his interest in stone masonry, and the lengths to which he would go for stonework for his home property.

Gallant describes once driving on Highway 103 and seeing Dunsworth's pick-up parked at the side of the road, front end up in the air.

"The front wheels weren't touching and I went, 'Jeez, that's John's truck. I wonder what he's doing?"

Gallant pulled over, and discovered his friend trying to winch a huge rock to take back to his home.

"It was so heavy it had the truck up in the air. It was hysterical. I get down there and say, 'John this is impossible.'"

Gallant says Dunsworth replied quickly, "'No, no, it's possible. Get that other pry out of the back of the truck.'

"So between the two of us we [winched] that big stone up to the road, into the back of the truck."

Gallant told his friend he would follow him home.

"Because his front wheels. Their contact with the road was tenuous."

Gallant says Dunsworth wanted to put more rocks in the back, but he convinced him to put some in the cab on the passenger side to get the wheels down.

"So we did that, and that made things a little better.

"That was him. He was eccentric without trying to be," says Gallant. "He never tried to be different, he just was different. He wasn't like anyone else."

Trailer Park Boys' director remembers John Dunsworth

Mike Clattenburg, creator and director of the television series, Trailer Park Boys, was among those in the entertainment industry to mourn the loss of actor John Dunsworth, who portrayed Mr. Lahey in the show.

LighthouseNOW reached out to Clattenburg for some of his memories and thoughts about the acclaimed late actor. He shared this with us by e-mail:

Maybe one of the reasons he was such a good actor is because he loved people, and I mean everyone. We'd be out driving, he'd stop and run into some field to shake hands with some guy who fixed his lawnmower 10 years ago, then talk to him about his family, he'd remember names and talk... and talk.

I'd have to yell "John!!! Let's get going, bud!" He didn't do this for acting research, he did it because that was John, he just loved people but it informed everything he did.

He was a man of the sea and was always up for adventure. He took me to Tancook island on his $2,000 (previously sunken) yacht The Emerald Princess. We documented this on Twitter and he signed virtual autographs for TPB fans.

He enjoyed doing this, and loved meeting fans in person. It was important to him and he was grateful for his success. So many times he talked to me about the people he met.

He told me a story once about a man in New Brunswick who was ready to kill himself, then saw John on TPB and had a such great laugh, it made him want to carry on. John recognized early on that TPB affected people in a very positive way and that meant everything to him.

He played the best drunk on TV ever (IMHO) and it was so convincing that many assumed he had to be drunk on set – far from it, he was studied, and did months of prep work and didn't drink. Never really did.

Playing drunk is one of the most difficult jobs for an actor, real drunks don't act drunk, they usually pretend they aren't drunk. It's complicated but John had it down. During a scene he could somehow deactivate parts of his brain, while tripping over things and remembering lines, and bring Lahey to life.

But John also brought humanity to the role, it wasn't a one dimensional portrayal of a crazy drunk, John made us actually care about Lahey.

He loved being 'in the moment'. He cherished the time between action and cut, even during rehearsal he would get so worked up. We were rehearsing at my house once and he ran out of my front door in just his underwear with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

I was somewhat concerned what my neighbours might think of this, but when they saw the face of the man wearing the underwear, everything was, Okay, that's just Dunsworth. They waved and smiled. I can still see John waving back, standing there in his tighty whities.

John had a natural ability to do stunts. Much of what you see in early seasons is really him, tripping down stairs or falling backwards into a fridge. I always had to reel John in on doing his own stunts. He loved it for the energy he got doing it, but even simple stunts are always dangerous, especially in your 60s.

Luckily he never really hurt himself because he could do it, as good as any stuntman I ever worked with. In Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys Lahey falls flat on his face from a stage, we had a stuntman for that scene, but John was so disappointed he couldn't do the stunt himself.

Very early on, 2002ish, when the show was just getting out there, we were out on his boat in Southwest Cove and we were talking about how bad the Trailer Park Boys was being received. People didn't get the show for a long time. I told him I knew he'd be famous for his role as Jim Lahey and he shrugged it off.

I don't think my memory is embellishing this, but a few seconds later - another boat appeared out of the fog and we heard a man yell from a distance "Hey! Mr Lahey!" We were both kind of stunned at the very first fan encounter, at that moment, in the middle of the sea.

He loved rocks and was a self-taught stone mason. The work he did around his house is quite amazing. For years, he had a little blue truck with a small crane on the back. And during his drives back and forth to set, he'd see a nice rock, brakes on. He'd take it back home and place one more stone in his marina sea wall.

One or two rocks a day, over the years it accumulated into the most impressive stone work I have ever seen in Nova Scotia. I think he knew one day, people would remember him by this work as well. He was a hard worker, physical back breaking work was just fun for him, he couldn't stop working, he was like Doozer from Fraggle Rock.

His death was unexpected and sudden, but he didn't suffer and lived each and everyday of his life with joy and love. He truly lived.

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