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Memoir

“I was a troubled teenager when I met the late legendary actor Gordon Pinsent. He changed my life”

When Lisa Bunting was cast alongside Pinsent in the CBC’s A Gift to Last, she didn’t know that working with the celebrated Canadian actor would be a highlight of her almost-50-year career—or that he would have a profound influence on her life

By Lisa Bunting
"I was a troubled teenager when I met the late legendary actor Gordon Pinsent. He changed my life"

In 1978, I was a too-serious 18-year-old with long auburn hair, freckles and a troubled home life. Growing up in North Toronto, I had dreamed of becoming an actor from the age of six. I’d performed in Shakespeare plays in high school, but my only television experience was in a McHappy Day commercial, so I was thrilled when I was cast in the recurring role of Tess, one of five Irish girls in the CBC series A Gift to Last, starring Gordon Pinsent. I’d seen the storied Canadian actor in the CBC’s Quentin Durgens, M.P. and in the 1972 film he wrote and starred in, The Rowdyman. I was nervous to meet him.

A Gift to Last was a three-season family drama set in 1900, in the fictional town of Tamarack, Ontario. Gordon played the roguish Sergeant Edgar Sturgess, and his romantic interest, the Irish housemaid Sheila (played by Dixie Seatle), had brought the five girls from Ireland to work in the town’s shoe factory. We shot interior scenes in the CBC studios and exteriors on a charming outdoor set in Kleinburg. On our first day of shooting, in period hair, makeup and long skirts, the Irish girls were led onto a soundstage where Gordon was in the middle of a scene. I was star-struck. Between takes, Gordon thrust out his hand and introduced himself warmly. He was a status equalizer: he never assumed that we—or anyone—would or should know who he was. 

The other Irish girls were a little older than me, with more experience in the business. I was initially intimidated by their strong personalities, but they were great fun, helping me with my accent and the technical side of being on set. We moved as a gaggle, and Gordon cried, “Watch out!” whenever we approached. 

Although we were in scenes with him, we rarely interacted with Gordon’s character directly. One day, I edged myself into his proximity. “Gordon,” I said, with as worldly an air as I could manage, “I see that a book of A Gift to Last has been published. Often, these books based on TV shows and movies aren’t very good. Do you think this one will be?” He looked confused for a moment, then stammered, “I hope so—I wrote it.” 

Actor Gordon Pinsent
A Gift to Last, the book, written by Gordon Pinsent and Grahame Woods

On set, Gordon led by example: focused yet playful when the cameras were rolling, loose and cheerful between takes. Before a big scene, he would say in a stage whisper, “Okay, everyone, lick your lips and tense up!” When he was “on,” the cast and crew were drawn to Gordon like moths. Between takes, during meal breaks or later, at the Celebrity Club, an actors’ haunt across from CBC’s studios on Jarvis Street, we gathered around him. Eyes twinkling, he regaled us with stories of his youth and his six years in Hollywood, starring in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), sometimes cracking himself up until tears of laughter streamed down his face. 

When I was lucky, I sat close to him and listened as he spoke about his personal or professional struggles, sometimes offering sage advice: “In order to have longevity in the business, you have to develop a personal mean line, so when you get good reviews, you don’t get too high on yourself, and when you get bad ones, you don’t get too low.” He told me that there was always room for talent at the top; you didn’t need to compete with others, just be true to yourself and honest in the work. I was struck by his insights and the generosity with which he dispensed words of wisdom from his hard-won experience.

Actor Gordon Pinsent
Pinsent as Sergeant Edgar Sturgess in A Gift to Last

We were on hiatus from the show when our first episode aired in January 1978. Gordon knew that I and the other Irish girls had never seen ourselves on television, so he and his wife, actor Charmion King, invited us for dinner at their Forest Hill home to watch it. The statuesque Charm graciously welcomed us inside and led us to a beautiful smorgasbord laid out on a large coffee table. When Gordon joined us, we stumbled over ourselves vying for his avuncular attention. I cursed myself for being self-conscious and shy.

As the evening drew to a close, Gordon offered to give us all a lift home. I was the last to be dropped off. Alone with him, I awkwardly steered the conversation toward what I had long ached to tell this kind man: Dad had left the family, Mom had had a series of breakdowns, and with my older sister away at university and my younger brother at boarding school, I had been left to check Mom in and out of Sunnybrook Hospital’s psychiatric wing from the age of 14. She was there now, so when we pulled up to the house, it was dark. Gordon had listened quietly to my story, making little sounds of dismay. With the engine idling, he gently asked me questions. He seemed to be at a loss and expressed sorrow for my predicament. I was comforted by his response to my shameful secret: despite having two living parents, I felt like an orphan. Then he walked me to my front door. As we parted, he gave me the kind of warm, fatherly hug I had always yearned for from my dad.

In May 1979, I learned that the Irish girls had been written into another season of A Gift to Last. I had to decide whether to write my final Grade 13 exams or remain for the last episodes with Gordon. I dropped out of school, without regrets. 

Back on set, I craved Gordon’s guidance. I’d been cast in a two-person play in which, for much of it, my character was seated, bound and topless. Though my body wanted to say no, my mind told me that it was an opportunity, that a good actor would have the courage. I’d called my father to find out what he thought, and he’d encouraged me to make my own decision. Still conflicted, I asked Gordon. He assured me that it wasn’t necessary for me to perform in the play and that, if I planned to be in the business for the long haul, turning it down would not make or break my career. Relieved, I ended up not doing it. After that, I felt like Gordon was watching over me from afar.

Later that year, after Gift had wrapped, I was acting in a play at Factory Theatre. I had invited Gordon, but I didn’t expect him to show—a snowstorm that week had reduced our already small audiences. But, one night, there he was. Afterward, I introduced him to my mother, and then he took me aside to give me a few notes, not on the show itself but on the bright attributes he saw in me as an actor. He asked me to promise that I would never lose my fresh, natural quality.

I was excited when, in 1989, I got to work with him again in Canadian Stage and Necessary Angel’s co-production of John Krizanc’s The Half of It, directed by Richard Rose. Gordon was playing a corrupt businessman, so I arranged for a research visit to the Toronto Stock Exchange, where my dad was then president. John, Richard and Dad were carrying on an erudite exchange when I noticed Gordon. He was taking in Dad’s shoes, trousers, tie and haircut, cocking his head to see the brand of my father’s wristwatch, studying his mannerisms and how he carried himself— the actor learning the character.

During rehearsal breaks, Gordon confessed to me that, for much of the ’80s, he’d felt unwanted professionally in Canada and struggled with depression. I was moved by his openness and vulnerability as a performer and a man. Thankfully, he soon experienced a gratifying career renaissance, starting with the TV series Due South and then receiving international recognition for his heartbreaking portrayal of a husband losing his wife to Alzheimer’s disease in Sarah Polley’s film Away from Her

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On the opening night of The Half of It, Gordon, a gifted visual artist, gave each of us a copy of a caricature he’d drawn of the cast and creatives. He signed mine, “The Irish girl has never looked better!” Every night, I watched from the wings as Gordon performed a monstrous monologue from the top of the stage. He never played it the same way twice. Each performance was a rehearsal for him; he was always searching and reaching. By this time, I had become what TV director James Burrows calls a “heat-seeking missile for laughs.” Gordon teased me about it, telling me that aiming for sure-fire audience laughter night after night was fine but that I could do better by freeing myself from the need for a “perfect” performance and looking for the truth. It was advice I never forgot. 

Actor Gordon Pinsent
Pinsent’s caricature of the cast and creatives of The Half of It

In August 1995, I bumped into Gordon as he and Charm were passing through Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was pregnant, and Gordon was overjoyed for me. The light that poured from him was, for once, matched by my own expectant glow. I was then living and acting in Vancouver, and we seized the chance to catch up. It felt like we could talk forever, and we parted with regret. 

Almost two decades later, in 2018, I was at the Foster Festival in St. Catharines for the opening night of a comedic play starring Gordon’s daughter, Leah, and her husband, Peter. Gordon, spotting me in the lounge, swept me into his arms for a dance. “La da di, la da dah,” he sang. I laughed, remembering his tales of being an Arthur Murray ballroom instructor in his youth. I was delighted to still feel that same warm bond with him, as though no time had passed.

The last time I saw Gordon was during Toronto’s first Covid reopening, in 2020. With Nicky Guadagni, who played my sister in The Half of It, I sat across from him at his kitchen table in the condo he and Charm had shared until her death, in 2007. Now, at 90, Gordon told his stories more slowly, and we waited patiently for his punchlines, which were always worth it. At one point, he became reflective, musing about his late mother, Flossie, and wondering about an afterlife. We walked around the corner to a restaurant on Jarvis Street where the waiters treated him like gold. I slid beside him onto the banquette. “Ahh,” he said ruefully, squeezing my knee under the table. “The Irish girl’s long, red hair is gone.” “Yes,” I murmured, grateful to once again be seated next to him. He grabbed my hand and held it tightly. I wondered if it was the last time I would see him. 

This past February, I was at a friend’s farm when a high school friend texted me, “Thinking of you especially on this day with the news of Gordon Pinsent.” I looked out over a snowy field and was overcome with a sense of loss. As I scribbled down my memories of him, more came flooding in. Professionally, Gordon’s mentorship had been like a compass for me, always orienting me back to myself. And his fatherly warmth and care one cold winter night when I needed it most is forever seared in my heart. Then my brother sent me a message: “Not sure if I mentioned it but I saw Pinsent in the last 18 months and mentioned you to him. He remembered.” And I’ll never forget. I was in love with him. We all were.

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