The Stage & I

My creative life began as an actor playing a hibernating Badger under a canvas carpet of leaves for thirty stifling minutes, emerging with a grunt --- Wind in the Willows, age 8, Sherborne Prep School. My mother waited another forty years to tell me that her father was a professional who once performed on the same stage where I received a drama scholarship: the Royal Theatre in Victoria. The role was Dicky Bach Dwl, (a Poacher's Assistant, confronted by a passing Bishop) and I was somewhat challenged by the stage directions ("his face shows a mind a little awry") of "a Welsh Wayside Comedy" in one act, Birds of a Feather, by J.O. Francis. (Six decades later, the Web caught a French's Acting Edition copy for me).

In 1952 that scholarship took me to UBC, across the water in Vancouver, where I rode my James motorbike unhindered by a helmet, and hammed it up in Ring Around the Moon - followed by my Professional debut (at the York Theatre in Victoria, 1953) as the sailor who sees the birthmark on the bum of the US Navy nurse in Mr. Roberts. More memorable (there was no actual bum for a 17 year-old to look at) was my nightly task of first collecting, and then returning, a billygoat by loading it into a 1950 Thames truck -- I forget why we needed the goat: I think it might have been to eat the Captain's Palm Tree. But for proof that the magical voyage to UBC's Summer School of the Theatre really happened, it washed up again fifty-five years later when the astonishing trawl of the Internet provided this totally unexpected backstage image.

History is all What-If's. Theatrical history seen through the bottom of a beer mug invariably adds Brando's maudlin punchline "I coulda been a contender" from On the Waterfront. It is a fact that both my maternal grandparents were Stage pros, and my grandfather was an actor-manager who toured three British companies across Canada in the early 1900's. The closest he came to a real contender was his business partner, Henry Esmond, who happened to become Lawrence Olivier's first father-in-law.

My grandfather borrowed Henry for his stage name, adding Howard. My unmarried mother called herself Mrs. Henry Howard, War Widow, when she took me with her into London shops. I had no conscious memory of any of this when I created a one-page character called Henry Howard, in On the Endangered List.

Writers seldom know what they are up to. I still want to play an actor (For current proof of ham, see Machismo photograph in Tango).