Renowned Actor Douglas Campbell Dead at 87

Renowned Actor Douglas Campbell Dead at 87

Douglas Campbell, renowned actor and director died at age 87 on Tuesday at Montreal's Hôtel Dieu hospital of complications of diabetes and heart disease.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland on June 11, 1922, he once described his parents as "socialists, pacifists and vegetarians" – beliefs that he stuck to as well for his entire life. Campbell would never have been mistaken for a matinee idol. “I am not a very glamorous person. I am not particularly good looking. I’ve got a big, bulbous nose, I’m on the heavy side,” he once said of himself. “I come across as loud and aggressive apparently. I am not the sort of person who attracts people on the ordinary level.” But attract attention he did, and much affection, too.

“We’ve had phone calls from all over the country,” his wife, actor Moira Wylie, said yesterday. “People just adored him. Even though they disagreed with him. He had a good time in the theatre. He loved the actors and wished them well.” 

Campbell was admitted into the hospital a week ago for what seemed to be a minor ailment, but longtime diabetes and resultant congestive heart disease had taken their toll. “Everything just sort of went at once,” Wylie said. “It was just incredibly surprising. It all hit us sideways a bit.”

Campbell was originally slated to return to Philadelphia last season to direct John Patrick Shanley’s army base drama Defiance at Bristol Riverside Theatre (Bristol, PA), an ironic twist given his life as a conscientious objector and pacifist. Visa complications prevented the collaboration.

Campbell was a longtime BRT collaborator starring in and directing such productions as The Dresser (for which he won the Barrymore Award), Hamlet, Tete-a-Tete, The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, Copenhagen, and most recently as the voice of God in Altar Boyz

Says BRT Founding Director Susan Atkinson, “Douglas first came into our lives when I picked up the phone and cold called him. [Artistic Director] Keith Baker wanted him to appear in The Dresser. We didn’t know him but I found a phone number somewhere. When he answered the phone, I can truly say I was for once in my life intimidated; the “Hello” was enough to render me speechless. I figured I either had contacted him or the call had gone straight to God, himself. What a voice. But it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. So one day more recently, we were having lunch and I jokingly reminded Douglas about that first phone call and it hit me immediately, ‘Get Douglas to do the voice of God for Altar Boyz!’  I will always remember hearing Douglas trying to say ‘peace out’ without laughing.  And that was his last performance with us. Douglas made us better than we thought we could be and reminded us of why we do theatre.  He was a force of nature.  I cannot imagine not seeing him coming through the doors for rehearsal ever again.  He was an inspiration and a friend.”

Campbell’s first job in the theatre came in 1939 at the age of 17 when he hitch-hiked to London where he got a job at The Old Vic Theatre Company as a truck driver, helping to transport scenery. Later work in the theatre included starring in the 1961 Broadway production of Paddy Chayefsky's Gideon, and directing the 1962 Broadway production of Orson Welles' adaptation of Moby Dick. Other Broadway performing credits include Equus, The House of Atreus, The Golden Age (which he also directed), The Broken Jug, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Mary Stuart.

Cambell was a Shakespearean actor par none and a longtime member of both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals. Says journalist Richard Ouzouniana, “In a world where diction is scorned, passion is debunked and commitment is something to be avoided at all costs, Campbell was an anomaly.”

BRT Artistic Director Keith Baker notes, “One morning, when I was directing Douglas in The Dresser, I asked him if he would record several Shakespearean monologues for use in the play.  I arrived, at 10am, with the Shakespeare anthology in hand.  He just looked at me and smiled.  Not taking the anthology, he asked ‘What do you need, dear boy?’  I told him just two or three of the great speeches if he didn't mind.  He proceeded, from memory of course, to perform six of the speeches you have heard all your life.  Somehow it seemed I had never heard them before this. He was a great classical actor at the height of his powers.  I turned to my wife and said, ‘don't forget this, you won't see it again.’”

Campbell is survived by his second wife, Moira Wylie, his children, Dirk (a television director), Teresa, Thomas (a painter), Benedict, Beatrice (Shaw Festival Stage Manager) and Torquil (actor and lead singer/songwriter of the indie rock band Stars), eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Among Campbell’s many awards is a Barrymore for Outstanding Leading Actor in a play for his work in The Dresser at Bristol Riverside Theatre. In 1997 he was made a member of the Order of Canada, and in 2003 he received the Canadian Governor General's Award for the Performing Arts.

Baker says, “It is very difficult to talk about Douglas Campbell, both as an artist and as a personal friend, without hyperbole and, perhaps some overindulgence.  But he would hate that.  He knew his worth and had no need to exalt himself.  I simply had never met a man like him.  In his deepest self he was an uncompromising artist who saw the potential in others and spared nothing to help them realize it.  A simple talk with him was enough to transform your feelings about yourself and the world in which you must be responsible to the artist within you. We worked on five plays together, both as directors and fellow players, as he would call it, and the honor was mine.  His all-embracing eyes and great arms were always available.  He was unequivocally interested in everyone and everyone knew it.  He was my dearest friend.”


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