Maury Chaykin's irreplaceable madness

Maury Chaykin died this week on his 61st birthday. Some obits called him a character actor. It's basically a film-TV term -- where Maury mostly worked -- as opposed to star. Another term is supporting actor versus leading man. It's a shame he didn't do more stage work, where physical typing isn't as great. I once wrote a play on the Montreal Canadiens; a sports type who met the actor cast as Rocket Richard said, "You can't have a fat Rocket!" But you can and we did. Maury was a beautiful guy in his prime but not a typical movie lead; yet he'd have made a great Lear or Prospero. Asked by Jian Ghomeshi for a role he felt he'd nailed, Maury joked, "Hamlet," making you think it may have been on his wish list. He'd have enlarged our notion of the part, especially with the touch of madness he always brought.

More than a touch, really, it was unmissable. But a light madness, or a normal, sane kind, that you'd be crazy not to have a bit of. It wasn't a manic or dangerous crazy, the sort that Jack Nicholson does at the high end and many others at the low end. Maury's madness was moving and ethereal, as if he knew something, saw too far, sensed the horizon of vulnerability, mortality, nullity -- whatever -- that surrounds us all, and not just in moments of high drama like imminent death but in the midst of "ordinary" life. Think of him in Dances with Wolves, as Kevin Costner heads for the frontier and Maury's character intuits what will meet him there. We didn't need the gunshot to indicate he'd killed himself; he was already clearly past that point.

Another actor who had it was Burt Lancaster. He looked at someone or the camera, and seemed to be looking beyond -- he, too, knew something others did not. But Maury did it less flamboyantly, he didn't need to press. I picture what Marlon Brando strove so hard for as the insane Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now who gets to say, "The horror, the horror." Yet, Maury conveyed that effortlessly, all the time, and somehow with compassion and humour, too. He had dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship but chose to live here while frequently working there. "Canada has been a buffer for my sanity," he said.

He yearned for fame as all actors do, or must, in this era, along with almost everyone. When a huge billboard of his face for his Nero Wolfe series went up on Sunset Boulevard, he said: "I drive by it constantly, back and forth, back and forth." But he'd have done so without being wholly captured by it, with that sense of distance he had a unique ability to convey. We recently talked about someone we knew who'd made a run at that kind of fame but fallen short and been humiliated in the process. "He wasn't ever that famous," he said with a sort of combined wonder and realism.

We knew each other in Toronto theatre long ago but came together lately as older dads with our first kids. I ran into him a few weeks ago on a patio; his daughter Rosie had just gone to camp. He described his own first job at a camp where he'd been unjustly fired. The kids went on strike for him -- it was the Sixties, in the U.S. Under parent pressure, the owner offered his job back, but Maury held out for better terms. "It was my first negotiation!" he beamed, as if realizing it suddenly, although I know he'd told it before -- which is the secret of acting: keeping it fresh through takes or performances. It may be the secret of the acting impulse in all of us: an ability to go back where you've been, plumb it deeper, milk its meaning further, finally get it right.

He said and implied nothing then about his painful illness and possible death, as his own life drew closer to the ineffable thing all his roles had suggested. He was highly verbal but in touch with essentials beyond and beneath the verbal. That's just one reason he's irreplaceable.

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