Theatre legend remembered for influence on Stratford

Glasgow-born actor Douglas Campbell is being remembered as a champion of provocative theatre and as the “conscience” of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he showcased his acting and directing skills for 25 seasons.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (right) presents Douglas Campbell with the Governor General's Performing Arts Award during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa Friday

TORONTO — Glasgow-born actor Douglas Campbell is being remembered as a champion of provocative theatre and as the “conscience” of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he showcased his acting and directing skills for 25 seasons.

Campbell died Tuesday of heart failure in a Montreal hospital, surrounded by his family, Stratford officials said Wednesday. He was 87.

“He was a life force,” Antoni Cimolino, general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, said Wednesday in an interview.

“He was an iconoclast. He was someone who was never afraid to speak truth to power and that went right to the end.

“In many ways, he was our conscience.”

Campbell joined the southwestern Ontario theatre company in 1953, shortly after he arrived in Canada, and trod the boards there for 25 seasons until 2001.

He won acclaim for his portrayals of Falstaff, Othello, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, and Henry VIII.

He also directed several productions, including “Oedipus Rex, ”Julius Caesar“ and ”The Alchemist,“ and served as a mentor to many.

“He wanted to always do the real goods and to do them in a way that challenged people,” said Cimolino, who first met Campbell 23 years ago at Stratford.

“He didn’t believe in theatre as being a place where you relaxed and went to sleep or even where you were solely entertained.

“He believed in theatre that provoked, that made one think.”

Campbell also made his mark on Stratford’s lineup, persuading organizers to mount certain productions to enrich particular seasons.

Campbell’s goal was to present Shakespeare’s works in a modern, straightforward way, and he was “always ready to do battle” to achieve that, said Cimolino.

“He didn’t believe in ’holy Shakespeare,”’ he said. “He believed in living, breathing Shakespeare.”

Campbell also acted around North America, performing in every major theatre in Canada and in several in the U.S.

On Broadway, he appeared in “Gideon,” by Paddy Chayefsky, and directed Orson Welles’s adaptation of “Moby Dick.”

In 1954, Douglas helped found the Canadian Players, a touring theatre troupe that grew out of the Stratford festival. He was also artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

His TV credits included the CBC-TV show “The Great Detective” in the late 1970s, and his accolades include the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

Campbell moved to Montreal in 1998 and continued acting there until his death.

“He could sing, he could dance, he could do Shakespeare,” said Cimolino. “He’s a great one, now gone.”

Campbell is survived by six children and wife, Moira Wylie.

His son Benedict is a member of the Shaw theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and his son Torquil is a vocalist in the Juno-nominated Montreal band Stars.

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