Film a memorial of sorts for fallen actors

Returning to the groundbreaking Canadian film that established a new era in homegrown movie-making was a bittersweet journey for Toronto director Don Shebib and the cast of his gritty tale Goin’ Down the Road.

TORONTO — Returning to the groundbreaking Canadian film that established a new era in homegrown movie-making was a bittersweet journey for Toronto director Don Shebib and the cast of his gritty tale Goin’ Down the Road.

Only three of the four original stars were able to reunite last fall to shoot Shebib’s followup Down the Road Again, and the death of co-star Paul Bradley hung heavily over the gathering.

The gregarious charmer passed away in 2003, and his troubled history with the bottle made it hard to separate the man from his tragic onscreen persona Joey — a hard-living ne’er-do-well who descends into alcoholism when he falls out of work.

Goin’ Down the Road traced the doomed efforts of two down-on-their-luck Nova Scotians who head to Toronto in search of jobs, ending with a calamitous mistake that sends Joey and his pal Pete on the road again, this time further west.

Shebib says he lost touch with Bradley when the actor moved to Vancouver and Victoria in the ’80s.

“He was a great guy, Paul, I loved him dearly — as did everybody — but you always wanted to kill him,” Shebib chuckles. “He was a great guy and he could have had a huge career if he hadn’t had a problem with the drinking.”

“Joey was Paul.”

Forty years later, Down The Road Again serves as a memorial of sorts for Bradley — his character Joey is now dead but he maintains a presence through a series of letters he leaves for his friend Pete, played by Doug McGrath.

Upon receiving the letters, Pete — now a retired postal worker living in Vancouver — takes a cross-country trek to scatter Joey’s ashes in the Atlantic, travelling in the same beat-up Chevy Impala that took them out west in the first place. The journey reopens old wounds but also attempts to right past wrongs.

“The first read-through made us cry, you know,” says co-star Jayne Eastwood, who returns as Betty, the pregnant bride whom Joey abandons in the first film.

“It was really sad, (Bradley) was such a great actor.”

Another blow would soon follow — when shooting wrapped, co-star Cayle Chernin revealed she had advanced ovarian cancer. She died in February at age 63.

Eastwood says Chernin, who played Betty’s best friend Selina, kept her illness secret throughout the 18-day shoot because she was afraid she wouldn’t be insured for the film. She also refused chemotherapy, fearing its side effects would keep her from performing.

“She was so full of life on the set but so skinny,” Eastwood recalls. “We thought, ‘Is she bulimic? What’s going on?’ Because she wasn’t going to admit anything to anybody . . . It didn’t even occur to me that she had cancer.”

Looking back now, Eastwood says there were clear moments when Chernin, who was diagnosed in June 2010, let each of them know how happy she was to be reunited with the original cast.

“Don and I were just saying there were times he saw Cayle kind of looking at him with so much love in her eyes and I saw that too. We were sitting in those director’s chairs… and I can see her just kind of looking at me, with love. Oh, it’s brutal. I just wish she had let us know.”

It was Chernin who really pushed for a sequel in early 2008, says Shebib, whose decades-long directing career includes the Billy Mills biopic “Running Brave,” the Annie Potts/Margot Kidder dramedy “Heartaches” and TV series including “Night Heat,” “Lonesome Dove: The Series” and “Wind at My Back.”

Over Christmas 2008, he says he took a stab at a script, deciding that if it didn’t come together in a week he would abandon the project.

He was surprised to find a satisfying story take shape quickly and easily.

“This is a film about a guy who starts off as a quiet lonely man and in the end he is united with a family,” Shebib says of the new tale, which centres on Pete and the grief over Joey’s death.

“It’s a very uplifting film in that sense.”

With a $2-million budget, it’s also a much more polished film than “Goin’ Down the Road,” he notes. His 1970 breakout was pulled together on a shoestring budget by a three-man crew with hand-held cameras.

The gritty, verite appearance of “Goin’ Down the Road” caused many critics and fans to label it a searing portrait of society’s failures.

Shebib insists he never intended to suggest more than a simple tale of two guys heading to the big city — albeit one inspired by John Steinbeck’s literary classic “The Grapes of Wrath” and drawn from Shebib’s own parents’ migration from the Maritimes to Ontario.

“A lot of people ascribed a lot of political nonsense to the first film — what am I, at a G20 meeting or something? Or a G20 rally or something? I mean, come on,” says Shebib.

“It’s a film about a couple of Newfie guys coming to Toronto but they made it into something else that was never intended to be, nor is it there.”

Shebib describes “Down The Road Again” as a film about growing old.

Betty and Joey’s baby is now a grown woman — Betty Jo. Played by former “Beverly Hills, 90210” actress Kathleen Robertson, she displays the same impish spark of her father, and cons Pete into taking her with him on the drive to Cape Breton.

Meanwhile, black-and-white footage from “Goin’ Down the Road” is woven throughout the story in flashback.

“Not only does the audience get that feeling of growing old, but the characters do,” says the 73-year-old Shebib, who was 31 when he made “Goin’ Down the Road.”

“I think it’s an unusual experience to see three of the characters 40 years later… and get that sense of, not only of them aging but … your own feelings as an audience, what’s happened to you over 35 or 40 years.”

McGrath says he’s changed immensely since the film launched his career.

In 1973, he moved to California and began racking up a string of roles on both sides of the border — including the 1974 horror “Black Christmas,” 1982’s raunchy comedy “Porky’s, 1985’s western ”Pale Rider,“ and TV guest roles on ”Falcon Crest,“ ”Little House on the Prairie“ and ”Dynasty“ through the early ’80s.

McGrath says he was a lot like Pete.

“I’m not Pete but Pete really was me, Pete came from me,” he says, noting that his own father was a steelworker in Sydney, N.S. who uprooted the family to work at a gold mine in Timmins, Ont.

And just as Pete learns to open himself up as the film progresses, so too has McGrath.

“I’m only learning to talk; my wife, being who she is, taught me how to laugh,” says McGrath, a dual citizen who served in the Vietnam War.

“But I worked hard, very hard on getting rid of my whatever you call them today, ghosts and things that held me up, whatever it was. And finally, even since this ’Down the Road Again’ I’ve noticed all of a sudden I’m a whole different person. All the things that I was working on, all of a sudden have been resolved. So I’m looking forward now to getting out there and working and see what will happen.”

“Down the Road Again” opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Sydney, N.S.

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