Skip to main content

Harvey Atkin in Bruce Mohun’s Neighbours in Toronto Trilogy on CITY-TV, circa March 1984.

Handout photo

With his bright-yellow bucket hat, chunky glasses and Groucho Marx moustache, Harvey Atkin's Morty Melnick, the hapless director of crummy Camp North Star, was the perfect foil for Bill Murray's character in Meatballs.

Morty was the officious nebbish who wrote the camp rules that Mr. Murray's freewheeling head counsellor, Tripper Harrison, blithely tore up. A heavy sleeper, he was the butt of Tripper's recurring practical jokes and, as such, even got the movie's last laughs. It's Morty, waking to discover his bed has been set adrift in the lake, who amuses us with his slapstick escape attempts as the end credits roll.

That iconic summer-camp comedy from 1979, which gave Mr. Murray his first starring vehicle, also launched Mr. Atkin's career. It led to regular roles on the popular American television series Cagney & Lacey and Law & Order as well as a slew of cartoon voices that entertained generations of kids.

Story continues below advertisement

"He was a really versatile actor," said Larry Goldhar, Mr. Atkin's agent for 47 years and his friend since high school. "He was as good at straight drama as he was at comedy." He was also a Clio Award-winning pitchman, who had done, by his own reckoning, some 3,000 TV and radio commercials.

"He was an absolute pro on camera," added another dear friend, actress Sharon Gless, who played Christine Cagney on Cagney & Lacey. "Off camera, he was hysterically funny."

Mr. Atkin, who died of brain cancer on July 18 in Toronto at the age of 74, was no Morty-like nebbish in real life. Ironically, he was much more like Mr. Murray's Tripper: a wisecracking life of the party, with a hundred funny voices and 1001 jokes for all occasions. He even shared Tripper's fondness for motorcycles – that is, when he wasn't piloting a twin-engine plane, roaring about on a Jet Ski or teaching kids to swim with the help of Morty's yellow hat.

"He would wear that every time we were swimming at home in the pool," recalled his daughter, Lisa Atkin, laughing fondly. "All my cousins and friends would come over and that hat was the vessel for showing them how to swim. He would throw it in the water and they'd have to reach for it; he would dump it on his head soaking wet and they'd try to pull it off him. That yellow hat was synonymous with him."

Elliot Harvey Atkin was born Dec. 18, 1942, in Toronto, the first of four children and the only son of Ida and Murray Atkin. Harvey's grandparents were Russian Jews who had emigrated to Canada in the first decades of the 20th century, his paternal grandfather working as a clothes presser for Tip Top Tailors in Toronto. His father, Murray, started a construction business, to which Harvey – who was mechanically inclined – seemed the natural heir. But the boy was also a class clown, a born entertainer whose gift was just waiting to be tapped.

That came while he was attending Northview Heights high school. One day in 1960, a teenage Mr. Atkin offered to give his buddy, Mr. Goldhar, a ride home, but Mr. Goldhar wanted to stay for auditions at the drama club. The club was planning to do a production of Eugene O'Neill's one-act play The Rope for that year's provincial high-school drama festival.

"I said, 'What are you talking about, what kind of sissy thing is that?'" Mr. Atkin recalled in a 2014 interview with New York radio-host Frank MacKay. Mr. Goldhar, however, convinced him to come into the auditorium and watch.

Story continues below advertisement

As the students were practising for the auditions, Mr. Atkin, being the irrepressible joker, couldn't sit still. "I took the script and started horsing around. Unbeknownst to me, the teacher in charge of the program came in, sat down and about five minutes later said, 'Hey, you, the tall guy, you've got the part of Luke'" – the lead role. "I said, 'Woah! I'm not even in the club.'"

But the teacher, Charles Joliffe, wouldn't let him back out. The upshot was that the school's production went on to be a hit at the festival and Mr. Atkin nabbed its best-actor award.

Nonetheless, after he left school Mr. Atkin went to work for his dad's construction company. He married his high-school sweetheart, Celia Tessler, in 1963 and within a few years they'd started a family. It was not until Mr. Goldhar launched his talent agency in Toronto in 1969 that he began to dabble in show business.

Mr. Atkin began as a partner in the fledgling agency, but with his facility for accents and his smooth delivery, he was soon landing voice-over and commercial jobs himself. By the mid-1970s, he was popping up regularly in Canadian TV series such as King of Kensington and clinching the occasional small role in Toronto-shot Hollywood features, including High-Ballin' with Peter Fonda and the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor comedy Silver Streak.

Mr. Atkin's unexpected breakthrough came in the summer of 1978, when Canadian producer-director Ivan Reitman, fresh from the success of National Lampoon's Animal House, recruited a cast of unknowns to appear alongside Mr. Murray in Meatballs. Celia Atkin recalled that she and her husband had just packed off their own children to summer camp and were preparing for a quiet month together, when the call came for Mr. Atkin to do an audition. A day later, a Friday, he was told he'd got the part of Morty and to report on Monday to the shooting location, the real Camp White Pine near Haliburton, Ont. "That was the end of our holiday," Ms. Atkin laughed.

Filming continued into September, when Mr. Atkin's famous final scene on the raft was filmed. "It was cold, it was fall and he said he was so glad that he didn't get pneumonia that day," Ms. Atkin said. "Who knew it was going to turn out to be such a wonderful movie?"

Story continues below advertisement

The performance earned Mr. Atkin a Genie Award nomination and paved the way for more substantial work. The next big break came with Cagney & Lacey, the landmark drama about a pair of female New York City police detectives. The show's pilot was filmed in Toronto in 1981 and drew on Canadian talent, including King of Kensington's Al Waxman as their boss and Mr. Atkin as desk sergeant Ronald Coleman. Mr. Waxman and Mr. Atkin were signed on to continue their roles when the show was picked up by CBS and production moved to the United States. (The pilot starred Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey and Loretta Swit as Cagney, but Ms. Gless took over the Cagney role for the series.)

In appearance, Mr. Atkin's Coleman character was a variation on Morty, with massive aviator glasses and an even bigger mustache. He "easily shouldered the responsibility of bringing some necessary humour into the workplace, both in front and behind the camera," recalled the show's producer, Barney Rosenzweig. But Mr. Atkin's Coleman also had a tender side, memorably displayed in an episode from the fourth season, when he revealed he had a mentally disabled daughter.

Mr. Atkin's own children were always his priority. He and Celia refused to uproot them and instead he remained living in Toronto for the show's entire seven-season run, regularly commuting to Los Angeles to shoot his scenes. "His family always came first," Ms. Gless said.

Lisa Atkin said she and her younger brother Danny had a very grounded upbringing in which their parents treated Mr. Atkin's acting as a job like any other. "We were never allowed to get big heads," she said. "He'd do his work and when he came home he was our dad, fixing things and playing with us and having fun."

Mr. Atkin's skill at repairs was legendary among his family and neighbours, and even led to his hosting a regular handyman segment on CTV. He was also multilingual, speaking French, Italian and Yiddish and knowing a smattering of other languages – even though he had failed high-school French.

"Academics always eluded him," said his oldest sister, former Harlequin Books editor Marsha Zinberg. "Harvey was very smart, but he had what we later found out was an undiagnosed learning disability, so he didn't write exams well." Instead, he picked up languages by listening to people speak them, one of the benefits of being naturally gregarious.

Story continues below advertisement

"He was a people person," said Celia Atkin, noting that her husband never discussed the roles he was playing, but instead talked about the individuals he'd met on the set. Among his many friends were his Cagney & Lacey colleagues, Ms. Gless and her husband, Mr. Rosenzweig, who remained close throughout the years. When Ms. Gless was in Toronto making the cable series Queer as Folk, the Atkins had her over for dinner every Friday.

"Harvey always took such good care of me," Ms. Gless said, recalling how Mr. Atkin also introduced her to the art of voice work. "He was generous enough to drag me along like a kid to his performances. He was the king, as far as I was concerned, and he'd let me sit and listen and learn."

Mr. Atkin's favourite task was voicing cartoons. As he wryly told one interviewer in 2013, "you can hide behind the microphone and you don't have to get dressed up." His many credits included the Super Mario Bros. shows (where he played bad guy King Koopa), cult favourite The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police and, more recently, Scaredy Squirrel.

In later years, Mr. Atkin was best known onscreen as Judge Alan Ridenour on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Although the Atkins spent their sunset years wintering in Florida, Mr. Atkin never retired; he appeared in feature films shot in Miami and continued his many charity performances. "He always said 'yes,'" Celia Atkin said, "and he could always entertain."

Mr. Atkin was diagnosed with brain cancer in the fall of 2015. He died in palliative care at Mackenzie Health in Richmond Hill. He leaves his wife, Celia; children, Lisa and Danny Atkin, and their partners; grandchildren, Ryan, Rachel and Avi Bromberg, and Justin and Amanda Atkin; and three sisters; as well as a large extended family.

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter