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Gordon Pinsent at 80: 'Retirement is never a question. Retire from what?'

Gordon Pinsent believes his best days are ahead of him. The Canadian acting icon turned 80 last summer and still continues to work at a pace that would exhaust actors one-third his age.

Born in Grand Falls, Nfld, Pinsent began stage acting at 17 and save for a four-year stint in the Canadian army, he's never slowed down.

On the small screen, he appeared in the early Canadian soap Scarlett Hill and The Forest Rangers before taking his first lead role in the mid-1960s in the CBC drama Quentin Durgens, M.P. Next came a steady stream of guest turns in U.S. network series - everything from Banacek to Hogan's Heroes. And versatile? When the Canadian animation company Nelvana needed someone to voice the elephant king Babar in an animated series, Pinsent stepped up to the mike.

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In films, Pinsent has handled many supporting roles in Hollywood fare, beginning with movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair and Colossus: The Forbin Project (playing the U.S. president), while rarely straying far from his Canadian roots: He both wrote and starred in the seminal 1972 Canadian film The Rowdyman.

Then, in 2006, Pinsent's career got a new lease on life with the Oscar-nominated feature Away from Her, which earned him his second best-actor Genie Award. (He previously won in 1987 for John and the Missus.)

He is playing the Archbishop of Canterbury in the upcoming miniseries The Pillars of the Earth and has resumed his role as rum-runner Maurice Becker in CBC's Republic of Doyle.

Pinsent also recently returned as the voice of Babar in the new animated series Babar and the Adventures of Badou, which began Monday on YTV. He recently sat still long enough for an interview in Toronto.

Did you miss voicing the noble King Babar?

Very much so. I'm so glad it came back and particularly in this form. There's such a terrific history to Babar, and the new version cleverly plays into the way things are in the world today. And the new show has the smoothest, most beautiful look to the animation. It's really quite something. Kids are going to love it.

The original Babar aired all over the world. How much recognition has it brought you?

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I only voiced the English version, of course, but so many people grew up on that original version of the show. It's very generational. I was back in Newfoundland a few years ago, and a teacher asked me to come and talk to the kids. The teacher asked the class if they knew me. No response. Then a little voice in the back row piped up: 'Is you the voice of Babar?' His mother must have told him.

Your recent sketch on This Hour Has 22 Minutes - in which you read passages from Justin Bieber's autobiography - was a viral-video phenomenon. Surprised?

Imagine, after 50 years in the business [laughs] That was the strangest thing. I know the segment got astounding play on the Internet. The day I checked, it had 500,000 hits on YouTube, and later it went up to 800,000. Just amazing. And we shot the whole thing in 20 minutes at The Keg. It was all great fun, and easy pickings. And I understand Justin Bieber took it very well.

Is there a parallel between your late-career renaissance and that of, say, William Shatner?

I know Bill, and he's always had this sense of sly humour. It's good to have some fun with the business you're in, and he's done it remarkably well lately. Christopher Plummer, too, is doing so great now at this late stage in his career. When you're in your 80s, you can still have your best idea tomorrow. Which is one of the reasons why retirement is never a question. Retire from what?

Was Away from Her an affirmation that great acting always comes back to great writing?

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Oh, the writing is everything. It's rather a childlike thing, once you're into a character like the one in that movie. It's like a day away from yourself. You go away into another life, another time. You have no idea of time going by or anything else. It's a lovely thing.

How often do you happen upon an old movie or TV show you were in?

Honestly, sometimes you forget you were even part of certain things. My brother calls every so often and gently tries to nudge me to give it all up. He's waiting for me to come home to Newfoundland and sit on a bench with him and watch the world go by. But I'm not ready for that. Sometimes the work is slow, and then you get a movie like Away from Her and, bang, you're right back in it and doing your best work.

Early in your career, you played an idealistic young politician in the CBC-TV series Quentin Durgens, M.P. Was that a groundbreaking show?

For its time it was. It was the first time anyone in Canada had seen their government portrayed on a weekly drama series. It was very important storytelling, and we had so much freedom to do it the way we wanted to. I'd like to revisit that character in his later years.

Don Shebib is currently shooting a sequel to Goin' Down the Road. Why not a sequel to The Rowdyman?

I've heard that many times over the years. I wrote an outline for a 10-parter sequel. It was all ready to go but we never got it made. I'd still love to pick up on that character coming down the other side of the road. He's kicked up his heels and now he's older and has grandkids. There's a lot of potential there.

For a period in the seventies, you worked steadily in Hollywood appearing on various TV shows and movies. What was that like?

That was what many Canadian actors did in those days to keep working, and that was Los Angeles back in the seventies. The big stars got the main scripts, and you could end up being a villain, which I did in a number of films. Of course there were always some movies you wouldn't touch with a barge pole, but I lucked out in some good roles.

Do you still actively seek out film and TV work south of the border?

I still have a green card, but I'm not interested in making those rounds any more. I still have a manager down there, and two weeks ago he told me he had a movie for me. It was a horror movie set in an old-folks home. I didn't envision myself with a bunch of elderlies getting blown up, or sawed apart by a chainsaw. I said no thank you. If they can find me a good movie, I'll do it. Otherwise, I'm perfectly relaxed at this stage.

Have you ever pondered why so many talented people hail from the tiny island of Newfoundland?

It's such a vibrant place. When you're surrounded by water, you tend to serve yourself first. It helps you take a special pride in what you do. Even before Newfoundland became a province, there were so many terrific musical groups in every town. They never left the place, but they created such beautiful music. They were doing it for themselves, in a way.

Do you still have any dream projects?

I'd love to have all the freedom and all the money in the world and be set up on the top floor of a building, and have a lot of rooms in which to tell different stories. Just have the camera going from one room to the next, telling the stories of the different people in each room, talking about their lives. It's just dreaming, of course, but wouldn't that be a terrific series?

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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