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There are hard-working actors – then there’s John Dunsworth

John Dunsworth says he was directionless when he caught the acting bug while taking classes at the University of Guelph.

This story was originally published in November, 2013. John Dunsworth died on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.

John Dunsworth sits across from me in a restaurant booth and, in the course of an hour, he's Shylock, Jim Lahey from Trailer Park Boys, a priest and Santa Claus. He goes briefly into character and out again, over and over. It's brilliant and bewildering to meet this nice man, an actor at age 67, with an awful lot going on.

In the last few years he has played a police detective, a banker, a doctor and a university professor, to name just a few. One of his regular roles is as newspaper editor Dave Teagues on the supernatural series Haven (seen on Showcase), which he did for four seasons. He has won awards for his work in the theatre, in The Drawer Boy and Death of a Salesman. There are hard-working actors and then there are a few such as Dunsworth – man of a thousand roles. Same face, just countless roles.

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After our meeting he's going to rehearsals for the Trailer Park Boys Christmas Tour stage show, in which the Boys do their thing and Dunsworth plays Lahey, their eternal enemy, the guy who always tries to undermine them. While rehearsing, he will be filmed for a portion of a documentary called Santa Quest, which chronicles his participation in a competition to find the best Santa in the world. After that, he says, he's meeting Mike Clattenburg, the Trailer Park Boys creator/director, for purposes unknown. He says Clattenburg asked him to meet and "put something on tape." Dunsworth says, "I don't what it is, but I'd do anything for Mike."

It was Clattenburg who cast Dunsworth as Jim Lahey. "Mike called me and asked if I wanted to be in this short film called One Last Shot. That was 1998. And One Last Shot became the basis for Trailer Park Boys." Dunsworth says it was a bracing experience when it took off as a hit show. "I was on a boat, out on a lake near here, with Mike. He says to me, 'John, everybody is going to recognize you. You're going to be famous for this.' Frankly, I didn't believe him. About five minutes later, another boat goes by, slows down, and somebody shouts, 'Hey, Lahey!'"

It wasn't fame that Dunsworth desired. It was work – to earn enough as an actor, while staying in Halifax, and support his family. He says now, ruefully, that acting saved him from whatever was ailing him as a young man.

"I'd dropped out of Dalhousie, I was drifting. I ended up at the University of Guelph where I took drama as an elective course. I was a will o' the wisp then, no direction at all. And then this acting thing just consumed me. I think it was the collaboration, the support that comes from being in a production. I come from a family of 10 kids. I think maybe I was looking for that collective support you get in a big family. And I found it in acting."

There's circularity to his career at this point, which he's happy to note. "I was doing theatre here in Halifax in the 1970s and of course there's never enough money in the theatre. I went to get a job at Simpsons playing Santa in the store at Christmas. When the woman doing the hiring heard I was an actor at the Neptune [Theatre], a real actor, she paid me double what she was supposed to pay. 'It's all acting work,' I told her, and she agreed. There were some fun times playing Santa. I remember a kid who sat on my knee and he wanted Santa to bring him all kinds of things. Expensive things. So I told him that Santa could only deliver one special gift. He was furious, this kid. He jumped off my knee and said, 'I'm going over to the Eatons Santa and he'll tell me he can bring me anything I want!' Now I'm involved in this project where I try to be the perfect Santa."

Dunsworth ends the year with the Santa documentary on his mind but as he recounts his work this year, he has to think hard to remember everything. He pauses and thinks carefully. "The year 2013 started with me playing a priest in Forgive Me (seem on SuperChannel). Serious work. [At this point, he assumes the priest's role, and he intones part of the Latin mass to me.] Wonderful writing from Thom Fitzgerald, a drama about pain. After that, I toured with Randy."

I ask him to explain. Randy, played by Pat Roach, is Lahey's sidekick on TPB. He's the guy with the big beer belly and fondness for cheeseburgers, who goes around with his shirt off. Dunsworth and Roach have their own stage show. The exact relationship between Randy and Lahey is obscure on the show. They're a couple, but only kind-of. "I don't know if Jim Lahey is gay," Dunsworth says with a chuckle. "Possibly he's bisexual. He's definitely a drunk. But we marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto. That was some fun."

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But their stage show? "Oh, I do terrible, illegal things in that show. My wife has never seen it and I know she'd hate it. Playing a drunk is a strange experience for an actor, but interesting. One minute the audience loves you, thinks you're hilarious. The next minute, they loathe you. Isn't that the way with all drunks? I can't speak from personal experience. I don't drink." The stage show is a huge hit with university audiences and Dunsworth says he and Roach have done about 100 performances.

Also this year he did the third Trailer Park Boys movie and multiple episodes of the new season eight of the series. And he played a doctor in the TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, with Christina Ricci as the infamous, alleged axe murderer. "I administered something to Lizzie," he says. "That's what I remember. A good role, a good drama."

What first made him a familiar figure on TV was the heartwarming CBC series Pit Pony, a period-piece drama about life in a coal-mining community that ran in 1999 and 2000. And, slight though it was, it was a major event for Dunsworth and others. Clattenburg, then a rookie director, handled many episodes and came to know Dunsworth. And, during its run, Dunsworth was deputized to visit local schools (he has taught acting classes at Dalhousie University for years and spent time as a casting agent) to find child actors who might have minor roles on the show.

On one such visit he met a 10-year-old named Ellen Page, was impressed, and recommended her. She appeared on multiple episodes of Pit Pony and briefly appeared as Jim Lahey's daughter on Trailer Park Boys. This mention of a part of his career causes Dunsworth to reflect. He gazes out the window, toward the Halifax Public Gardens and says, "Maybe that's what I'll be famous for – Ellen Page played my daughter."

Then he rummages in his satchel and hands me a book. The title can't be published in a newspaper. It's a tiny miscellany of Jim Lahey's thoughts on scatological matters. "Something else I've been working on," he says.

The Santa Quest people arrive to whisk him away. A small gang of us gather at the restaurant entrance. I look at him, this 67-year-old, dressed in khaki pants and a fleece jacket. Unremarkable, you'd think, if you glanced at him. But then he says "Goodbye" in a grave, actorly voice, a hint of mischief in it, a hint of Jim Lahey, and you realize he's a remarkable actor, with an awful lot going on.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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