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Richard McMillan: Acclaimed theatre star excelled at both comedy and drama

Actor Richard McMillan died on Sunday in Toronto after a long struggle with thyroid cancer.


It was Tuesday, April 25, 2000 – the opening night of the first Canadian production of The Lion King at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre. The show had come to its Act 2 climax, when Scar, the evil, usurping uncle of Simba, the musical's hero, finally gets his just deserts. But as the leonine villain tumbled to his death from Pride Rock, one young child in the front row suddenly let out a horrified scream. And by the time the hyenas descended to devour him, she was sobbing uncontrollably.

It wasn't until the standing-ovation curtain call, when Richard McMillan, the actor playing Scar, reappeared – unscarred, as it were – to take his well-deserved bow, that his little daughter, Maggie, was able to dry her eyes. She could see her daddy was just fine.

He was more than just fine. In the next morning's edition of The Globe and Mail, theatre critic Kate Taylor, reviewing the show, singled out Mr. McMillan in the large cast. In what was an otherwise dutiful replica of the Broadway version, Ms. Taylor wrote, "the lushly villainous McMillan successfully rises above reproduction to become the one actor here who infuses his role with his own dramatic personality."

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That was hardly surprising. Mr. McMillan, who died Feb. 19 in Toronto of thyroid cancer at the age of 65, was the kind of actor who put his distinctive stamp on every part. He was also, as his daughter discovered on that opening night, an actor who could move you even when playing a cartoon bad guy. Tall, angular, with big, doleful eyes and long, wonderfully expressive hands, Mr. McMillan was equally adept at portraying comic and dramatic characters, at convulsing audiences in laughter with his gleefully haughty Pooh-Bah in the Stratford Festival's legendary Mikado or moistening their eyes as the compassionate Dr. Levick in David Young's polar-exploration drama Inexpressible Island.

"Rick was such an idiosyncratic and unique actor," said R.H. Thomson, who co-starred with him in Mr. Young's play when it premiered at Canadian Stage in 1997. "He was both mercury and steel. He had funny bones as big as your legs. And he was an indelibly lyric actor. We don't have a lot of those."

Richard Rose, artistic director of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, where Mr. McMillan gave many memorable performances, said he grew to appreciate the actor's highly personal approach to his art. "In rehearsals, the role the character plays in the story was not what motivated him," Mr. Rose said. "He wanted to know what or who the character loved. Understanding what that love was, made him quite ferocious when he performed. That love possessed him."

Mr. McMillan was himself a loving man, always concerned for the welfare of others. In return, he was greatly loved by many, both in and out of show business. But it was a lack of love deep in his past that haunted him and that he drew upon as an actor.

Richard John Lawrence McMillan – Rick to his friends and family – was born March 20, 1951, and grew up in Beaverton in southern Ontario cottage country, where his parents, Frank and Mary McMillan, ran the Beaverton Hotel. He had been adopted as an infant and did not meet his birth mother, a young French-Canadian woman, until he was an adult. That meeting proved to be a devastating experience. She refused to acknowledge him as her son, which was something he could never get over.

"That's where all his pain came from, in his sad, heart-wrenching characters onstage," revealed Anne Louise Bannon, Mr. McMillan's wife of 25 years. "I found them so hard to watch, because I knew the source of it. It was difficult for him to understand that rejection, especially after he had a child himself."

Frank and Mary were devoted parents, however, and young Ricky had a Norman Rockwell childhood, scampering about the hotel with his kid brother "Cooch" and showing off his nascent acting skills by mischievously imitating the guests. He also revealed his flair for art and music, doing sketches and cartoons of his classmates on the school bus and, as a teen, playing drums in a local rock band.

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Following high school, he moved to Toronto and studied theatre at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University), but left after two years without graduating. That didn't keep him from being recruited by the Stratford Festival during Robin Phillips's starry 1970s tenure, where the reedy young actor quickly grabbed attention even while playing second fiddle to such headliners as Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford.

His Stratford triumph came in 1982, when he played Pooh-Bah in Brian Macdonald's wildly popular staging of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado. The show went on to be televised by the CBC and toured extensively, including engagements at London's Old Vic and on Broadway.

Mr. McMillan remained in New York, post-Mikado, appearing at the Public Theater in the AIDS-themed comedy Zero Positive alongside David Hyde Pierce and Tony Shaloub, and in Mr. Rose's Big Apple version of his site-specific Toronto hit, Tamara. At about that time, Mr. McMillan was invited by University of Pittsburgh drama professor Attilio (Buck) Favorini, to perform in the city's summertime Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival. It was there, in 1989, that he found himself playing Hamlet opposite a young Ms. Bannon, then a graduate student at the university, as Ophelia.

Mr. McMillan was 13 years her senior and had been married twice before – to actresses Heather Summerhayes (now Cariou) and Gwynyth Walsh – but this time he'd found his soulmate. He and Ms. Bannon were married in 1991 in her hometown of Windsor, Ont. Their daughter, Maggie, was born in 1993.

Pittsburgh audiences also fell for Mr. McMillan, who appeared there regularly over the years so that it became like a second home. He often worked with the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (PICT), where his performances ranged from Spooner in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, to Donald Rumsfeld in David Hare's Iraq war drama Stuff Happens. "I think Rick was an actor touched with real genius," said PICT co-founder Andrew Paul, who directed him in those plays.

Mr. Paul said he first met Mr. McMillan when, as a young actor, he appeared with him in a Pittsburgh production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, in which Mr. McMillan played John Wilkes Booth and Mr. Paul was Lee Harvey Oswald.

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"Richard was very intense onstage and in one performance, as he was grabbing me, he literally ripped the T-shirt right off my back," Mr. Paul recalled. "I thought, 'Wow, that was really cool!' But when I got off the stage he was waiting in the wings. He said, 'Andrew, I'm so sorry. That will never happen again.' He was terrified that he'd offended me."

The story neatly captures the two sides of Mr. McMillan, a man who was gentle and solicitous in real life but who could be, as Mr. Rose put it, "ferocious" when performing. That didn't change even when he was sick. One of his last roles, as the sleazy magnate in Tarragon's updating of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, called on him and other cast members to at one point symbolically whitewash the walls of the set. Where the other actors did it methodically, Mr. McMillan slapped on the paint with aggressive abandon. "He was covered in it," Mr. Rose said, laughing. "Directing him could be like trying to rein in a horse when it was in full gallop."

Mr. McMillan brought his fierce side to Scar in The Lion King and did it so well that he became a go-to villain for the commercial fare produced by David Mirvish. He played the power-mad wizard Saruman in the ill-fated Lord of the Rings and the bullying Uncle Arthur in War Horse. He also did his share of film and television work, from Roland Emmerich's disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow to such creepy YTV favourites as Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark. "When Maggie was little, we'd walk into the schoolyard and the older kids would recognize him and point and scream," Ms. Bannon said.

Like Prince Hamlet, Mr. McMillan was a Renaissance man. He was a skilled painter, who often did commissions, and a capable pianist. Conquering a fear of heights, he got his pilot's licence in Stratford and later painstakingly restored a vintage bi-plane (it crashed on a test run). He enjoyed going on kayak trips with his good buddy, actor Derek Boyes of Soulpepper Theatre, and their agent, Lorraine Wells. "He was most at peace on the water," Ms. Wells said.

Although his honours included several Dora Mavor Moore Awards, a Canadian Screen Award and a Toronto Theatre Critics Award, Mr. McMillan was "annoyingly humble," said Michael Hanrahan, another close friend and Soulpepper alumnus. "He delighted in his friends' successes much more than he did his own."

Mr. McMillan was first diagnosed with cancer in 2009, but a successful operation put him in remission. The last period of his life saw him turning in more outstanding performances. Edmonton took him to its heart in 2010 when director Bob Baker tapped him to replace a retiring Tom Wood as Scrooge in the Citadel Theatre's annual Christmas Carol. While playing the cold-hearted miser onstage, offstage Mr. McMillan was pure warmth. "He was encouraging to everyone in the production, from the actors to the wigs and props people to the PR," Mr. Baker said. "He'd always find a way to make people feel good about their contribution."

His last great role was his glorious interpretation of Manon, the narcissistic drag queen, in Michel Tremblay's Manon, Sandra and the Virgin Mary for Pleiades Theatre. Director John Van Burek said that Mr. McMillan, a Catholic and "a very spiritual guy," initially balked at the character's sexual explicitness, but was finally won over by the play's fundamental beauty. It was during rehearsals, in early 2014, that Mr. McMillan revealed his cancer had come back and was terminal. "As a result, he did the play with that incredible sense of mortality," Mr. Van Burek said. "I think it inspired him wonderfully."

In palliative care at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital, the actor who had given so much pleasure to others received a special gift from his colleagues. Mr. Rose rounded up some of the original team from Inexpressible Island and did an impromptu reading of the play at his bedside. "That was a magical evening," Ms. Bannon said.

The historical play, about a stranded expedition trying to survive the Antarctic winter, "cut close to the bone," Mr. Rose admitted. But it was very much in the spirit of Mr. McMillan, who was never afraid of confronting the big issues – in life or in the theatre. "I kept looking at Richard over the course of the evening," Mr. Rose said, "and the glow on his face was wonderful."

Mr. McMillan was predeceased by his parents and by his brother Frank "Cooch" McMillan. He leaves his wife, Ms. Bannon; their daughter, Maggie McMillan; his sister-in-law, Anna; his McMillan nieces and nephews and the Bannon clan.

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