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August Schellenberg was trailblazer in Canadian theatre

August Schellenberg, a cast member in the HBO film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," arrives at the premiere of the film in Los Angeles in this file photo taken May 10, 2007.

CHRIS PIZZELLO/REUTERS

In many ways, the private, powerful and pioneering characters August Schellenberg portrayed on screen and on stage were a mirror image of the man himself.

The Montreal-born Mohawk actor connected with audiences around the world with his character Randolph in the Hollywood trilogy Free Willy, and became a national icon with landmark native roles in the movies Black Robe and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He made Canadian theatre history in 1969 when he starred in the first play to be shown at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the seminal aboriginal production The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

As the first native actor to graduate from Montreal's National Theatre School, Mr. Schellenberg pushed for aboriginal actors to play roles outside their ethnicity. While he "embraced his Mohawk heritage" in acting parts, said friend and actor Lorne Cardinal, "he wanted to be much more than that."

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Mr. Schellenberg again made history last year when he realized a lifelong dream to star in an all-native cast of Shakespeare's King Lear at the NAC, the first all-aboriginal Lear in Canadian theatre. "He was a trailblazer," said King Lear director Peter Hinton. "He reminded everyone that what's important about theatre is that we're telling stories about ourselves."

The award-winning Mr. Schellenberg, who appeared in more than 100 movie, TV and theatre roles in his 49-year acting career, died of lung cancer Aug. 15 at his Dallas home. He was 77.

"He was a positive force and he inspired us all," said playwright Kevin Loring, a Lear cast member who grew close to Mr. Schellenberg during the production and named his newborn son August after him. "He had a heart of gold."

With a deep, booming voice, long hair he wore in a braid and bear earring hanging from his ear, Mr. Schellenberg was a "brilliant" actor, Mr. Cardinal said. A family man who rarely travelled without his wife, he never bragged, always stuck up for friends – often with his fists – and had an ability to put people at ease.

"There was something otherworldly about Augie that drew us to him," said Free Willy producer Lauren Shuler Donner. "He was ethereal."

The actor – Augie or Cookie to those who knew him best – only took on historically accurate roles, showing up on set an hour early and vowing to memorize lines that evaded him in his later years.

"The spirit of the fighter was always with him," said Mr. Hinton. During rehearsals for King Lear, Mr. Schellenberg would tell him, "Don't you worry boss, I'm going to get it tomorrow."

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'He worked harder than anybody else'

August Werner Schellenberg was born July 25, 1936, in Montreal, the only child of an English-Mohawk mother and a Swiss father. He grew up with a foster mother and dropped out of high school to work, first as a grocery delivery boy and later as a waiter at nightclubs El Morocco and Chez Paree. Meeting such celebrities as Liberace, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. gave Mr. Schellenberg stories he would tell cast members decades later.

"You'd be doing a scene and he had a story where he and Christopher Plummer worked together," Mr. Hinton said.

Without ever having seen a play in his life, Mr. Schellenberg decided to try his hand at acting in 1963, when he auditioned to attend Montreal's esteemed National Theatre School of Canada. He hoped to one day play ethnic roles like Sal Mineo, one of his favourite actors, friends said.

At 27, Mr. Schellenberg was too old to attend the school, so he lied about his age and impressed the admissions panel with his raw talent and candour – he told them he got his audition idea from a clown's circus routine the night before.

To pay his tuition, he worked as a bouncer at a bar called the Blue Angel. When the school gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2007, he called his years studying there "some of the hardest and some of the best of my life."

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A natural athlete who played hockey, swam, dove, skied and boxed in his youth, Mr. Schellenberg excelled at improv and dance classes. But in spite of having a tongue for languages and a great singing voice, he struggled in script class.

"He couldn't read Shakespeare – he was slow," long-time friend and fellow theatre-school alum Alan Bleviss said. "But once he learned it, he was magnificent. He worked harder than anybody else."

While at the school, the charismatic, green-eyed Mr. Schellenberg met a young Ukrainian woman from Winnipeg who was in the class ahead of his. "[It was] love at first sight for both of us," said Joan Karasevich.

They married in 1972 (renewing their vows 12 years later), and began a family on the road as Mr. Schellenberg's career took off. The two were inseparable, travelling and rehearsing lines together. They had two daughters, Reena and Joanna. (Mr. Schellenberg had one daughter, Sophia, from a previous marriage.)

'He always stood up for the underdog'

Mr. Schellenberg's early work was mainly in theatre. He performed across the country, including at the Stratford Festival, where in 1967 he received a Tyrone Guthrie Award as the most promising young actor of the season.

That year, Mr. Schellenberg played Jaimie Paul in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in Vancouver with renowned native actor and activist Chief Dan George.

During this time Mr. Schellenberg began to identify more closely with his native roots, and began to dream of starring in an all-native King Lear.

"Augie talked about how important [Rita Joe] had been to him, to Canadian theatre, to Canada," writer and friend Mark Leiren-Young said in a tribute.

"There was a power and dignity August Schellenberg brought to the screen. It was nothing compared to the power and dignity he carried with him in real life."

Mr. Schellenberg played dozens more theatre roles, including Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Starbuck in The Rainmaker, Oscar in The Odd Couple and Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. In 1973, he played Sitting Bull in Sharon Pollock's Walsh in Calgary.

He portrayed the Lakota chief again in the 1996 TV movie Crazy Horse with Mr. Cardinal, who recalls how Mr. Schellenberg stuck up for native actors on the set. Mr. Schellenberg refused to follow the production team's plan to have native cast members sleep in tents outside while white cavalry actors slept in hotels between shoots. He made a similar fuss about the segregation of native extras from whites with lines in the lunchroom. "The production had no choice," Mr. Cardinal said.

Mr. Schellenberg left onlookers wide-eyed when he stood up for someone in need. The brawny actor worked out daily – on set he would do pushups on his fingertips to the amazement of younger men – and wasn't afraid to get in a fight to teach someone a lesson. "He always stood up for the underdog," Mr. Cardinal said, but "he was never a bully."

Although Mr. Schellenberg joked around in rehearsal – he swore, pulled pranks and made racy jokes – he was a professional who took up reading history in his spare time to research roles and learn the origins of theatre and film.

"He did a lot of reading," said his agent Jamie Levitt. "He didn't want to portray something that wasn't truthful."

The role that attracted Hollywood's attention

In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Schellenberg's career focused on Canadian television and movies. He won a best actor Gemini award for his role in the 1983 TV movie The Prodigal. His breakout role came in 1991 as Chomina, an Algonquin elder in Black Robe. The portrayal earned him a Genie award for best supporting actor and attracted Hollywood's attention.

Soon he was playing Randolph Johnson, a native orca trainer who helps a young boy free the captive mammal in Free Willy. The role, which he played again in 1995 and 1997, was one of his favourites, Ms. Karasevich said, because of how many people connected with the character.

"He went above and beyond what was in the script," said producer Ms. Shuler Donner.

When his daughter Reena married a man from Dallas, Mr. Schellenberg decided the location would be the perfect hub for job travel. He and Ms. Karasevich moved from Toronto to the Texan city in 1995. "Augie was done with winter," Ms. Karasevich said. He "loved having a pool in his yard."

After playing roles on the TV series North of 60 and Due South in the nineties, he appeared in the 2003 TV movie DreamKeeper and the 2005 feature film The New World. His most acclaimed performance was his final portrayal of Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a 2007 HBO film that earned the actor an Emmy nomination. He called attending the Emmys "the frosting on a delicious slice of life."

Mr. Schellenberg returned to his roots – theatre in Canada – when he played the role of David Joe in the 2009 production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe at the NAC. Many of the cast members were awestruck to meet the person who had inspired them to pursue acting.

"You're the guy who opened the door, and now you're standing there holding the door open so as many of us that can get through get through," Rita Joe director Yvette Nolan said of Mr. Schellenberg, adding he brought "power and dignity" to his role.

A dream decades in the making

Mr. Schellenberg returned to the Ottawa stage in 2012 ready to make his dream come true – playing Lear in an all-native cast. It was the first time an aboriginal cast had performed a Shakespeare play on a main stage in Canada. "In pursuing his own dream, he fulfilled a dream for so many," director Mr. Hinton said.

At 75, Mr. Schellenberg was one of the oldest actors ever to play Lear. Although his work ethic and body remained strong – he carried actress Jani Lauzon, who played his daughter Cordelia, across the stage twice a day – he had trouble memorizing the script and stumbled on his lines during the show. Still, "by the end of the run," Mr. Cardinal said, "he dominated that stage."

"For me," Ms. Nolan said, "the tragedy is that he had been wanting to do it for 45 years and it took [Canadian theatre] … that long … to even imagine it."

Although he didn't share it widely, Mr. Schellenberg was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002. With two periods of remission and a rigorous daily workout routine, he thought he had beaten the illness.

He spent his last year in Dallas, tending to a rose garden, reading detective mysteries and being surrounded by family – especially his grandchildren, who Ms. Karasevich said were "the balm for what ailed him."

In July, the cancer returned, and after several weeks in hospital, Mr. Schellenberg returned home until his death.

"People laugh, people cry, you move people, you make people think," he said in a documentary on the making of Lear. "You entertain people."

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