Shuffling toward the kitchen, Gordon Pinsent starts to whistle. Pitch-perfect, it's the tune to Harry Warren's An Affair to Remember.
The affair he likely has in mind, certainly the one he cherishes most, is the nearly five-decade romance he carried on with his wife, actress Charmion King, who passed away five years ago. Her indelible spirit remains, however, fairly filling the comfortable, sun-drenched Toronto penthouse where Pinsent resides.
It's there in sundry paintings of Charm, as he calls her – most of them by Pinsent himself, a gifted artist as well as actor and writer. It's there in various photographs, a bust in marble (also his work), and in memorabilia, the accumulated baubles of a largely blessed theatrical life.
I half expect him to start reciting Browning's My Last Duchess. Instead, he points to a giant, potted, spindly pine tree that has begun to list. "Charm loved it," he says. "I call it the Phyllis Diller. I have a strange feeling it will come down on me one day, for making fun of it. Charm will know."
It was Charm, Pinsent will tell you straight off, who kept him as close to grounded as it's possible for an actor to be. Her reflex line, "For God's sake, Gordon, get over yourself, would you?" echoes through the chapters of his new autobiography, Next, deftly ghosted by CBC programmer George Anthony.
Now 82, Pinsent is one of the country's most respected actors. His vast body of work includes regular appearances in 16 television series, 17 television specials, and some 30 movies, including, most memorably, Who Has Seen the Wind, The Shipping News, The Rowdyman and Away from Her. He has won a few shelves worth of trophy hardware, a fistful of honorary degrees, is a Companion of the Order of Canada and, in his native Grand Falls, Nfld., has both a street and a building (the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts) named for him.
Pinsent was 31 (five years younger than King) when they met, acting in a Crest Theatre production of Madwoman of Chaillot. In one scene, King was required to whistle through her teeth, a skill she had yet to master; Pinsent volunteered to be her stand-in, projecting the whistle from the wings. Naturally, he found it necessary to discuss how well this subterfuge was working with the leading lady. Occasionally, Miss King (her preferred form of address) would drive the car-less Pinsent home. Soon, the lift became a nightly event. They married a year later.
By then, he already had one failed marriage behind him – and two young children he would not see again for almost 20 years. The tension between rooted domesticity and his desperate need to make something of himself as an actor proved irreconcilable.
"I was following an idea," he reflects, reclining on the living room's leather sofa. "That I could be a husband and a father, and do all the things expected of me. But what I expected of myself kept cropping up and pushing through. I was being carried along by something. It was always there."
The phone rings. He ignores it. It rings again. "I told Spielberg never to call me on Tuesday," he quips.
The book discreetly mentions that he did stray during the marriage. Charm knew. Their only child, actress Leah Pinsent, also knew.
"That was not an easy time," he concedes. "I have many misgivings on that score. The atoning was tumultuous. I spent my whole life atoning."
His infidelities, he suggests, "were mistakes I made because I had not stopped growing. We do have a ledge in us, and anything below that is probably a root cellar, where you keep all the bad stuff, all the mistakes you've made. But what do you do? You can't fix it. You just have to leave it and it becomes part of your infrastructure. The only way to make it up to anybody was to become better at what I was doing. If I could do that, there was a fair chance I could infiltrate others' ideas of me, supplant them with better thoughts and good work and friendship."
At one point, the couple seriously considered formal separation. "Look," King finally said, "it's already been 25 years. C'mon, this is great." She was, Pinsent adds, "trying to get me to stop whining." They stayed together another 19 years, until her death in 2007. "The good times were quite wonderful. Nothing has come close to that Charm experience."
There are other revelations as well, among them Pinsent's chronic struggle with lack of confidence. "The anxiety was always there, before each performance, and what an awful bloody devil that is." Yet the moment he stepped on stage, afraid to let the audience see the terror within, he was fine.
Today, Pinsent enjoys good relationships with all of his children. He reconnected with his daughter Beverley after she wrote what he initially thought was a fan letter for his work on the TV special, A Gift to Last. "My mother said I should look you up one day," the letter read. "That," said Charm, "is from your daughter."
Reconciliation with his son, actor and writer Barry Kennedy, took longer. "It was not so easy for Barry," Pinsent says. "He told interviewers that he eventually wanted to find out if I was an asshole, and discovered I was not. We became good friends. I can see myself in him – the same appreciation of the human comedy." As for daughter Leah, "she's my rock, the Kryptonite in my life."
His seven-decade career was won, he says, with more hard work than may have been apparent. "I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I needed to stay on the horse," even if (as it literally did on one occasion) it meant binding his legs to the beast.
He's not done yet, he reckons. His book is not titled Next, for nothing. Up the spiral staircase in the loft where he writes and paints is a side table arrayed with TV and film scripts at various stages of completion. "I want to stuff them away, but I can't do it, because it means I'll never get to them."
But Pinsent is also acutely conscious of the passage of time, and wondering whether his remaining allotment can satisfy his ambitions. "It's like that ball in Dylan Thomas's story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, a ball rolling to the seashore. A great ball of time. It's all wrapped up in there somewhere. And I can spend a lot of time trying to carve it all up and finding the turning points.
"It's all gone by so fast," he says, his gaze fixed on a portrait of Charm.