I'm so old, the first time I was on TV it was black and white. Now, more than 40 years later, a shadowy copy of that show works on me like a time machine.
It was the summer of 1966. I was living in Toronto, on a side street in Yorkville called Admiral Road. A lot of the grand old brick houses lining the leafy streets had been turned into rooming houses, and the neighbourhood was quite affordable. Now, it’s all lawyers and architects and boutiques.
Jobs were plentiful then, and it was easy to quit one and get another the same day. A case in point: A few friends and I were walking down Yorkville Street one summer morning, having just chucked our car-washing jobs. A car pulled up and the driver motioned one of us over. He said that a CBC TV show was casting extras on a show being shot in Ottawa. Three days, 50 bucks a day plus meals and transportation. But we had to be available right away.
Boy, were we available. We grabbed a few clothes, stopped by the CBC to sign contracts (“street corner thug #1” was me), then got driven to the airport just in time for an afternoon flight to Ottawa.
The show was Quentin Durgens, MP, starring a young Gordon Pinsent as a crusading politician taking on the issues of the day -- such as street crime (hence the need to bring in some street corner thugs to sleepy old Ottawa). Much of Quentin Durgens was shot on location, rare in those stilted days of studio shows. It helped to launch Pinsent's career, and it treated us pretty well too.
We lived like movie stars for three days -- sleeping late, lounging by the pool, ordering room service. I’d never eaten better in my life. We went to work at night, on location in downtown Ottawa. It wasn't what you'd call hard work – mostly standing around and being ready. We could even wear our own clothes. We were in the opening scene of a two-part special called It`s A Wise Father, which launched the second half of the season in January 1967.
Right after George Robertson's credit as writer and creator, that's me – the skinny blond teenager in tight jeans obviously up to no good. Vaguely menacing music pulses as a young woman saunters up the street toward me. The neon lights are bright behind her, but it’s dark where I am at the corner of an alley. The camera zooms in on my profile – tousled blond hair over a high forehead, pug nose, good cheekbones but a weak chin – even then, a face made for radio.
I turn to walk beside the woman, and after a brief tussle, grab her purse and toss it to my buddy. Playing keepway, we toss it back and forth as we head back into the alley. The woman follows us. A few more punks emerge from the darkness. The music grows more insistent.
The scene is intercut with a slow-paced sequence of a guy buying some magazines. He's a big guy, and the credit on the screen reads "Special Guest Star -- Annis Stukus". He buys his magazines, taking all the time in the world, then leaves the store and ambles down the street. Passing the alley, he hears the girl's screams and runs into the darkness to help.
Annis Stukus won two Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, put together and coached the Edmonton Eskimos, then did the same thing with the BC Lions. Then he went on to hockey, running the Vancouver Canucks, and then the Winnipeg Jets. After that, he worked with the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team. The CFL's Coach of the Year trophy is named for "Stuke", who died in 2006 at the age of 91.
He was in his early 50s when I tried to tackle him in that alley. All 110 pounds of me. He brushed me off like a piece of lint, then went after the other guys. Someone pulled a knife and stabbed him. He kept going. Someone else broke a bottle over his head. The big guy finally went down, and we all scattered.
Annis Stukus was OK, by the way, and shortly after our altercation in the alley, he and Quentin Durgens took on the scourge of street crime. I believe they won. As for me, that was the end of my TV career, two minutes into the show – I barely got past the titles. The guy who hired us said there was more work like that if we joined the union. It would cost each of us $50. We had other ideas for the money, like paying rent and buying food.
I never saw the Quentin Durgens episode when it aired, and pretty much forgot about it. I'm not keen on any pictures of me, much less moving ones. But in a fit of archival madness recently, I bought a DVD copy of the show from CBC Archives. It’s actually a DVD copy of a kinescope – a film of a film – and pretty grainy.
But my wife immediately recognized the 18-year-old me -- beardless and 100 pounds lighter. Surprisingly, the scene played out pretty much as I remembered it. I could even recall wearing those jeans, washed so often they were almost white instead of blue. As for the cocky kid wearing them, I was happy to see that for once, the video version matched the memory.