By JUDY STOFFMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 24, 2018
Viewers might not have caught his name in the closing credits, but William Whitehead - versatile, brainy, witty, loyal, hugely productive - helped create many of the CBC's most acclaimed documentary programs in a career spanning five decades.
Having obtained a BSc and master's degree in biology from the University of Saskatchewan, with a published thesis on the musculature of the black widow spider, he proved a godsend to CBC-TV's award-winning flagship science program The Nature of Things. He wrote more than 100 episodes of the series. With equal authority and fluency, he could script a show about why the fluids of our bodies - tears, blood, sweat - are salty like the sea, or how a group of Mayans escaped being Christianized and still carry on their ancient belief system, or how a certain monkey sub-species follows a matriarchal social structure.
He adapted Farley Mowat's controversial Sea of Slaughter and wrote two of the eight episodes of A Planet for the Taking, the landmark 1985 series filmed over three years around the world that questioned whether humans are the most important species on the planet.
"He handled an enormous spectrum of science subjects for us, including natural history, conservation, anthropology, medical research - he could dive into anything," recalled director Nancy Archibald (now retired), who was present from the early days of The Nature of Things and, with her late husband Jim Murray, its executive producer, embodied the spirit of the show.
"Bill was so organized and so intelligent; he took our research and got on top of it and was able to shape it into a script," Ms. Archibald added. "It was incredible how many things he was able to do at the same time.
There was no arrogance, no attitude. He was beloved by everybody."
Mr. Whitehead was diagnosed in December with terminal lung cancer. He died at home in Toronto on Feb 1, at the age of 86.
Mr. Whitehead did not write only for The Nature of Things. At the CBC, he worked on Images of Canada, a documentary miniseries that ran from 1972 to 1976. With his life partner, the novelist and playwright Timothy Findley, he adapted Pierre Berton's The National Dream, about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and wrote Dieppe 1942, about the disastrous Allied attack on the French port in which so many Canadians lost their lives. In 2006, he came out of retirement to work with Terence Macartney-Filgate on the television documentary Raising Valhalla, about the construction of Toronto's new opera house.
Despite his many credits, in his 2012 memoir, Words to Live By, he makes light of his writing accomplishments. He saw himself primarily as the partner of a great novelist.
Mr. Whitehead wrote that if you ever attended a reading, a talk, or a book signing by "Tiff," as Timothy Findley was commonly known, after his initials, "you may have noticed someone hovering nearby: someone tall, with a big smile, brown hair and eyes, carrying a bit too much weight and wearing a pen on a cord around his neck. That was me."
He typed Mr. Findley's handwritten manuscripts, helped with research, answered his mail, decorated his home, organized his social life, kept away the people who made demands on his time and tried to minimize his intake of alcohol, for which the novelist had a predilection. He cooked their meals, booked their trips and, in general, enabled Mr. Findley, the more tormented and less stable half of the couple, to produce the remarkable body of work for which he won two Governor-General's awards and an international readership.
William Frederick Whitehead was born in Hamilton, on Aug. 16, 1931, where his parents Marjorie (née Robinson) and Berkeley Kyle Whitehead had come from Saskatchewan hoping to find work. His father suffered from epilepsy and had difficulty landing and keeping a job; the family was in straitened circumstances.
After moving back to Regina, the couple divorced and Bill did not see his father again until his late teens, when he went to Toronto, where his father then lived, for a conference. Nobody had explained to him what epilepsy was.
When Marjorie remarried, Bill moved in with his Robinson grandparents. His grandfather, Fred Robinson, owned a mens wear shop, which he hoped that Bill would eventually take over, but Bill, known to school mates as "the brain," had other ideas.
Being a child of the Prairies, he was fascinated by animals, particularly insects. At 12, he was the youngest member of the Saskatchewan Natural History Society.
Planning to become an entomologist, he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan in biology, with a minor in theatre. "My undergraduate years," he later wrote, "were heaven." He finished his master's with such brilliant results that he was invited to Yale University for doctoral studies.
Postponing his decision about Yale, he accepted a job in the anatomy department of the university, preparing study materials for medical students and taking over a research project investigating cancer in mice. Meanwhile, he was acting, producing and doing production design for the Saskatoon Community Players, an amateur theatre group.
"Bill was a Prairie pragmatist to the end, and he saw the humour in everything," his publisher Marc Côté of Cormorant Books said.
Until the Stratford Festival was launched in 1953, there was almost no professional theatre in Canada. Although mad about the stage, the young biologist had never seen a professional production. His life changed when Stratford sent a touring company, the Canadian Players, across the country to perform Macbeth and St. Joan with Douglas Campbell and Frances Hyland in the lead roles.
"This was theatre! I was hungry to be part of it," he later wrote.
Accosting Mr. Campbell after a performance in Saskatoon, he asked the celebrated actor what he should do to enter the magical world of the performing arts. Mr. Campbell's answer was succinct: "You leave Saskatchewan." Mr. Whitehead followed the advice and took off for Toronto in 1957, after resigning his university job. Being a biologist involved too much killing of animals, he decided.
In Toronto, he found little acting work and soon joined the company at Stratford, playing small roles and making props. With the Canadian Players, he travelled across the country from Newfoundland to Victoria, becoming stage manager. He met some of the outstanding theatre people of his day, including the director Marigold Charlesworth and her partner, Jeannie Roberts.
The two women invited him to do summer stock theatre in 1959, at the Red Barn Theatre at Jackson's Point, on the south shore of Lake Simcoe in Ontario. The next summer he had bigger roles and, when summer ended, he had parts at the Crest Theatre in Toronto. Nathan Cohen of The Toronto Star gave him a positive review for his interpretation of a dour Scot named MacLeish in the Second World War drama The Long and the Short and the Tall.
But making a living was difficult and Mr.
Whitehead and his fellow actors were grateful when Toronto's O'Keefe Centre opened and hired them to handle ticket sales.
He joined Ms. Charlesworth and Ms. Roberts in a repertory theatre venture at the Central Library in Toronto, then located at St. George and College Streets. As stage manager, he hired the actors and it was here, in 1962, that he met Timothy Findley, who had parts in all three plays of the first season.
The young actor told Mr. Whitehead that he was in a play, Crawling Arnold by Jules Feiffer, shot for CBC-TV, which was to be broadcast that night, but he had no television set. Could he possibly come over to watch?
As Mr. Whitehead liked to tell the story, he was so broke he had only enough money to buy either cheese and crackers or a few bottles of beer for his guest. He opted for beer.
When he offered it to Tiff, the latter explained that he had just started a course of Antabuse and beer would make him sick.
Did Bill have anything to eat? Mr. Findley did not go home that night.
So began an unconventional 40-year relationship that suited them both. Mr. Whitehead had known since his early teens that he was attracted to other boys. His family accepted this more easily than the upperclass parents of Mr. Findley.
In his surprisingly candid memoirs, Mr. Whitehead described the first time Tiff took him home to meet his mother and father.
Tiff's stockbroker father drew his guest aside and issued a warning: "My son is queer, you know."
The relationship was sexual only in the early years. Mr. Findley preferred sex with strangers and sometimes disappeared for days on benders, while Mr. Whitehead had several long-term affairs with other men, including one that lasted eight years.
After five years of working in the theatre, both decided on a career change. Mr. Findley's novel The Last of the Crazy People, the first of 10, appeared in 1967, while Mr. Whitehead found work writing about science for CBC Radio's The Learning Stage, an earnest program that eventually evolved into Ideas.
From there, he moved successfully into television.
The couple bought an abandoned farm in Cannington, north of Toronto, which they restored, improved and enlarged over the years with the help of local craftsmen into a picturesque home they named Stone Orchard. There, they collected an enormous number of animals, particularly cats (the cat population peaked at 36 over the years.)
In 1995, they acquired a house with extensive flower gardens in Cotignac in the south of France, where a writing studio was created for Mr. Findley. After 35 years, Stone Orchard had to be sold when the couple began spending long periods in France; their Canadian base became a condo in Stratford. It was in the bathroom of the French house that Mr. Findley took the fall that led to his death in June, 2002, at the age of 71.
Mr. Whitehead dealt with his grief by completing Journeyman, a collection of occasional writings that Tiff had been working on just before his death. He sold the Cotignac house in 2005, but continued to visit Paris every year. He found a caring companion in old age - Trevor Green, now 32, who was a young student and Timothy Findley fan when he came to take a theatre course in Stratford and sought out Mr. Whitehead.
They began living together in 2005.
"The biggest relief for Bill in the last few weeks of his life were the nature programs he watched, mostly BBC Earth," Mr. Green recalled. "He also read between six and 10 mystery novels a week - I had to haul them back and forth to the library. I have never met anyone who could read so fast. He also did the cryptic crossword in The Globe every day, in about 20 minutes."
Remarkable to the end.
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William Whitehead, seen in Paris in 2011, proved a godsend to CBC-TV's award-winning flagship science program The Nature of Things, having written more than 100 episodes of the series.