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Saturday July 31, 2010

A madness infused by a great comic understanding

He spent years struggling for success, but eventually won admirers across the continent by going deep into the psyche of his characters

It would be stretching the point to suggest that Maury Chaykin owed his substantial Hollywood career to a single two-minute scene in a single film. Anyone who saw his work in the years before he was cast as Major Fambrough in Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves (1990) knew what an original and magnetic actor Chaykin could be. And his pre-Wolves résumé already included a long list of memorable performances.

Still, it's safe to say that his riveting, jaw-dropping turn as the mad, shambling, incontinent and ultimately suicidal Major Fambrough caught the attention of heavyweight American producers and casting directors.

Thereafter, Chaykin worked steadily, often in small, carefully chosen, off-kilter character roles in which, at times, he came close to larceny - virtually stealing the movie from bigger-name stars.

Writing about him this week, his friend Rick Salutin said: "Maury's madness was moving and ethereal, as if he knew something, saw too far, sensed the horizon of vulnerability, mortality, nullity - whatever - that surrounds us all." But it was also a madness infused by a great comic understanding, a sense of the absurd, other side of life's Janus-like coin.

Maury Alan Chaykin died July 27 in Toronto on his 61st birthday. Although his body had been ravaged in recent years by cancer and kidney disease, he'd made a valiant effort to get well, including undergoing dialysis treatments.

Despite his frailty, he had completed the second season of Less Than Kind, a hit TV comedy series about a dysfunctional Jewish family in Winnipeg, and he had managed to shoot a small role in Casino Jack, a thriller scheduled to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. In the end, a sudden staph infection developed in a heart valve and roared through his vulnerable system, taking his life.

Ironic, in a way, since it was his own emotional vulnerabilities - and his willingness to share them with audiences - that made him such a gifted actor and so mesmerizing on the screen.

For producer Robert Lantos, Chaykin was "an icon - one of the greatest character actors in the world. He made a gourmet feast of every moment, creating unforgettable characters who he pushed far beyond the writing on the page."

Where to begin? How about his Unabomber-meets-karaoke host in A Life Less Ordinary? Or his Bubba, a desperate film producer fantasist in Atom Egoyan's The Adjuster. Or his raging megalomaniac, Harvey Weingard (closely resembling Miramax's adulte terrible Harvey Weinstein) in HBO's Entourage.

"The refrain that for a great actor 'no part is too small' must have been coined with him in mind," said Lantos. "Each time, he crafted a larger-than-life character who seized the viewers' attention and never let go."

And on those too rare occasions where Chaykin did have the lead, he was indelible - as Desmond Howl, for example, the Brian Wilson-based former rock star in Paul Quarrington's Whale Music, for which he won a Genie award for best actor. Or as the brutal union boss Hal Banks in the TV drama Canada's Sweetheart. Reviewing that 1985 teleplay, Globe and Mail critic Rick Groen wrote: "Chaykin is brilliant at the centre. Never letting a brutal role descend into brutish caricature, he gives us a chilling portrait of the man as amoral artist."

"I search for things that are on the dark side," Chaykin later explained to one interviewer, "because it's my nature."

Yet by all accounts, Chaykin's childhood in Brooklyn - he was one of three children born to a Canadian mother, Clarice (née Bloomfield), a nurse, and an American father, Irving - was relatively normal.

When his first wife, film producer Ilana Frank, was introduced to her in-laws, she was "shocked at how close and tight-knit a family they were. Maury wasn't typical. He was so odd, bigger than life. I found him terrifying. He was incredibly complicated, in a good way."

Chaykin's father taught business administration at Baruch College in Manhattan. Chaykin modelled himself after him, taking a briefcase stuffed with his father's papers to kindergarten. "I wanted to be a banker," he later explained.

Instead, he went to Buffalo to study acting and, with a group of friends, formed a group known as Swamp Fox - voted the most original theatre company in America at the 1969 Yale Drama Festival.

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