TORONTO – Maury Chaykin, the malleable actor who established himself as a mainstay of Canadian film and TV through eccentric roles including the faded rock star hero of “Whale Music,” has died. He was 61.
The Gemini and Genie Award-winning performer died Tuesday morning at Toronto General Hospital surrounded by family, said Chaykin’s agent Paul Hemrend.
Hemrend would not elaborate on the cause of death, but friend and “Whale Music” director Richard Lewis said Chaykin had been battling several ailments that saw his health crest and fall over the past year.
Lewis said Chaykin appeared very sick last September when he tried to shoot a key scene in Lewis’ upcoming film, “Barney’s Version,” based on the Mordecai Richler book.
“He was clearly not well,” Lewis said from Los Angeles, remembering Chaykin as a loyal friend with an absurd sense of humour.
“We shot a day with him, maybe even two days with him … and then I had a long discussion with him in which I had said, ‘I don’t think that you are capable of, in terms of mobility, in terms of your overall health, of playing this part.’ … And so we replaced him in this part but because we had shot two days already of him at the Ritz Carlton, we were able to make a wonderful moment of him at the wedding (scene), which is on the film and which I’m so glad he is a part of.”
Robert Lantos, who produced many of the films Chaykin appeared in including “Whale Music” and “Barney’s Version,” called the man “an icon” and “one of the greatest character actors in the world.”
“He made a gourmet feast of every moment he was on screen, creating unforgettable characters who he pushed far beyond the writing on the page,” Lantos said in a statement.
“The refrain that for a great actor ‘no part is too small,’ must have been coined with him in mind.”
Chaykin was born July 27, 1949 in New York to an American father and a Canadian mother before moving to Toronto.
His extensive resume spanned 35 years but mostly consisted of supporting roles. His legacy as one of Canada’s most beloved performers was cemented with a starring role as a has-been music star in 1994’s “Whale Music,” which earned Chaykin a Genie in 1994 for best actor.
He appeared in many of Atom Egoyan’s films, including “Exotica,” “The Adjuster,” “Adoration,” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” and could be seen in smaller parts on big U.S. features including “The Mask of Zorro,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “A Life Less Ordinary.”
“He always added such a wonderful dimension to the characters that he played,” said Piers Handling, director of the Toronto International Film Festival.
“They were always memorable, no matter how small the roles were or medium-size the roles were. Maury was just a consummate professional, just sort of took over the screen.”
Memorable roles included his turn as a suicidal Cavalry major in “Dances with Wolves,” as the eccentric TV detective Nero Wolfe, and as an acerbic movie studio honcho in “Entourage.”
More recently, he could be seen as the cantankerous father Sam Blecher in the HBO Canada sitcom “Less Than Kind.”
“He was one of our greatest actors,” said story editor Mark McKinney, adding that the cast and crew were “reeling” from the news.
“Maury’s an actor of unparalleled gifts, you cannot learn what he had in spades — you could study for 1,000 years. He had an incredible gift, an instant quickness.”
McKinney noted Chaykin long battled kidney problems but appeared to rebound earlier this year.
One of the last roles Chaykin filmed was a supporting part on the upcoming Showcase comedy “Drunk and on Drugs Happy Funtime Hour,” created by “Trailer Park Boys” Mike Smith, Robb Wells and J.P. Tremblay.
Smith said a spirited Chaykin spent three days on set last month. He played a demented scientist who creates a hallucinogen that wreaks havoc on the cast of a fictional kids show.
“The character was written as this sort of lighthearted sort of scientist but Maury wanted to play him like a true mad man and he did that,” Smith said from Halifax, adding that the cast and crew considered it an honour to work with him.
“It was just fascinating to watch this character we wrote, watch Maury just take it to a completely different level than we had ever imagined.”
Lewis lauded Chaykin as a surprising actor full of “brilliant ideas,” and a ridiculous sense of humour.
“He would make me laugh. He’d make me laugh until my stomach hurt,” said Lewis.
“He was a true creative spirit and sometimes way out there and really kind of absurd. He had a very absurdist sense of humour and he liked the shock value of that.”
Lewis said the mild-mannered Chaykin was always very humble about his achievements.
“He was a man of integrity. He was a very upstanding fellow who was very loyal to his friends and always told the truth. He was just a very forthcoming fellow, very forthcoming and I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him dearly.”
Chaykin is survived by his wife Susannah Hoffmann and their daughter, Rose.