Festival mourns the loss of actor Peter Donaldson

Peter Donaldson

January 9, 2001 … The Stratford Shakespeare Festival was deeply saddened to learn of the death of actor Peter Donaldson on Saturday, January 8, 2011. Mr. Donaldson was to return to the Festival this year for his 25th season, playing Buckingham in Richard III and Marcus Andronicus in Titus Andronicus.

“Peter was the finest actor’s actor,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino, who worked with Mr. Donaldson on many productions. “He was deeply admired for the conviction he brought to his work and the unsparing truth of his portrayals. He was versatile and able to give outstanding performances in modern plays, musicals and classics. But his home was Shakespeare.”

““He spent a lifetime at the Stratford Festival and gave us a world of great performances. His Timon of Athens made a seldom-performed part unforgettable and was a tour de force of virtuosity. But this was only one of many brilliant performances at Stratford.”

Mr. Donaldson was last seen on the Stratford stage in 2008, when he played Rufio in Caesar and Cleopatra and Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, both under the direction of Artistic Director Des McAnuff, and Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost, under the direction of Michael Langham, the Festival’s artistic director from 1956 to 1967.

“I was looking forward immensely to Peter’s return to our company for what was to have been his 25th season, and I am shocked and saddened by his untimely passing,” says Mr. McAnuff.

“He was one of those rare actors who excelled at everything he touched, able to sound the depths of tragic emotion even as he delighted us with his flair for wryly deadpan comedy. No one who enjoyed his stellar performances at Stratford and elsewhere could have doubted that even greater triumphs lay ahead of him, and our sorrow is all the deeper when we think of the King Lear or the Prospero we might someday have seen him play but now have lost forever.”

“Peter leaves those of us at the Festival with a tremendous sense of responsibility because we know he held this theatre in the highest possible esteem.”

Mr. Donaldson was born and raised in Midland, Ontario, and attended performances at the Stratford Festival as a high-school student. A graduate of the University of Guelph, Mr. Donaldson began at the Festival in 1977 as a journeyman actor, playing Potpan in Romeo and Juliet and the Page to Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well. He remained for three seasons, and then moved on to study in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis, and to perform at a number of Canadian theatres, including the Shaw Festival, Toronto Free Theatre and London’s Grand Theatre.

After a single season at Stratford in 1982, Mr. Donaldson returned in 1986, growing into one of the Festival’s most versatile and admired leading men. Over 12 seasons, he gave such memorable performances as Jaques in As You Like It, both Kent and Edgar in productions of King Lear, Guy Thompson in Homeward Bound, Boy Staunton in World of Wonders and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, opposite Lucy Peacock’s Katherina.

One of his many stand-out performances came in 1994, when he was part of a remarkable ensemble, playing James Tyrone Jr., in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with William Hutt, Martha Henry, Tom McCamus and Martha Burns, under the direction of Diana Leblanc. He reprised the role in a film version, winning a Genie for Best Supporting Actor. After that performance, he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter.

From 1995 to 1999, he worked on the television series Emily of New Moon, in which he played Ian Bowles opposite his wife, Sheila McCarthy, who played Aunt Laura. They had also performed together on stage, in the Grand Theatre’s 1992 production of Norm Foster’s Wrong For Each Other.

In 2001, Mr. Donaldson again returned to Stratford to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night (directed by Mr. Cimolino), George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Trigorin in The Seagull. The following year, he was joined on stage by Ms McCarthy for the Festival’s 50th season. They performed as husband and wife in two productions, playing Mr. and Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera and Sir Percival Blakeney and Marguerite in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Aside from The Threepenny Opera, Mr. Donaldson’s foray into musical theatre, included playing Harry the Horse in 1990’s Guys and Dolls (a production that featured Ms McCarthy as Adelaide), Horace Vandergelder in 2005’s Hello Dolly!, again opposite Lucy Peacock, and the Mysterious Man and Narrator in Into the Woods that same year.

Mr. Donaldson’s position as one of the finest classical actors of his generation was solidified with such significant performances as Mark Antony in the 2003 production of Antony and Cleopatra, featuring Diane D’Aquila as Cleopatra; his unforgettable portrayal of Timon of Athens in 2004, truly a piece of theatre history; Benedick in 2006’s Much Ado About Nothing, once again opposite Lucy Peacock; and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007.

“Peter’s work and career reminded me of William Hutt,” says Mr. Cimolino. “Like Bill, in his mid-life Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.”

Mr. Donaldson died of lung cancer in hospital in Toronto, surrounded by his family and friends. He is survived by his wife, Sheila McCarthy, and daughters Mackenzie and Drew. His loss is deeply felt by members of his extended theatre family, who cherish him as a remarkable talent and friend.

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49 Responses to Festival mourns the loss of actor Peter Donaldson

  1. I remember seeing him and Martha Henry in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? vividly. In fact, I went to see the production twice. I was in high school, and it was my first experience with Albee, and the whole thing kinda blew my mind and made me start thinking seriously about pursuing theatre as a career.

    Over the years, I saw him in a number of productions, and he was always fantastic. I’m sure he will be greatly missed.

  2. Elizabeth Bundy-Cooper, Stratford says:

    I first saw Peter Donaldson in Gypsy back in 1993 I think. He was amazing and I have been a fan ever since. He was an amazing and versatile actor. When he was first diagnosed, he was in Glen Gary Glen Ross with my brother Kevin Bundy at Soul Pepper and he was not able to perform in the show I was attending. I was so saddened to hear of his illness then. He battled the best he could. He will be missed by many, especially those who lived with him and his family in this community of Stratford.

  3. cynthia says:

    Thanks Peter for a fabulous season of theatre in Toronto in 2010. I saw you in And So It Goes…, Glengarry Glen Ross and Art and was riveted each time by your performances. Of course I’ve also seen you tread the boards in Stratford but your presence in the Toronto theatre scene this past year has greater meaning for me. You have left an indelible impression on us all wherever you have performed, and you are missed.

  4. Marcia Matsui says:

    Peter Donaldson brought many characters to life onstage that touched us all, but I’ll never forget going to a “Meet the Company” session when he appeared as himself. At one point, he told us that as ordinary theatre goers we had a great advantage over a professional when we go to the theatre, as we see a show, always open to the opportunity to learn about life. A professional, by contrast, can’t resist focussing on the craft. How generous of him. Made our day.

  5. Sheila Burns says:

    In 1976 Peter played his hardest role. It took great kindness, courage and compassion. Our family has been comforted by it over these many years.
    We were profoundly saddened to hear of his death and send our deepest sympathies to his family and friends.
    The family of Michael Burns

  6. Janis Barlow says:

    I met Peter in 1973 at the University of Guelph. We were first year students and we both auditioned and were cast, together with Paula Barrett, in a one act play directed by a student director. Even then, Peter was cool and relaxed on the stage, but very serious and focused about developing his acting talent.

    His career achievements have been a source of considerable pride to many of us from the University of Guelph. Canadian theatre is the poorer for his premature departure from the stage. Heartfelt condolences to his family and colleagues.

  7. The Rev. Rebecca Spanos says:

    When Peter wasn’t on the stage in one of his
    stellar performances, I really missed him.
    Scarlet Pimpernel was our favorite and my husband
    and I went around and imitated him in that role,
    albeit badly. We shall miss his nobility, humor
    and grace. Thank God for his life.

  8. Paul Simpson says:

    Apart from enjoying Mr. Donaldson’s work over time as did countless others, I had a rather “thin” acquaintanceship with him. We’d cross paths at the local “Y” in Stratford when working out. He was always gracious, never indiscreet, and kept a low profile. A good man.

  9. Jenny Fisher says:

    I remember very vividly Mr. Donaldson’s portrayal of my all-time favorite character, Atticus Finch. It is such a large part, in that there is so much said without really saying anything, but Mr. Donaldson was able to capture the serene fighter that Atticus was. That is how he will be forever remembered for me.

  10. Jamie Higgins says:

    I last saw Peter Donaldson in “To Kill A Mockingbird” which was a great performance. I know he was a great contributor to the Stratford Festival, and will be greatly missed.

  11. Marilyn Marshall says:

    I loved Peter Donaldson. I will never forget him as the Stage Manager in Our Town. I can hear his voice when I visit the local cemetary, describing the people in his folksy voice! When the house lights came up at intermission for To Kill a Mockingbird, I blinked: I was still in Maycomb, Alabama, in 1936. Twice I spoke to him when I saw him out and about, to tell him how much I appreciated his work.He was gracious and charming, and I think was glad to be told. He seemed humble about his great talent. I am so sorry I will never see him grace the boards at the Festival Theatre again.

  12. Barbara Petepiece says:

    Peter Donaldson will truly be deeply missed at the Stratford Festival. I was looking forward to seeing him again this year, as I had enjoyed many of his performances in previous years. I particularly liked his Atticus Finch in the Festival’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I also much appreciated his work in CBC’s production of Emily of New Moon, in which he worked with his wife, Sheila McCarthy. A great talent, gone too soon!

  13. Anne Hurley says:

    I have always been a great fan of Peter’s work.. I met him at the Y where he became a friend to all….never too busy for a friendly chat. I what to give Sheila a big hug for her strength, discretin and love for Peter.

  14. Anne Hurley says:

    I have always been a great fan of Peter’s work.. I met him at the Y where he became a friend to all….never too busy for a friendly chat. I want to give Sheila a big hug for her strength, discretin and love for Peter.

  15. Gail Tolley says:

    In more than 25 years of Stratford Festival going, I have had the honour — and it was always an honour — of seeing Peter Donaldson in so many productions. He graced the stage with intelligence, dignity and humanity. He was never one iota less than fully authentic, even at his silliest or most villainous. But I do have a favourite recollection that always makes me smile. It was during the intermission of the 1987 Young Company production, of As You Like It, directed by Robin Phillips at the Tom Pat theatre. He was playing Jacques. The last scene before the interval had been one of the most sensuous I have ever seen on stage, with Nancy Palk and Nigel Hamer, swimming and wading in a pond. The imaginary pond was created, with classic Phillips ingenuity, with lighting and a mug of water that Jacques tossed on the stage at the beginning of the scene. During the interval, we were in our seats in the front row, when Jacques (Peter in costume and character) came out with a towel to dry the stage. The person I was with sniggered at this, only be treated to the most evil, hair-raising glare imaginable from Peter. At some conscious level, one realized this light-hearted little moment, that was missed by most of the audience who were eating ice cream by the lake shore, was planned and executed with the same precision as every other moment in the production. And as odd as it was to have an actor come out during intermission to clean the stage, it worked beautifully because of Peter. Like everything else he ever did on stage.

  16. gail says:

    My deepest sympathies, thoughts and prayers go to Ms McCarthy and her daughters. May the lovely memeories we all have of Mr. Donaldson’s many portrayals be of comfort to you at the sad time.

  17. Sherri Hext says:

    For the family of Dan Donaldson:
    Through the years I’ve been priviledged to experience the excellence of Peter’s acting as well as that of Sheila.
    The role that had the most lasting impact on me personally was Atticas, so much so that I saw the 2007 production 3 times and each time was profoundly moved to tears !!!
    I also attended a Table Talk at which Peter {& others} shared with those present interesting back scene information. It was hosted by Ted McGee & took us into the world of “To Kill A Mockingbird” in a very special way.
    After the event, I had a chance to chat with Peter about his brother Dan. I’d met him at a benefit dinner for St. Clair College, Chatham Campus in the summer of 2007. At first I was puzzled as I knew Peter was on stage in Stratford, yet this man across the room looked so much like him! I went over to him and said “You must be related to Peter Donaldson!” I didn’t realize why he was in Chatham as I’m from Petrolia and hadn’t heard of the Chatham reno project and his role. I started to think that Chatham would be accessible to Detroit and Windsor area theatre goers, some of whom had stopped going to Stratford following 9/11.
    When I saw Peter I thought I’d run the idea by him. He listened with interest and said “Interesting idea…who knows !”
    I had a thought it might be possible to work out something with Stratford Festival & Chatham’s Capitol Theatre, perhaps a bit like a “farm team” in sports.
    It seems tragic that Dan is mourning the loss of a dear brother as well as of a project he had spearheaded and then shepherded it through its birth pangs only to watch it flounder in its formative years.
    Lastly I want to express profound sympathy to Sheila, Mackenzie And Drew. Be assured that many thoughts and prayers will continue to be offered up for your family.
    Sincerely
    Sherri Hext
    Petrolia
    Ontario

  18. Judy Cummings says:

    Oh, I am so sorry.

    We so loved this actor.

    Our family saw Peter in Timon and his performance
    brought Shakespeare to another level.

    We will miss him so much.

    Our sympathies are extended to his family and close friends.

    The Cummings Family

  19. Maureen Vankesteren says:

    I have great memories of every performance I have seen Peter Donaldson perform in. This will be my 21st season employed by the Festival.
    My Grandson when he was young teenager at the time (he is now 21) and my daughter flew from Newfoundland to see Peter perform in Timon of Athens, it was brilliant. They are coming back again this season and were saddened to hear that they would not see him perform again.
    Mr. Donaldson will remain with us all forever, his talent was remarkable.

  20. Jeffrey Wetsch says:

    As a young actor he taught me to believe in myself.
    As an experienced professional I find his advice in my thoughts every project I do. His skills on and off the stage were what made him an amazing human being.
    I struggle still with this loss…he will be remembered.

  21. Sylvia Fisher says:

    I remember working with Peter Donaldson when I was an Apprentice Stage Manager at the Manitoba Theatre Centre on the play ‘Blessing in Disguise’.

    He was a lovely man – always kind, generous, funny and good-natured. My deepest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues on their great loss.

  22. Sylvia Fisher says:

    I’m sorry – it was “Blessings in Disguise”.

  23. Karen Mills, TPT usher says:

    Every part Peter Donaldson played, large or small, was stellar. Of particular joy was seeing him day in and day out at the Tom Patterson Theatre as Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost. His pompous, flourishing, charming character was endearing to the core. All those roles he had yet to play … we are the poorer for this loss.

  24. Peter Keleghan says:

    I only got to work with Peter Donaldson twice. One on Made In Canada and once on Love Letters. On Made In Canada they asked if I could play golf for the next episode. I said ‘yea not bad, I can fake it well’ What I didn’t know was that I was play with Peter D. His shot was up first. My jaw dropped as he teed off. There was a substantial pause. We subsequently adjusted my character’s abilities at golf to be very poor but cheating, excellent. We were all humbled at his performance in Love Letters. Smart, subtle, creative and hugely perfect. I told Sheila if I were to have a bromance it would be with him. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that)He was a lesson in dignity and talent and is sorely missed.

  25. Kerri Clarke says:

    I first met and worked with Peter many years ago when we did Julius Caesar together…I had a very minor role and yet he was always lovely, kind and generous both on and offstage.
    My sincerest sympathy to Sheila and their daughters.

  26. Barry MacGregor says:

    Peter was in the wonderful London Grand Theatre Company created by Robin Phillips in 1983/84. We ran for 1 year only. Those actors in that Company look on it as a remarkable year in their careers. Peter and I were in one show that year that required, at some point in the 1st act, to have to listen to various stories told by each of us in turn. I noticed that Peter had very craftily managed to have a pair of earphones on during a large number of the stories as they ere told. I cornered him in the dressing room and asked what he was listening too. He replied that in the evenings it was either hockey or a ball game as he could not stand the stories. Lucky bugger. You are going to be missed for many reasons, Farewell dear Peter. We shall miss oyu greatly.

  27. David Ferry says:

    Peter is one of our great actors. I admire his work tremendously, and will try to do him proud.

  28. Joe Dinicol says:

    I grew up watching Peter and it was my privilege to share the stage with him at Stratford as a child. It was being around actors like him that made me want to pursue the craft myself. Peter had an honesty and integrity about him both on stage and off. Seeing his ‘George’ in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’ is still one of the most powerful performances I can remember. The loss of such a dignified actor, husband and father is devastating. My deepest sympathies to Sheila and their children… he will be greatly missed!

  29. C. David Johnson says:

    I first met Peter in Michael Langham’s Young Company in 1984. We made fun of the fact that most us were closer to 30, not that “Young”, and all of us had fairly established careers. We were to spend a number of weeks together before casting was announced for “Two Gents” and “Henry IV Pt.1″. On the day we received our parts Peter was given two marginal roles. He had already played some pretty substantial roles at the Festival and other places. He simply turned on his heel and walked away! I thought “Wow, this guy’s got some set of balls!”. I was just happy to be at Stratford with a paycheque! But as we all came to see, Peter had an immensely solid confidence in his abilities, and brooked no bullshit. He knew he was better than that.
    I saw Bill Hutt’s “Timon” in London, and Pete’s “Timon” at the Patterson, and I’ll tell you, it’s a toss-up as to who blew me away more.
    At his memorial at Soulpepper, I was really affected by several guys saying Peter had made them better men. In this day and age we could use more like him, and more’s the pity.

  30. Susan McNeil says:

    I have many fond memories of Peter from our days together in the theatre program at Guelph University, the parties and the fabulous summer spent as company member of the Road Show, started by Rex Buckle one of our instructors from Guelph. That summer in the mid 70’s, we lived the high life of being actors touring the Muskoka’s in a bus that broke down continously. Peter went on to much bigger theatre successes since that summer and would have continued on this path doing what he loved to do. I am deeply saddened by this news and sincerely offer my condolences to his family at this sudden and tragic loss. We have all lost the opportunity to see what Peter would have done in his golden years.

  31. Peter Donaldson was a regular on the Stratford Festival stage for many Chicago patrons who saw him in countless productions. He captured the audience with his stellar performances no matter what role he played. He was a strong supporter of the Chicago Associates of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and we send our condolences to his family and friends. We are saddened by his untimely passing and will always cherish memories of his many outstanding performances.

  32. [...] Memories of Donaldson can be shared through a tribute page on the Festival’s website at stratfordshakespearefestival.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/peter-donaldson-2/#comments. [...]

  33. Hammond Bentall says:

    We live in Peter’s former house outside Sebringville so I have different memories of Peter every day.
    I wish I played golf he lost a lot of balls.
    The floor of the basement is partly made up from a set. We have a truck in the garden from one of the musicals, painted stones left by his daughters. We look at the same views as he and Shiela woke up to.
    Tahnk you Peter.

  34. Kathy says:

    May there be lots of La Bomba and spicy salami in heaven and Vespa’s

  35. Karen Zamaria & Jack McDonald says:

    Sheila, Peter, Karen and I met in Paris for drinks for Peter’s 50th Birthday celebration. At that time, I told Peter that his performance in “Journey’s End” was so powerfull and still is so to speak.

    I would like to leave a Meditation from Marcus Aurelius, a Roman philosopher and humanitarian and someone with common sense much like Peter, I think.

    “You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred-what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tryant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in-why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts.!” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace-the same grace shown to you.” from a translation by Gregory Hays. Peter you greeted us in the moment which we will treasure always. Much love to you an yours, from Karen and Jack

  36. Pamela Perrault, Cobourg, ON says:

    Mr. Donaldson was a joy to watch, but never more so than opposite Mr. Hutt in “Inherit The Wind”. Truth be told, we went to see the play because of Hutt, and expected him to shine; he did not disappoint. However, the star of the show, in every respect, was Mr. Donaldson; I could not take my eyes off him.
    He was extraordinary in his ability to entertain, enthrall and delight. I hope he knows how much he was enjoyed and loved.

  37. I saw Peter grow as an actor through many years of festival-going and through his appearances in the Robin Phillips season at the Grand and on Toronto stages. He developed into a wonderful, reliably versatile actor. There could be only one William Hutt, of course, but Peter often reminded him of Bill the Great–in his dignity on stage, real presence, authority of performance, vocal maturity, comic timing, and ability to play both drama and comedy with equal finesse.

    My condolence to Sheila and family. I know that the Festival, too, has suffered a huge loss.

  38. I saw Peter grow as an actor through many years of festival-going and through his appearances in the Robin Phillips season at the Grand and on Toronto stages. He developed into a wonderful, reliably versatile actor. There could be only one William Hutt, of course, but Peter often reminded me of Bill the Great–in his dignity on stage, real presence, authority of performance, vocal maturity, comic timing, and ability to play both drama and comedy with equal finesse.

    My condolence to Sheila and family. I know that the Festival, too, has suffered a huge loss.

  39. I was always nothing but constantly amazed at the ease with which Peter expressed a role: he was a joy to watch. Greatly missed. Peace and prayers to him and his family.

  40. Ann, Bill and Liana Cook says:

    A great actor. Everyone was promised a great theatrical production when Peter was a member of the cast. We made sure that we saw most of the plays that Peter was a part of and were continually in awe of his natural abilities on stage. He will be missed by many. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, colleagues and friends.

  41. larry foster says:

    Peter caught my attention with subtle strength of character to each role,as well as acting in smooth accord with other actors.He,Bruce Dow,and Brent Carver,topped my honour role for many years.Bravo…a life taken too soon.He will not soon be forgotten.

  42. I was so deeply shocked to learn of Mr. Donaldson’s death, I have long been inspired and entertained by his work in Canadian theatre. My heart goes out to his family and I can only imagine how hard this journey has been for them. With greatest admiration and sympathy for the too soon loss of a truely great canadian talent.

  43. I have also long been a fan of Ms. McCarthy’s work in television and theatre. I feel very fortunate that on several occasions I watched them perform together on stage and those opportunities were always magical. My deepest condolences to you and your daughters.

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