We’ve lost a giant: Thomas Peacocke, the small-town kid who changed Canadian theatre

Thomas Peacocke as Père Athol Murray in the 1981 film The Hounds of Notre Dame. Photo supplied by TW Peacocke.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A giant is gone. 

With the passing of Thomas Peacocke last week at 89, we’ve lost at one go an actor/director/teacher/mentor/administrator/advocate who has played a leading, vivid role in building and shaping theatre here in this theatre town and across the country. Making it better, and kicking its butt when it fell short.  

Thomas Peacocke

Larger-than-life in personality, fierce and fearless, loyal and challenging in equal measure, Peacocke didn’t tiptoe through the world. The rumble of his footsteps onstage and off- could be felt everywhere in Canadian theatre. And that distinctive bark-laugh of his has echoed through the years too.

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There’s a subtext in the multitude of Peacocke tributes that have flowed our way from east and west: the suspension of disbelief hasn’t come easy. I guess we all assumed Tom was immortal. And in that Canadian theatre is full of working professionals — actors, directors, theatre founders and artistic directors and, hey, the odd critic — who’ve been inspired by him to up their game, that’s not entirely far-fetched. 

The ripples go beyond theatre, of course, from the artist and the mentor to manifold arts initiatives that have a Peacocke hand in them, the countless committees, panels, juries, and boards on which he sat, from the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation to the National Theatre School, the National Screen Institute to the Neighbourhood Playhouse School in New York City. 

There are improbabilities — and a play, a Canuck Our Town perhaps — in the story of the prairie kid from Barons, AB (population then and now 365). He grew up in a two-room shack with his dad, the town telephone’s switchboard whose headquarters was the back room. Maybe there’s a segue to theatre — to Willy Loman, Big Daddy, and Père Athol Murray — in that back story, a visceral connection to the real world that gave dimensional heft to his performances on stage and screen. 

Thomas Peacocke as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Vancouver Playhouse. Photo supplied by TW Peacocke.

Peacocke’s sons Chris and TW Peacocke (the former a retired school principal and the latter a Toronto-based TV and film director) remember their dad saying that “the gossip he’d overheard was the reason he got involved in theatre in the first place.” And they figure he wasn’t entirely joking. 

First he got a U of A education degree and taught drama at Vic (the future Edmonton arts high school) in the late ‘50s. Then he got a master’s degree and assistant professor teaching gig at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. It was another Peacock (this one without an ‘e’), Gordon Peacock, who lured him back across the border in the early ‘60s to teach acting —  and to fashion the country’s first Bachelor of Fine Arts professional actor training program — in the U of A’s new drama department. Quickly, the U of A became one of Canada’s top theatre schools. And Peacocke was head of drama at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the ‘70s, too. 

He was a builder, says U of A drama professor Jan Selman, like him a sometime department chair and one of Peacocke’s MFA directing students.“He built it, led it, protected it,” she says of the U of A’s influential acting program. “And Tom never blew his own horn about it, endlessly advocating, getting scholarships, teaching, supporting, mentoring … for five decades of actors. He was hugely important. Can you tell? I’m a fan!”

Thomas Peacocke as Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, 1966. Photo supplied by TW Peacocke.

This is the story of a small-town kid who arrived in the big city — and changed it. There’s a veritable history of Edmonton theatre written in the 11 pages of Peacocke’s crammed resumé. A recurring theme, as Chris points out, was his dad’s efforts to integrate the university and the professional arts community. 

In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, theatre here was a  town-and-gown affair, a mixture of students, amateurs, professionals, in shows at Studio Theatre, Torches Theatre (the U of A’s outdoor summer courtyard theatre headed by Peacocke), Walterdale, the Citadel.… And they were all family chez Peacocke, as TW and Chris describe the expansive household where they and their sister Jill grew up. 

Thomas Peacocke as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, 1960. Photo supplied by TW Peacocke.

The hospitality was both artistic and domestic. “There were always actors hanging around,” says TW, remembering “fun, late-night piss-ups” and his dad’s “legendary omelette parties.” And “at the end of every production, there’d be a big meal, and mom cooked….. As little kids we knew all the students in all the classes.”

The young Peacockes got enlisted. “I was in The Trojan Women,” says Chris of his single-digit-age self. His bro was in Antigone. Jill was in Thieves’ Carnival. Later TW would gravitate toward film. “Dad helped me make a movie when I was 10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Chris was Dr. Jekyll; my best friend was Mr. Hyde; my eight-year-old cousin played a whore.” Chris became an educator, and carried the Peacocke sense of priorities, “the importance of fine arts,” into every school where he was a teacher or principal.

The Peacockes presided over an all-ages post-show late-night salon of sorts. Actors everywhere, from every cast in town. “And our friends loved coming over, too; mom and dad engaged them in conversation.” But “you knew you were up against the real thing,” says TW. He and Chris are amused to remember a boyhood friend playing the guitar, and their dad plying the youthful guitarist with questions. “What are you playing? Did you write it? No? No wonder. You don’t play like you mean it!” 

Playwright Wilfred Watson and director Thomas Peacocke, in rehearsal for Oh Holy Ghost, Dip Your Finger in the Blood of Canada, And Write I Love You.” at Studio Theatre, 1967. Photo supplied by TV Peacocke.

What made Peacocke the ideal mentor? “When he was working with you,” thinks Selman, “from that moment he was completely with you, 100 per cent…. It fits with being a really good actor. You felt extremely seen and heard.”

“He was both kind and fierce,” she says. “It was always always about making the work better.” That’s a thought echoed by director Stephen Heatley, a former artistic director of Theatre Network and now the chair of the UBC drama department. He was another of Peacocke’s MFA directing students. “Curmudgeonly but SO fiercely loyal!” says Heatley of his gruff mentor. “He was one of a kind. They don’t build ‘em like that any more.” 

“Tom was always challenging, but in the best possible way,” says Heatley. “He was supportive; he was always pushing me to be better. Such a huge influence on me…. I remember trying to make up a name for some ‘style’ I was proposing for a production, and him just looking at me for a moment and then saying “and what does that mean?” 

As a theatre reviewer, a line of work about which he had his doubts, I can conjure that signature Peacocke look, a bit amused, worldly, quizzical, and a lot skeptical. He wasn’t a hedger. “Liz, I read your review,” he’d say. “And I have to say that I couldn’t disagree with you more!”

Colleen Dewhurst and Thomas Peacocke in Road to Avonlea. Photo supplied by TW Peacocke.

He dismissed jargon like so much lint off a lapel. And you’d be on the spot to account for yourself. “What,” he’d say emphatically (meaning ‘what on earth?’), are you talking about?” I learned a lot from every encounter — about plays, making theatre and writing about it, the state of the culture (not to mention the dismal disrepair of the media). 

With Peacocke mentorship didn’t stop with graduation. Gerry Potter, the founder of Workshop West Theatre, calls him “one of my special teachers and mentors who always supported my learning and later my work in theatre, but was always honest enough to advise on areas that needed improvement.” Potter, like others, says he still uses what he learned from Peacocke; he’s the voice in your ear that doesn’t go away.

“He was a father figure to us,” says opera and theatre director Brian Deedrick. “I consider him my theatre dad. And I bet countless people feel that way.” And Tom’s lively, charming wife Judy, who passed away a year ago was “den mother.” Chris Peacocke laughs. “We have a lot of surrogate brothers and sisters.” 

Opinionated? Deedrick laughs. “You always knew where you stood with Tom! You always knew he’d be dead honest.” So when Deedrick ventured from theatre into directing operas, Peacocke’s was the assessment he most valued and feared. “I did a Turandot in Edmonton, and he left a phone message after the show: ‘you know, kid, that was really good’. And it meant more to me than what anybody else thought.”

Thomas Peacocke directing Francis Damberger in Saturday, Sunday, Monday at Studio Theatre. Photo supplied by Francis Damberger

“Tom was our first-year acting teacher,” says filmmaker Francis Damberger, another Peacocke student and friend. “And since I was from Tofield we used to kid around a lot about small-town Alberta.” Last year Damberger sent Tom a new screenplay he’d written. “He called me a couple of days later cussing. He thought it was really funny and powerful. He was mad because he started it reading, stopped to go to bed, then got up during the night and kept reading till late morning. So, no sleep.” 

“He had a huge influence on my life as he did with so many others,” says actor/ director/ filmmaker/ teacher Larry Reese, who was in The Hounds of Notre Dame with him. He cites “his role as as a humanitarian, mentor, teacher, father figure, and friend, who passionately went all out to inspire and help change lives….” 

Peacocke himself talked about heroism when he got up onstage in Toronto to receive a best-actor Genie Award for his charismatic star performance as Père Murray in The Hounds of Notre Dame. He was funny, people laughed, and then you can hear the silence.I’m playing a Canadian hero, and no one’s seen the movie,” he declared. “And that says a lot about our industry. And our country.”

Heroes step up and speak out. And so did Peacocke.  


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