That remarkable voice. “I can’t,” Charmion King (BA 1947 UC) says regretfully in her deep voice about a suggested meeting date. “That’s the day the Queen’s here, and I have to be at the CBC with Gordon.” She explains she’ll be tied up for the whole day – “doing nothing,” she adds with a touch of exasperation. The reigning matriarch of Canada’s theatrical royal family – her husband of 40 years is actor Gordon Pinsent, and their daughter is actor Leah Pinsent – has an active career and prides herself on staying busy. But a visit with the Queen does not count as productive work.
The day after being tied up with the Queen, King welcomes me into the elegant downtown Toronto penthouse she shares with Pinsent. Dressed in a black pantsuit that contrasts with her stylish shock of short white hair, multi-hued eyeshadow and intensely red lipstick, King looks every bit the grande dame she is. Seated in front of a wall of family photos and a grand piano that she used to play, she lights a cigarette and recalls her childhood and the years at U of T that were her entry into acting.
Born in 1925, King grew up an only child in Toronto’s tony Forest Hill. She remembers wanting to act from the age of five, adding candidly, “I probably didn’t like myself very much.” At her private girls’ school, she was often cast in male roles in theatrical productions. There was no drama department during her years at U of T, but Robert Gill, an American actor from the Cleveland Playhouse, headed the Hart House productions. “He was an enormous influence in my life,” recalls King. “He taught me professional behaviour as an actress.” In 1947, she played the title role in Saint Joan at Hart House Theatre in a performance that the Globe and Mail called a “luminous portrayal.”
In a country that’s famous for ignoring its stars, King has performed constantly over the past half-century – with the exception of the 10 years following the birth of her daughter in the mid-1960s, when she stayed home. She has mastered every medium: stage (including Stratford), radio, TV and film. You’re as likely to recognize King’s voice as her face: she played the comical Mrs. Gruenwald in a CBC Radio series called Rumours & Boarders (1992-98). “My part was so funny, I could not wait to get to the studio,” she says.
On TV, King was Aunt Josephine, the crusty but kind-hearted aunt in Anne of Green Gables. Recently, she played Maria in Soulpepper Theatre’s Uncle Vanya by Chekhov. Chekhov is her favourite playwright because of the richness of his subtext, of what he leaves unsaid. “Plays are some of our best literature,” she says, always eager to credit the writers who give her the lines.
Now 77, does King imagine retiring? “No, I don’t,” she says firmly. “Being an actor is something like being at university. It opens your mind and your soul and makes you tap into yourself.” Are there any roles she hasn’t played that she wishes she had? After a brief pause, she says, “Ophelia.” It’s obvious why no director ever cast her as the frail female who loses her mind in doomed Denmark: she has too much strength in that powerful voice of hers.