“He is a self-made man driven by a near-indestructible engine, which ticks over at a steady rate. He keeps the same pace with everything, from learning lines to setting ‘live’ mousetraps and emptying them at regular intervals throughout the night.” The portrait that wife Leslie Parrot paints in those few words is a stirring picture of a man who has moved far beyond the status of “senior” into the category of perennial. “He is the sanest person I have ever met,” she adds.
Most people at 91 years old, pushing 92, won’t have the same vigorous, busy and public life as in previous decades. Unless that person is like Antony Holland of Gabriola Island, formerly of Vancouver, formerly of London, England, formerly of North Africa, originally from Tiverton, Devonshire. A man who has never stopped, never retired, and just keeps starting; and starting again. Actor, director, producer, teacher, man of the theatre. Outdoing, it seems, even Mickey Rooney as the oldest actor still steadily pursuing his livelihood in the profession.
Antony’s career began quietly in the west country of England in the 1930s, and then led him into London, where he made his debut at The Royal Albert Hall in a musical starring the famous American singer Paul Robeson.
The Second World War took the young actor off to North Africa as an enlisted member of the Royal Signal Corps. Waiting to head off to his military duties, he doubled back to Tiverton, where he organized a theatre company to produce Emlyn Williams’ melodrama of the period, Night Must Fall, with the young impresario in the lead. Shipped to Egypt and on active duty, he produced, directed, and played the lead in the same play at Cairo’s Royal Opera House. This was followed by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, an abridged version that emphasized the role of Shylock, played by Sergeant A.E. Holland.
Back in postwar England, young Antony continued to create a theatre career by selling himself as a producer, director and actor, all in one. “His modus operandi was to form a theatrical group and direct them in a play in which he took the lead. He is the archetypal self-starter,” says a fellow Gabriola Islander, mystery novelist James Hawkins. Admiration for Antony’s ceaseless energies, as well as his personal charm, has led Hawkins to write Antony’s Private Parts, a biography coming to bookstores this summer.
Antony’s postwar theatre career was varied. He acted in repertory companies, and then ascended to a teaching job as assistant to the principal of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he instructed young actors in the various stage arts, including his specialty, fencing, and inspired young actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons and Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach impresario Christopher Gaze.
Immigrating to Canada, which he saw as a “land of milk and maple syrup,” he landed in Vancouver with a notion of escaping the uncertain and poorly paid actor’s life by purchasing land and becoming a wealthy market-gardener. However, he found himself resorting to his old profession, acting in radio drama at the CBC in Vancouver and teaching drama to inmates of the Haney Correctional Institute. Here, he was enormously successful; the institution’s plays regularly won honours at B.C. drama festivals. At this time, he found work in Vancouver’s growing television and movie industries, holding his own capably alongside such luminaries as Katherine Hepburn, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
His next move brought him to the King Edward campus of Vancouver Community College. In 1965, he started a theatre program that, to this day, is considered one of the best in Canada. “At least 50 per cent of the cast of Bard on the Beach come from Studio 58, and we couldn’t have achieved what we have without it,” says Christopher Gaze.
Retirement from teaching theatre in Vancouver to Gabriola Island should have meant a restful retreat. But Antony, more advancer than retreater, maintained his lifelong vocation in a new streamlined form: solo acting performances, or, in the case of one of his most popular shows, Morrie and Me, two-handers.
His solo repertoire includes a performance of The Gospel of St. Mark. He does not read this lengthy book of the Bible; he acts it, recites it from memory with passion and vivacity, the text open before him on a lectern, but scarcely glanced at in the course of a 90-minute performance. Such performances are part of Antony’s “No Bells and Whistles” initiative: performances reduced to an actor and a text, largely doing away with sets, costumes, lighting and other technical support.
In December, Hawkins and Antony held court at a launch of Antony’s Private Parts at which the writer and the actor displayed their culinary skills alongside their literary and theatrical talents. Hawkins made an enormous decorated sponge cake, and Antony prepared baskets of scones served with his homemade clotted cream and strawberry jam, delicacies based on standard fare from his Devonshire, England childhood. Sharing his stage with Hawkins, Antony already anticipates his pleasure at the next phase of their partnership, a forthcoming play entitled Antony’s Private Parts Revealed.
It’s obvious who will play the lead!
If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Antony’s Private Parts by James Hawkins, contact Bliss Publications firstname.lastname@example.org for locations.
FEBRUARY 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND