TORONTO – Don Harron, who entertained generations of Canadians with his comic alter ego Charlie Farquharson and helped bring the Canadian classic novel Anne of Green Gables from the page to the stage, has died. He was 90.
Harron’s eldest daughter Martha said her father died on Saturday morning surrounded by family at his Toronto home. He had been suffering from cancer.
The wit and humour that landed him roles on CBC radio programs and television variety shows such as Hee Haw continued to define her father to the very end, Martha Harron said.
“He was still sharp. He was still capable of being funny even though his voice was barely above a whisper,” she said in a telephone interview from Toronto. “It’s horribly sad, but it’s beautiful too.”
Harron was born in Toronto in 1924 and, according to his own accounts in past interviews, got his start in show business at an early age.
Harron said he began his career as a cartoonist drawing caricatures of people at banquets in the 30s before landing an audition for CBC radio.
BELOW: Watch Don Harron, as Charlie Farquharson talk about Canadian politics.
Harron’s granddaughter, freelance journalist Zoe Cormier, said Harron’s intellectual passions nearly led him down a very different career path than the one that made him famous.
His passion for philosophy won him scholastic awards at the University of Toronto, she said, adding his confidence in both academic and entertainment arenas foreshadowed the range of roles he would take on during his performing career.
“He’s one of the few people that I would describe as a true polymath,” Cormier said. “Anything he ever put his hand to he excelled at.”
Harron’s acting career saw him take on roles on stages from London to Stratford, Ont., but the character for which he’s best remembered stemmed from a very different type of experience.
Charlie Farquharson, a fictitious folksy story teller from Parry Sound, Ont. who poked fun at almost anything Canadian, became a cult classic that lasted decades.
Harron said a stint working on an Ontario farm inspired him to create the character in 1952.
“It took me 10 years really to bring it fully out in the open, to come out of the closet, Harron recalled in a 1977 CBC interview.
The Farquharson character debuted on CBC’s The Big Review, but went on to make regular appearances on the U.S. variety show Hee Haw.
But Harron’s most celebrated work was accomplished behind the scenes when he helped create the musical version of Anne of Green Gables, the Lucy Maud Montgomery classic about a red-haired orphan living on Prince Edward Island.
Harron joined forces with Norman and Elaine Campbell and Mavor Moore to turn the beloved novel into a CBC television production in 1955.
Harron told the Canadian Press that he didn’t have to dig deep for inspiration when Norman Campbell approached him about a collaboration.
“I said I’d been reading a book to my kids called Anne of Green Gables and it seems to me that this little girl has such an imagination that the only way you can really realize it would be in song,” Harron recalled in a 2014 interview.
Nine years later, the team adapted the television version into one for the stage.
The play has been performed for more than 50 consecutive years at the Charlottetown Festival, a fact Harron sees as a stroke of good fortune.
“To have a theatre that will do it every year, that’s luck,” he said.
Cormier said her grandfather was drawn to projects about strong Canadian women, adding he also collaborated on a musical about artist Emily Carr entitled The Wonder of it All.
Cormier said Harron enjoyed capturing a “celebration of the female mind,” adding his patriotism was also a driving artistic force.
“Canada is constantly riddled with being perceived as America’s little sibling, but we’ve had some really unique, really beautiful products. He really wanted . . . to bring that alive.”
Harron’s career also included a five-year stint as host of CBC Radio’s Morningside, the show later helmed by Peter Gzowski.
In recent years Harron lent his talents to a campaign to persuade other seniors to consider using canes and walkers to help keep them steady on their feet. He used his Charlie alter-ego in a postcard campaign showing him using a cane, scooter and walker, urging other seniors to “Get over bein’ an old fogey! Get a handle on life.”
Harron is survived by his partner Claudette Gareau and his three daughters, some of whom have followed him into show business.
Mary Harron has earned acclaim as the director of such movies as American Psycho, and Kelley Harron is working to turn the Anne of Green Gables musical into a film.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported that Don Harron refused treatment for cancer. In fact he did undergo cancer treatment, but declined to be put on life support.
© 2015 The Canadian Press