Don Harron, who created the Canadian comedic icon Charlie Farquharson during a decades-long career in show business, has died at his Toronto home. He was 90.
His eldest daughter Martha told the Canadian Press her father died Saturday morning surrounded by family. He had been suffering from cancer.
"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."
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Harron entertained generations of Canadians with his comic alter ego Farquharson and helped bring the Canadian classic novel Anne of Green Gables from the page to the stage.
During CBC’s 1952 television revue The Spring Thaw , the relatively unknown Harron took to the stage for a four-minute set. Few people watching knew they were about to witness a marquee moment in Canadian show business.
That evening he introduced Canada to Farquharson – the country bumpkin from rural Ontario known for his incessant puns and decrepit grey cardigan sweater – a character that would solidify Harron’s place among the nation’s great entertainers.
Starred on Hee Haw
Harron achieved international success in the late 1960s when he began an 18-season stint performing as Farquharson on the hit U.S. variety show Hee Haw.
His list of accomplishments extends far beyond Charlie.
Harron was a seasoned theatre performer, acting in a half-dozen Broadway plays and three shows in London’s West End. He also featured during the inaugural 1953 season of the Stratford Festival. It was in Stratford that he struck up a friendship with Oscar and Tony winner Christopher Plummer.
'Anything he ever put his hand to he excelled at.' - Zoe Cormier, granddaughter of Don Harron
Harron also enjoyed considerable success behind the scenes as a writer and director.
He wrote the lyrics for five musicals, including the 1965 on-stage version of Anne of Green Gables, which was adapted from a television version he co-wrote nine years earlier. The show is performed every year during the Charlottetown Festival in P.E.I., a province where Harron has spent considerable time.
In between stints on the stage, Harron was the host of CBC Radio’s flagship program Morningside from 1977 to 1982, for which he won an ACTRA award for best radio host. He later helmed CTV’s The Don Harron Show from 1983 to 1985.
He also authored 17 books – most of them in character as Farquharson. Perhaps his most personally revealing work came in 2012, when Harron published the 440-page memoir My Double Life: Sexty Years of Farquharson Around With Don Harn.
The release of the memoir roughly coincided with his retirement from the stage.
In a February 2012 interview with CBC’s Island Morning, Harron said he decided to walk away from performing after his short-term memory began to fade and he could no longer remember his set material in front of a live audience.
Gemini for lifetime achievement
Harron was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1980, and named as a member of the Order of Ontario in 2000 for his contributions to the Canadian entertainment industry. In 2007, he was given the Gemini Award for Lifetime Achievement in Radio and Television.
Born in Toronto in 1924, Harron got an early start as an entertainer, earning $10 or $15 per night doing ‘chalk-talks’ – drawing caricatures in chalk as he told stories to audiences at banquet halls during the Great Depression.
As a teenager, he spent time working on farms in rural Ontario in the early 1940s and briefly attended the University of Toronto before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943 as the Second World War raged in Europe and the Pacific.
Harron told CBC host Peter Gzowski in a 1977 television interview that he developed the Farquharson character during those early years working as a farm hand.
He eventually returned to U of T after the war, earning a Bachelor of Arts.
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 was married four times, most recently to French-Canadian comedian Claudette Gareau. He previously spent 34 years with Canadian singer Catherine McKinnon before divorcing in 2003.
In his memoir, Harron wrote openly about multiple extramarital love affairs and the impact they’ve taken on his personal life and family.
Harron is survived by 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 Kelly Harron is working to turn the Anne of Green Gables musical into a film.
The Canadian Press originally reported that Don Harron refused treatment for cancer. In fact, he did undergo cancer treatment but declined to be put on life support.Jan 18, 2015 2:37 PM ET