In January of 2009, a Fox publicist approached me at the network's semi-annual Television Critics Association party in Pasadena, Calif. Would I like to meet a promising young Canadian, he asked. "This guy is going to be a big star."
I'd heard that one before, but kept an open mind as this tall young man extended his hand. "Hi," he said. "I'm Cory Monteith."
Monteith made a very positive first impression, well-mannered and polite — what American reporters would describe as a typical Canadian.
He confessed that he felt a bit awkward and out of place at the Fox party. "I saw Kiefer Sutherland earlier and I was a little star struck," he said. "I saw Jon Voight just a moment ago. I was going to talk to him but didn't have the guts."
Monteith was about to take his own rocket ride to fame. He was cast as William McKinley High School football quarterback Finn Hudson on Glee, which premiered a few months later and became an instant hit, spawning chart-topping radio hits, sold-out stage shows and tours of foreign countries. It made household names out of Monteith, Lea Michele and the other young stars.
The actor would joke later about how the series turned a lumbering, non-singer, non-dancer — teased on the set as "Frankenteen" (the nickname later became his Twitter handle) — into a singing, dancing star.
More heartening to those of us covering his career was the transformation that did not occur. Despite the sudden fame at a relatively young age, Monteith remained very down to earth, honest and unaffected at every single press tour appearance. There was nary a hint of the struggles and turmoil within.
What a shock, then, to hear of his death, at 31, Saturday in a Vancouver hotel room.
Monteith kept his demons well hidden. He would occasionally drop hints that his life in Vancouver had been less than ideal. By the time he came to Toronto to host the 2010 Gemini Awards, where he was proud to be associated with a push to create a National Youth Homelessness Awareness Day in Canada, he was ready to speak candidly about his own near-homelessness and addictions.
Even this truth was hard to accept. The clean-cut Calgary-native was so well cast as the all-American football hero. That he was neither American nor a football player was almost as hard to accept as the fact he was not so clean cut.
Not only was Monteith never a high school football star, he barely went to high school. After his parents split up when he was seven, he dropped out in Grade 9 and never went to university. For a while, he took odd jobs as a Wal-Mart greeter, a roofer, even working at a car wash.
His pursuit of an acting career took him to Vancouver, where he endured poverty and rejection. "I definitely experienced a marginalized situation. I was not homeless but I was definitely at risk," he told me in 2010.
Monteith was around 20 when things were at their low point. He says it was acting teacher Andrew McIlroy, who mentored him, gave him direction and got him passionate about an acting career. He also credits his "Vancouver acting collectives," the other young hopefuls who provided family-like support. "That's pretty much where I grew up, where I moved from one period to another, from treading water dangerously to really getting excited about something."
When his big break arrived, Monteith knew something about life, value and opportunity. Told the Glee producers in L.A. wanted to see him in person after an audition tape was submitted, he jumped in his car and drove 20 hours straight from Vancouver. He raced his 2006 Honda Civic all the way down the Pacific coast, "speeding excessively fast down the I-5," he said. He stopped once in a McDonald's parking lot in southern Oregon, passing out "for like an hour or so. I cut it pretty close."
He made it in time and walked into a room filled with Fox executives plus Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. They were having a hard time finding an actor to play the quarterback, somebody with the right mix of high school jock and sensitivity and openness, both humble and proud.
"I nailed it. I knew I nailed it," Monteith remembered. "When you walk in to the room, the heads of Fox … of course it's a little unnerving," he said. "Then you realize they're all waiting for you. It's kind of flattering in a way."
Glee had a killer schedule. At its peak, the young actors worked seven days a week learning dance routines, recording songs, rehearsing lines. In his rare down time, Monteith would burn off steam as a drummer and back-up singer in his band.
Co-stars and producers always had good things to say about him. Some singled him out as the heart of the show.
His life did change. The Honda was traded for an Audi. He found dating a challenge, with paparazzi following him in and out of restaurants. "Life does become a little more challenging," he said.
Monteith had been at a rehab treatment centre as recently as April. His death is as tragic and senseless as anyone's whose life is cut short by addiction.
His sudden passing is every parent's worst nightmare. If there is any comfort for his family, it may be that he saw his opportunity and seized it, making the most of a complex, sensitive role. It was how he conducted himself off-screen, however, that I'll always remember. It was always easy to be proud of Cory Monteith.