Why Trailer Park Boys' John Dunsworth remains 'a legend' for those he worked with

There's a thread linking the memories flooding in of John Dunsworth, a man remembered not only as a legend in the Canadian film industry but also as the rare actor who unfailingly made time for others.

'The film community wouldn't exist in the way that it does now without John'

Tributes from friends and castmates of John Dunsworth began pouring in after his family announced on Monday he had died. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

There's a thread linking the memories flooding in of John Dunsworth, a man remembered not only as a legend in the Canadian film industry but also as the rare actor who unfailingly made time for others.

The kind who mentored the struggling artist who had just landed in Halifax.

Who picked up a hitchhiker bent under the weight of his backpack.

And who started a casting agency to create opportunities not only for himself but to grow the talent he knew lay in this province.

"A lot of people, through him, had their teeth cut on film sets, and that was definitely one way that he influenced people," his Trailer Park Boys castmate Lucy DeCoutere recalls. "But also by people watching his performances, because no matter how small or seemingly insignificant a role was, he fully immersed himself — so in that he was a role model."

Dunsworth's family announced Monday night that he had died from a brief and unexpected illness. Within minutes of the news breaking, tributes from those he'd worked with — or who had loved his work — began filling social media. 

Dunsworth was known best for his role on the Trailer Park Boys, but also as a mentor to others in the entertainment industry. (John Dunsworth/Facebook)

Dunsworth became one of the first people to welcome Shelley Thompson to Nova Scotia after she moved from England to continue her acting career around the same time he became her on-screen husband. 

He became a friend just as quickly, Thompson says, and a mentor as well. 

"It may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that the film community wouldn't exist in the way that it does now without John — but I don't think it's much of an exaggeration," the Trailer Park Boys actor says.

"John made opportunities possible for actors in this province.… He gave us his time, his attention, the benefit of his directorial insights. And he did that for everybody at some point in our careers."

'He had no physical fear'

He also possessed "a daring" that Thompson says she hasn't seen in other actors, throwing his entire body into becoming the maelstrom that could be Mr. Lahey.

"He didn't drink — but he played the best drunk in the world because he had no physical fear," she says. "He would lurch and fall and roll.

"He simply believed that his job was to throw himself into anything he did."

Although Dunsworth's fame as Mr. Lahey began to eclipse some of his earlier roles, he maintained a passion for the theatre. He tried to pass on that passion for the craft to those young actors he took under his wing, DeCoutere says. 

"Do community theatre, plays … do whatever you can to keep getting better," she remembers. "He always said to just keep playing because, in acting, that's where everything happens."  

An acting coach

While people could learn a lot simply from watching Dunsworth perform, he was happy to offer advice, she says.

"For a lot of people he became either officially or unofficially an acting coach [and] he infused in his students the same passion and curiosity about acting that he took into the profession himself."

His own history in the profession also inspired a work ethic in others, his longtime friend and producer Barrie Dunn says. The pair had worked together at Neptune Theatre decades before they reconnected on Trailer Park Boys. 

Dunsworth built sets and did voice acting as he worked to build a more viable industry in the province.

"John was a legend long before I knew him," Dunn says. "He was an amazing actor, comedic actor, brilliant dramatic actor. He set the bar awfully high for us."

DeCoutere echoes her castmate saying that Dunsworth was "so much more than drunk Mr. Lahey."

"He was much more complicated and nuanced," she says. "Just a remarkable, mischievous, playful man who could sometimes be a pain in the neck with his particular brand of magic that everyone loved."

About the Author

Laura Fraser

Digital Journalist

Laura Fraser is an award-winning journalist who writes about justice, politics and the human experience. On weekends, she can be found in hiking boots, on skis, or guarding home plate for The Hazzards.