The moment the audience of mostly senior citizens began to collectively hum the theme song to The Beachcombers, I knew I was experiencing an unusual time warp.
I was in a theatre in Gibsons, B.C., just a stone’s throw from the iconic restaurant Molly’s Reach. Local writers and artists had gathered to mark 50 years since The Beachcombers’ first episode aired — on Oct. 1, 1972.
The quirky action-adventure TV series about renegade log salvagers is still fondly remembered in Gibsons. But a tinge of sorrow hung over the golden jubilee festivities.
“The sad news of Pat John’s passing brought memories of the 1970s and ’80s, when on Sunday nights, families in Canada gathered around their television sets and waited for seven o’clock and another episode of The Beachcombers,” read Gibsons resident Jennie Tschoban, to appreciative murmurs from the crowd.
John was a local hero — famous for playing Jesse Jim, trusty sidekick to Nick Adonidas, portrayed by leading man Bruno Gerussi.
His death this summer at the age of 69 saddened many, myself included. I remember, as a child, being captivated by Jesse’s smile and his flowing mane of long, black hair.
“On his journey through life, he couldn’t fathom why he meant so much to so many people, despite how many times we tried to explain it to him,” his son, Mat John, told the audience.
“When social media came out, that’s when I started to realize the fascination with Jesse,” reflected John’s co-star Jackson Davies, who played RCMP Cst. John Constable on The Beachcombers
“He took on this importance of this iconic figure. After the show ended [in 1990], maybe people were still looking for him.”
I wasn’t alone then, in mourning Pat John, and wondering: why did one of the most popular Indigenous actors in Canada disappear from television and the public eye?
Listen to the documentary A Beachcomber’s journey home from Sunday Magazine (tap the CC button to view captions):
There’s a storybook quality to John’s rise to stardom.
A member of the shíshálh Nation, he was a high-school dropout working at a local sawmill when he heard CBC was looking for a young, Indigenous actor for a new series to be filmed in Gibsons.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Davies. “Here you have this 18-year-old kid being one of the leads of a TV series with no experience whatsoever … it’s very rare that happens.”
John had no idea, when The Beachcombers started filming in 1971, that it would become one of the longest-running TV series in Canadian history, dubbed into 20 languages and broadcast around the world.
Beloved for its cast of eclectic, blue-collar characters and oceanside scenery, The Beachcombers also tackled contemporary Indigenous topics in a way seldom seen before.
“For a major national TV show to have First Nations people playing First Nations people was huge, back in the day,” said Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who played Jesse’s younger sister, Sara.
Portraying an Indigenous character living harmoniously with a white family, in a mostly white town, saddled John with an additional layer of responsibility.
“In the time when residential schools were still open and actively taking children and operating … racism was still alive and apparent to all of us,” said Aleck.
“He knew that relationship had to work between Nick Adonidas and Jesse Jim. That’s the part of the burden that I think he carried.”
In 1974, midway through the show’s third season, John’s overnight celebrity landed him in real-life drama. A routine police road check in Sechelt turned into a wild, high-speed chase, when John tried to evade capture for driving with a suspended licence.
“Who knows what it’s like being an Indigenous youth with police around, right? I don’t. He did,” said Davies.
The pursuing Mounties fired multiple shots at the car. John drove off a pier into the ocean, barely escaping alive. He was charged with criminal negligence, obstructing a police officer and impaired driving.
The CBC was ready to write him out of the show, until Gerussi threatened to quit and Tsleil-Waututh actor Chief Dan George made an emotional plea for leniency.
“I hope people will understand this young man went through tough times,” George told a Vancouver newspaper. “He went hungry in a white world and suddenly found money — there should be a little leeway for Pat John.”
Facing a jail sentence of two years, John served only two weeks, and CBC gave him a second chance.
As he matured into his role, John’s personal characteristics influenced the show’s mostly non-Indigenous writers.
In an era where Indigenous people were typically depicted wearing beads and buckskin, or painted as stoic and/or drunk, Jesse was a hard-working guy who wore flannel shirts.
He was a faithful partner, but never a Tonto to Nick’s Lone Ranger. He drove a boat. I’m pretty sure he was the first “real” Indian I ever saw on television.
“He was a damn good actor,” said Davies. “He had a certain honesty as an actor that is hard to teach.”
Aleck recalls busloads of fans arriving in Gibsons to see the show being filmed. John led her to the autograph table, showed her the ropes, then fled all the attention.
”I don’t think he really understood his impact on the fans and people that watched the show. I think he had a hard time with it,” she said.
WATCH | In Memoriam: The Beachcombers star Pat John:
Dealing with ‘demons’
When The Beachcombers aired its final episode in 1990, John had been part of the show’s family for his entire adult life. Davies assumed his talented friend would go on to more acting gigs.
“I assumed wrong. I don’t know whether he had enough. When I asked him, he said, ‘Well, nobody asked.’ ”
Toward the end of the show’s run, John’s marriage fell apart. He struggled to find steady employment and wound up living in a rooming house in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.
That’s where Mike Jobin met him.
In the early 1990s, Jobin was an outreach worker at the Crosswalk, a drop-in centre that served low-income people in the neighbourhood. He had no clue the fellow he played cards with every day was a former TV star.
“I just kept looking and after a while, I said, ‘I know you, man.’ He goes, ‘Oh, do ya?’ And he’d have a little smirk on his face.”
Months later, Jobin happened to catch a rerun of The Beachcombers, and realized who his cribbage partner was. “I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled.
“I go, ‘You’re Jesse!’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but that’s in a past life.’ Right there, I seen a humbleness I never seen in anybody.”
John never discussed what “demons” were haunting him, says Jobin, though he sometimes spoke about how he missed his son and blamed fame for separating them.
“He worked hard to get where he was. No one gave him anything. And he didn’t knock at the door. He kicked it in … he didn’t deserve to be down here.”
A residential school survivor
Though they weren’t estranged, Mat John rarely saw his father after his parents separated. Raised by his white mother in Alberta, he felt disconnected from his First Nations heritage and family history.
“I grew up as white as Wonder Bread,” Mat said.
So he was surprised to discover, just a few years ago, that the school his dad left at age 16, as soon as he was legally able to, was St. Augustine’s Indian Residential School in Sechelt, B.C.
“I knew that his love was there for me. But I knew he was damaged,” said Mat John. “Stuff that I will never fathom, he went through and experienced.”
Unlike his tight-knit fictional First Nations family on The Beachcombers, residential school had divided Pat John’s real-life brothers and sisters.
“It split us all apart,” said Ambrose George, a Sixties Scoop survivor who lived with his uncle Pat in that Vancouver rooming house.
“Our whole family is all spread out. None of us grew up together … all of us are touched by it.”
Aleck says John never spoke of his time at St. Augustine’s.
“If you talk to any First Nations person that has gone through the residential school system, it wasn’t a rosy-posy time,” she said. “He had his own stories to tell.”
Healing the spirit
But the intensely private Pat John avoided the limelight. After several years of hard luck in the Downtown Eastside, he returned to the shíshálh Nation, pursuing a livelihood as a fisherman and clam digger.
“Once he got fishing, he didn’t want to quit,” said George. “He said it was something about the peacefulness of it and not a whole lot of people out there.”
Other than a cameo in The New Beachcombers, a TV movie released in 2002, John never acted again. Money was tight. At one point, he lived with his sister. Her home burned to the ground. He lost everything.
Still, he remained unfailingly generous.
Jobin recalls his old friend visiting the Downtown Eastside with boxes of canned salmon.
“The glow on his face, in his eyes and the smile. It was like he won the spiritual lottery.”
“He was a really good man,” said Aleck. “I could just see him getting along, working off the land and doing all the things that our ancestors used to do. To have that turmoil and then come home, it heals the spirit.”
His son, Mat, is now following in his father’s footsteps. A contractor in Ontario, he returned to Sechelt for the funeral last July and decided to stay. He’s temporarily living aboard the old fishing trawler Pat John once worked on, The Instigator.
“I like to think he brought me back full circle, just like he did,” said Mat John. “He was taken away before his time. But he brought me home.”
Lead image: Pat John, 1980s. (CBC Still Photo Collection) | Editor: Tanis Fowler | Lead Digital Producer: Ruby Buiza | Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Brandie Weikle | Audio Documentary Producer: Duncan McCue, Joan Webber