David Bolt was the first professional actor I ever met. I was studying theatre at the University of Regina and he was working for the Globe Theatre doing one of their gruelling tours, taking plays to remote gymnasiums and church basements in the dead of Winter.
He undertook that cold and uncomfortable dedication to Canadian theatre wearing a broad-brimmed black cowboy hat and gigantic Buffalo robe coat that once belonged to a local Mountie. From the get-go, everything David did was unique.
Living in a boarding house inhabited by a college drama buddy of mine, he became our gateway to what a life in theatre was really all about. And we hung on his every word.
For Dave had actually seen plays at Stratford and on Broadway. He’d performed the classics before paying members of Toronto’s glitterati and had his name mentioned in dispatches by the country’s most famous theatre critic of the day, Nathan Cohen.
Beyond that he opened our eyes to art films and good books and music that didn’t involve screaming guitars or a cute cowgirl.
A year or so later, I was serving my Equity apprenticeship at the Globe, barely more than a glorified roadie, but doing an only slightly more upscale tour of Saskatchewan’s theatres and prairie opera houses with David playing the lead role in Charlie’s Aunt.
I’ve seen many productions of that play since, but not an actor as funny and engaging as David in that role. Night after night, the play simply stopped in places to allow audiences rolling in the aisles to get control of themselves.
I longed for the opportunity to work with an actor that good. And Fate smiled upon me, for over the next years I was blessed with the chance to play opposite David in dozens of plays and to be among those he counted as close friends.
As an actor, he was capable of incredible flights of comedy and profoundly moving moments of drama. And through it all he was generous to everyone with whom he shared the stage, making sure you had all you needed to bring your own character to life.
Together we did musicals, including his wife Carol’s landmark play Red Emma and Tom Hendry’s astonishingly weird and more astonishingly successful Gravediggers of 1942.
I’ll never forget holding a flailing Chapelle Jaffe as David’s crazed Van Helsing drew screams from audiences as he drove a stake through her heart in Bill Lane’s Brides of Dracula, nor struggling to keep a straight face as he sat next to me delivering the looniest monologue ever written in George F. Walker’s Beyond Mozambique.
We shared unforgettable moments offstage as well. Following an especially rough run of a show that had left us both bruised and bent, David announced he was treating me to a night at a spa where his brother had taken him before his wedding, promising the best sauna and massage Toronto had to offer.
We arrived and checked in to discover that in the intervening years the spa had become a notorious gay bathhouse.
Two guys so straight they had trouble getting around corners were suddenly not only strategizing how to play at being a “couple” to stave off potential advances but confronted by fellow theatricals hysterically eager to relay the news that we’d finally come out.
I toured the country and took shows to London a couple of times with David, always impressed by his knowledge of history and culture and the array of famous names he’d worked with who came to our performances and made us part of their social circles.
John Huston, Donald Pleasence, Cyril Cusak, Jeremy Brett, and Jamie Lee Curtis all seemed to share my own attraction to not only the man’s talent, but his warmth and gentleness.
As time went on, David expanded his artistic output to writing plays like the timeless The Stupid Life of the Montagues and his unproduced but utterly delightful satire on Canadian theatre, Toronto Star.
After Carol passed away, he withdrew somewhat from the stage, but wrote radio plays for CBC and became a familiar voice on commercials.
The last time David and I took the stage together was at a 30th-anniversary benefit for Factory Theatre, performing the penultimate scene from George F. Walker’s Theatre of the Film Noir, a play which might’ve been the best work we ever did.
David Bolt passed away unexpectedly On October 3rd and it feels as if half of my fondest moments in the theatre departed with him.
I can’t imagine the heartbreak his leaving has visited on his lovely wife Sarah or his wonderful son, Lt. Col Alexander Bolt –- still affectionately remembered as “Lightning” by those of us once tasked with keeping track of him during rehearsals.
Perhaps the void that has descended with David’s final curtain is best addressed not by memory but a rededication to how he lived his own life, taking the experience of theatre and culture to places and people who’ve never had the experience of them.
I don’t know that David ever saw himself as the pioneer or ground-breaking artist he certainly was. I think he just accepted that he was a part of something that began long ago and will continue long after we’re gone and that you use the moment you’re given to be the best you can be as both an artist and a man.
So long, buddy. I can’t wait to work with you again.
First published on The Legion of Decency.