Ask any true theatre aficionado to name the finest actors of the past century and, along with all the usual British suspects - Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, John Geilgud, Ralph Richardson, John Mills - they're sure to include Canada's own William Hutt. How remarkable, then, that Hutt rivals Jean-Paul Riopelle as the least publicly known of this year's Walk of Fame honourees.
Actually, it's not so remarkable. Like everything else Hutt has done throughout his six-decade career, his public profile is a product of his own careful design. He could have left Canada for a long and successful career in Hollywood. Or could, just as easily, have transferred his talents permanently to New York and shone as brightly as the biggest Broadway stars. Instead, he chose a quieter, more fruitful path that kept him among his countrymen in a town he cherishes.
Born in Toronto on May 2, 1920, Hutt made his professional stage debut in summer stock at the relatively mature age of 28, and was immediately recruited by Ottawa's Canadian Repertory Theatre. Two seasons later he took a chance on a fledgling repertory company, housed inside a tent on the banks of the Avon River in Stratford, Ontario. The Stratford Shakespearean Festival has long since grown to become one of the world's most respected theatrical showcases - and Hutt has been there almost every step of the way.
Since 1953, Hutt's Stratford career has included all of Shakespeare's great heroes, including Hamlet, Lear, Falstaff, Prospero, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus. He remains, at age 80, the personification of the festival's remarkable diversity and impeccably high standards. No wonder his long-time friend, festival artistic director Richard Monette, recently praised Hutt for his ability to "set the standards to which we all aspire. He has a body of work equal to that of any actor who has ever lived. I doubt that we shall nourish such actors again."
Every few years, Hutt has ventured beyond Stratford's borders for a film, television, or stage project. Each has been an occasion for celebration. Significant among them are his superb 1964 Broadway performance in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice; his award-winning portrayal of John A. Macdonald in the ambitious 1974 mini-series The National Dream; and, most notable of all, his definitive portrait of the tormented patriarch in the 1999 film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
The summer of 2000 marked his 37th Stratford Festival season. Along the way he's helped guide and shape the careers of dozens of this country's finest performers. Colm Feore, Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Nicholas Pennel, Douglas Rain, and Kate Reid - to name just a few - are all better artists for having known and experienced the genius of William Hutt. So, too, is any theatregoer fortunate enough to hold a ticket to a Hutt performance.
Hutt retired from the Stratford stage in 2005 with a reprise of Prospero in The Tempest, a role for which he was renowned. He appeared in the television series Slings and Arrows as an ailing stage icon who wants to play King Lear one last time. He had planned to return to Stratford in 2007 in a production of A Delicate Balance, but had to cancel due to poor health.
Hutt, who had leukemia, died peacefully in his sleep on June 27, 2007 in Stratford, Ontario.