Reading through Next, Gordon Pinsent’s delightful autobiography (written with his friend, and mine, George Anthony), reminds me of the first time I got to know Gordon while we were trapped in a snow drift in northern British Columbia with one legendary movie star, Rod Steiger; one legendary TV cowboy, Lorne Greene; and one Hollywood sex symbol, Angie Dickinson–as curious and mismatched a cast of characters as I’ve ever encountered.
This unlikely group had gathered together to film a movie titled Klondike Fever, a fictionalized account of author Jack London’s early days in the Canadian wilderness. Gordon was playing a real-life character named Swiftwater Bill, and the shoot was taking place in a remote little town called Barkerville, an original gold rush town that had been preserved in the B.C. interior just the way it was in the 1860s.
The star of the movie was a young unknown named Jeff East, but all eyes were on Steiger, who was playing the villain of the piece. No doubt about it, he was a mesmerizing figure, the actor who had played Marlon Brando’s brother in the classic On The Waterfront, the Academy Award-winner for his role as the Mississippi police chief in In The Heat of the Night.
Since then, however, Steiger’s career had fallen on hard times. Still, when he was doing a scene you could not take your eyes off him, and when he walked into a room, he was a commanding presence. He was a star, and he didn’t mind letting you know it–albeit with a twinkle in his eye.
Certainly he appeared amused to find himself trapped in this snowy, mountainous nowhere on the eve of his fifty-fifth birthday–a birthday celebrated one night at a local tavern with an impromptu concert, Steiger singing at the microphone, backed by the local band, singing surprisingly well, too.
It was fascinating to watch him go after the veteran Lorne Greene, Ben Cartwright himself from Bonanza, one of the longest-running and most popular shows in the history of television. Greene turned out to be as weird as a wombat, and Steiger vastly enjoyed teasing him when everyone got together in the evening.
Greene tried his best to play along, but he was no match for Steiger, and it was obvious he was not vastly enjoying any of it. Angie Dickinson reacted to all this male jousting by simply steering clear of it, and keeping to herself in her motel room.
The one person Steiger treated as his equal was Gordon Pinsent. The Newfoundland-born Pinsent was one of the few true Canadian stars the country had produced at the time. He had starred in two hit TV series, Quentin Durgens, M.P., and A Gift to Last, both for the CBC, and had starred in and written one landmark Canadian film, The Rowdyman. He had also written novels, a play, and even a musical version of The Rowdyman.
There are few people who can resist Pinsent’s effortless charm, and certainly Steiger wasn’t one of them.If Lorne Greene was no match for Steiger, Gordon Pinsent most certainly was. By the time I got to the location to do a story on Pinsent for TV Guide, they had become fast friends.
This story is contained in Next, although I tell a slightly different version of it. Gordon and I were on our way to lunch one afternoon when we encountered Steiger. “Come to lunch with us, Rod,” Gordon urged.
Steiger complained that if he went outside, he would have to deal with the public recognizing him. “Oh, come on, Rod,” Gordon said. “It’ll be fine. No one will bother you.”
Finally, Steiger relented and off the three of us went to a nearby restaurant. When we arrived, the place was nearly deserted.The hostess seated us, without giving any indication she recognized anyone. Steiger began to relax.
Then the waitress started across the room toward us. As she approached, you could see her eyes widen in surprised excitement. Her face began to glow. When he saw this, Steiger groaned. “Oh, no. Here we go.”
You could see him brace himself.
The waitress broke out a welcoming smile. “Gordon Pinsent!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe it’s you!”
Steiger’s face fell. He looked over at Pinsent in a way he had not looked at him before. Meanwhile, the waitress continued on enthusiastically about how much she had enjoyed Pinsent on television over the years and what a thrill it was to finally meet him.
Steiger was not reacting at all well to this. It is one thing to say you don’t want to be recognized; it is quite another to actually go unrecognized. Finally, Gordon, sensing the effect this was having on his friend, interrupted the waitress to say, “You should meet Rod Steiger, he’s here, too.”
The waitress, looking confused, held out her hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Rob.”
I don’t think Steiger ever recovered.
In his memoir, Gordon goes on to relate how Klondike Fever received what was then a Genie Award nomination for the year’s best Canadian film (Gordon in fact won a prize for his role in the picture).
In the curious world of our homegrown cinema in those days, the movie managed to get a nomination before anyone had even seen it. In fact, I don’t believe Klondike Fever was ever released theatrically to any extent. I never saw the film until several years later, and today it is one of the forgotten anomalies of the Hollywood North days when huge tax breaks allowed all sorts of bizarre movies to be made without ever being seen.
Curiously enough, ten years later, I ended up back in Barkerville as the co-writer of a French movie that, to my amazement, had chosen the town as one of its locations. I went back to the tavern where Steiger had celebrated his birthday. There on the wall, preserved for posterity, were photographs of Lorne Greene and Angie Dickinson and Rod Steiger with his famous pal, Gordon Pinsent–ghosts from a nearly forgotten past.
Gazing at the photos, I remembered my time in a snow drift with Gordon and smiled–much the same way I did the other day when I finished reading his wonderful autobiography. You can do a lot worse in a lifetime than have lunch with Gordon Pinsent.
Particularly when it includes the oh-so-famous Rob Steiger.