When I finally met Don Francks it was on the set of a movie I wrote titled First Degree. Not that I had much influence, but as one of the producers, I lobbied hard to cast Don in the role of a powerful entrepreneur confronting the movie’s conniving detective played by Rob Lowe.
It wasn’t a large part, but to my delight Don accepted. He had fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in a small Ontario town, yearning to break out. Don Francks was Canadian, a charismatic performer, blessed with an impressive jaw, an impish smile, a raspy, easy singing voice, dancing ability, and great presence.
Don Francks was going to be a star.
His star was to be born on Broadway in a lavish musical production called Kelly, about a man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. Backed by big name producers David Susskind and Joseph Levine, directed by Herbert Ross, the musical was one of the most expensive productions in Broadway history when it opened in 1965. Don had never appeared on a Broadway stage, but as soon as the producers auditioned him, he was immediately signed for the lead.
Less than a year later, Kelly closed after a single performance; a colossal failure of legendary proportions.
But Don Francks was going to be a star.
He was going to be a star on television in a big-budget Mission Impossible-inspired series, called Jericho, about an elite intelligence team operating behind German lines during World War II. Don was the team leader. The series lasted sixteen episodes before it was cancelled.
He was going to be a star in Finian’s Rainbow, director Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation of the Broadway hit that co-starred British pop star Petula Clark and Fred Astaire, in what turned out to be his last movie musical. Don played Woody, the movie’s necessary love interest. He and Petula Clark had great onscreen chemistry, particularly when they sang “Old Devil Moon.”
But Finian’s Rainbow bombed at the box office, one of the great musical failures of the era. That was all right. Don Francks was going to be a star…
Except he wasn’t.
Don retreated north, back to his native Canada with his wife, Lili. For a time, he left show business altogether and became Iron Buffalo, living on a First Nations reserve, a long, long way from Broadway and Hollywood. He said he was fed up with American politics and the Vietnam War—and maybe, just maybe, tired of the struggle to become something for which he had little taste.
I watched all this from a distance, a kid avidly reading about Don, watching with delight his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show, Johnny’s go-to counterculture guy, reading inspired musings from his journals. I rooted for his success, certain that the failures had nothing to do with his talent, which no one ever doubted, but were the result of extraordinary bad luck, the gods merrily playing games with Don’s destiny, allowing him tantalizingly close to stardom then pulling it away at the last moment.
By the time I encountered him on the set of First Degree, the years of his American stardom were faded memory. He was known as a hard-working Canadian actor, accomplished jazz musician (I had seen him perform several times at George’s Spaghetti House in Toronto), a voice-over artist (for many cartoon shows)—in short, a jack-of-all-artistic trades.
I imagine his role in First Degree was just another gig for him, a few days’ work before going on to something else.
He certainly wasn’t all that happy when I found him in his trailer and nervously presented him with the totally rewritten monologue he was to deliver in a couple of hours. After we shook hands, and I showed him the rewritten pages, he gave me a dark look that suggested what he was probably thinking: “What kind of a##hole are you that you can’t get it right?”
He quickly pulled himself together, his hard eyes softened somewhat, and he said he would do his best. He certainly did.
On the set of a dinner party scene his character was hosting, Don, who, with his trademark headband and ponytail was the personification of Old Hippy, this day looked every inch the rich, powerful mogul he was portraying. Berating Rob Lowe as the detective who would stop at nothing to rise above his social status, Don delivered the rewritten lines flawlessly, making them sound a whole lot better than they ever would have had anyone else said them.
Between takes, we sat and talked, and he warmed considerably, perhaps understanding I was genuinely interested in where he had been and how he had gotten from there to here.
A year or so later, trying to get another production off the ground, I again insisted on Don for a co-starring role. He agreed to drop around to the production office for a chat about the part he was to play. When he got there, he recognized me from our last encounter, gave a rather cynical smile and said, “Are you going to pay me this time?”
I joked that he probably got more for First Degree than I did. Again, he softened and we sat around for an hour or so, relaxed, shooting the breeze, talking about the role. He drifted away and that was that. The movie, as is so often the case, never got made. I never saw Don again.
The news of his death at the age of eighty-four, hit me harder than I expected. I went looking for his obituary in the New York Times. He was at least a fascinating bit of unlikely American cultural history; the Times surely would take note. There were a couple of familiar names in the obit section. The paper reported the death of Fred Hayman, the Rodeo Drive boutique owner who, when I came calling, wondered aloud why I didn’t consider getting a haircut.
Anne Jackson, dead at ninety, rated final words., the actress-wife of the late Eli Wallach, who once told me that she wished her husband hadn’t taken all those roles in spaghetti westerns.
But there was nothing about Don Francks. The Toronto Star didn’t run anything that I could see, either (although the Globe and Mail, thanks to the wonderful Susan Ferrier MacKay, published a long remembrance).
The star who was born again, and again—and again, had died little remembered, except by a few of us who cherished his talent and remembered how well, at the last moment, he learned his lines.