Year Born: 1916
Year Died: 1966
Drainie, John Robert Roy (1916-1966)
John Drainie taught himself acting. Orson Welles called him the greatest radio actor in the world.
John was born in Vancouver. When he was a boy, he was hit by a car and walked with a lifelong limp which made him feel awkward on television. Despite that, he had an uncanny ability to bring comedy writer Stephen Leacock alive in a one-man show that played on radio, stage and television. He also played Matthew in the 1956 original CBC-TV production of Anne of Green Gables.
He showed his versatility in hundreds of productions but his other best known part was the lead, hired man Jake Trumper, whom he played for five years in the CBC Radio series Jake and the Kid by W.O. Mitchell.
He was in his late teens when he fell in love with acting. That was an era of mandated live shows on radio. John learned much of his trade on CJOR and CBC Vancouver and also was heard on CKNW New Westminster. He was part of a group that included Fletcher Markle, Alan Young, Lister Sinclair, Len Peterson, Arthur Hill, Bernie Braden and Andrew Allan. They constituted a cluster of Canadian professional actors and producers who made Vancouver stand out in early radio drama, then moved on to Toronto during the Second World War and played a major part in the CBC’s drama revolution and the Golden Age of Radio. The age arrived with the end of the Second World War and lasted for 10 years.
Live programming demanded concentration and an ability to improvise. Frank Willis, who came to CBC Toronto from Halifax, talked of actors being locked out of the studio, forgetting the time, or forgetting they were due in the studio. In one famous episode, John Drainie played a husband-and-wife opening scene with actress Ruth Springford in a radio play by Len Peterson, only to have Ruth forget, once it was over, that she had another dramatic scene with John at the play’s end. She went home. John approached the microphone for the big finale and found himself alone, so he smoothly changed the script from a dialogue to a monologue. That worked fine until the director, who had panicked, grabbed another actress and thrust her into the scene, at which point John had to ad lib his absent wife back into the script. The audience didn’t know anything was amiss.
John Drainie also taught acting at Lorne Green’s Academy of Radio Arts and produced, wrote and announced. He brought instant credibility to CBC-TV’s This Hour Has Seven Days, the current affairs show launched in 1964 which he anchored with Laurier Lapierre as the other host. But he grew ill with cancer and didn’t make it to the final 1965-66 season, and producer Patrick Watson took his place until the politically daring and controversial show was cancelled by the expedient of the CBC not renewing contracts.
John died in October 1966, leaving his wife, Claire, and six children. The eldest was Bronwyn Drainie, writer and broadcaster, who wrote his story Living the Part: John Drainie and the Dilemma of Canadian Stardom, published in 1988.
The Alliance of Canadian Theatre, Television and Radio Artists, ACTRA, remembered him with the John Drainie Award, given annually for distinguished service to Canadian broadcasting. A book prize, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize administered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, was also named after John jointly with entertainment impresario Nathan (Nat) Taylor, who married John’s widow Claire.
Written by Jerry Fairbridge – April, 2003