Frances Hyland (1927-2004)

Frances Hyland

Year Born: 1927

Year Died: 2004


Hyland, Frances (1927-2004)

On presenting her with the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award in 1994, the then G.G., Ray Hnatyshyn, called her “…the first lady of Canadian Theatre”, but in an acting career spanning over 50 years, Frances Hyland was frequently seen and heard on the nation’s airwaves. Born in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, in April 1927, she began taking drama lessons at an early age, and played the lead in Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta at a drama festival in Regina in 1940, when she was only 13. After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, where she played Prossie in a student production of Candida, she passed an audition to begin studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, England in 1948, where a fellow student was Harold Pinter. 

Within her first year at RADA, a London agent offered her a contract, and her early stage appearances quickly earned her her first television role, in Deep Are The Roots for the BBC. She then auditioned for and won the role of Stella as replacement for Renee Asherson in the London production of A Streetcar Named desire.  This was followed by several other stage roles in Britain, through one of which she met Tyrone Guthrie.

It was Guthrie who lured Frances back to Canada in 1954 for what was to be the start of a long association with Canadian theatre, first at Stratford and then at the Shaw, where she also directed. She made her Broadway debut in 1957, when she was cast in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, but despite further U.S. offers, decided to return to Canada.  There she continued her theatrical work, but, not surprisingly, this exposure brought her to the attention of radio and television producers at the CBC (one of whom, George McCowan, she subsequently married).  

Television parts that followed included a semi-regular role in the 1959-65 Crawley Films-CBC one-hour series RCMP, an ongoing role in a 13-part 1967 CBC children’s series, The Mystery Maker; various roles in The Naked Mind, a 1974 CBC series of half-hour programs that featured dramatizations dealing with people with emotional disturbances; a major role in a three-part 1979 CBC mini-series, The Albertans, with Leslie Nielsen; an appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Patrick Watson’s The Titans in 1981, and an ongoing role as Nanny Louisa Banks in the CBC’s Road to Avonlea in the early 1990s.  She also had guest starring roles in such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, ENG, Street Legal, Due South and Psi Factor.

Over the years, Frances performed frequently on radio, and in 1989 she won a national radio award for her many drama appearances on CBC’s Morningside.

Her television movies included Pygmalion, The Hearst and Davies Affair, Liberace: Behind The Music, Broken Lullaby, A Prayer In The Dark, I’ll be Home For Christmas, and Moonlight Becomes You.

 Her theatrical features included Drylanders (1963), Each Day That Comes (1966,) Another Smith for Paradise (1972), Home to Stay (1979), The Changeling (1980), Hounds of Notre Dame (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), The Lotus Eaters (1993 and Never Talk to Strangers (1995)).

In 1969 Frances created the title role in the Vancouver Playhouse world premiere production of George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, in which Chief Dan George played her father. She regarded this performance as a highlight of her career.

In 1971, Frances Hyland was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 1981 she received the John Drainie Award for Distinguished Contribution to Broadcasting.  In 1994, the same year that she won the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, she also received a Toronto Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.

Frances Hyland died in Toronto on July 11th 2004 of respiratory failure due to complications from appendix surgery.

Written by Pip Wedge – August, 2004