Alexander Austin Willis (1917-2004)

Alexander Willis
Alexander Willis

Year Born: 1917

Year Died: 2004

Year of Induction: 2004

Pioneer – Member of CAB Hall of Fame

Willis, Alexander Austin (1917-2004)

Austin Willis, like his brother J. Frank and John Fisher, later known as Mr. Canada, got his start in broadcasting at Bill Borrett’s CHNS Halifax. The three were in a group of amateur performers with the Theatre Arts Guild of Halifax who, about 1936-37, got a book of plays and created some of Canada’s early radio dramas They also produced educational dramas to supplement the work of schoolteachers.

John Fisher gained fame for his broadcast stories about ordinary Canadians. Frank became famous on radio and TV. Austin went on to 40-year career as a producer and an actor on the stage, radio, television and in the movies.

Austin was born nine years after his brother. They were the sons of Emma Pushie and Alexander Samuel Willis of Halifax.

Austin left Halifax in 1939 and joined the announce staff of CBC Radio in Toronto. In 1942 he joined the navy and remained in it until after the war, when he became an actor. Comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster recorded in the book The Birth of Radio in Canada by Bill McNeil and Morris Wolfe how a half-hour radio show This is the Army turned into a stage show which toured Canada then travelled to the troops in the field. When they returned to Canada they were approached by the CBC to do a show that would explain rehabilitation credits to veterans. Johnny Home ran for 52 weeks. Austin Willis played the lead at the insistence of Wayne and Shuster and his brother Frank produced it.

Austin’s early shows include Of All Things which ran on CBC Radio from 1946 to 1958 and Cross-Canada Hit Parade, a half-hour CBC-TV variety show which ran for about two years from 1953. He was also in the 1953-54 CBC-TV series Space Command; QED in 1960, Seaway in 1965-66, This is the Law from 1972-76 and the 1985 mini series Kane and Abel.

His first movie role was in a 1947 Canadian melodrama Bush Pilot. It flopped but launched his film career. Among his many other big-screen credits were Goldfinger, The Mouse that Roared, Space Command, Eight on the Lam, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, and Firefox. His made-for-TV film credits include The Sheriff, Death Takes a Holiday and The Boy in Blue, his last film.

In 1958 he went to England for a little over a year. At the time he was married to Kate Reid. Both acted on stage in London and Austin appeared in six movies. He and Kate had two children. From the mid 1960s he lived in California, taking mainly television parts, until he returned to Canada in the 1980s. He married Gwen Leforgy in 1984.

Also among his credits is an international series of stories about the background to folklore and familiar fairy stories. So The Story Goes ran for about 18 months on three networks, including CBC-TV.

In 2002, Austin Willis was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

Austin Willis died at the age of 86, in 2004.

Later in 2004, Austin Willis was posthumusly inducted into the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

Written by Jerry Fairbridge – November, 2002