HALIFAX — Everyone in Nova Scotia’s theatre and film industry has a John Dunsworth story.
For actor Jeremy Webb, it was being compelled to spout Shakespearean monologues in Dunsworth’s downtown Halifax casting office in the late ’90s.
“He started to get all excited and he wanted another one and another one,” said Webb, who credits Dunsworth with getting him his first television gig after moving to the city from the United Kingdom in 1998.
“There I am, essentially on Barrington Street, in a shopfront casting office doing Shakespeare at full tilt wondering what the hell I was getting into. But that was just so typical. He had this energy and drive and passion for everyone in the community… Every single person in the theatre, TV and film industry has a John Dunsworth story. The man was a legend.”
Dunsworth’s death was announced Monday evening on his Twitter feed. The statement said he died “peacefully after a short and unexpected illness.” He was 71.
His colleagues say Dunsworth had a profound impact on the local arts community, and his death changes its landscape.
“His legacy is being a mentor and a guiding light for so many of us all for the last 30 years,” said Webb, who will soon take over as artistic director of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, where Dunsworth had performed in at least 26 productions since 1970.
“And it wasn’t just about the work, although he loved the work. He literally did everything for everyone. He would drive past you in the street in his beat up old car and if you didn’t know him you’d be terrified because he’d honk his horn, wind his window down and yell at you to see if you wanted a ride somewhere.
“I think everyone is in shock because you can’t imagine the Nova Scotia arts community without him.”
Dunsworth is best known for his portrayal of Jim Lahey on the “Trailer Park Boys,” but his acting credits extend far beyond the popular comedy series. He’s performed in countless local productions over the last four decades and at one point ran a Halifax theatre company. He also had a recurring role as reporter Dave Teagues on the television series “Haven.”
Actor Lucy DeCoutere, a fellow “Trailer Park Boys” co-star, said Dunsworth was one of the first people she met when she got her start in the film industry decades ago.
“For a lot of people, he was the gateway into the acting world,” said DeCoutere of Dunsworth’s time as a casting director.
“He would continuously be immersed and he practised what he preached. He did everything. He was involved with as many productions as a human can be.”
A champion of the arts community in Halifax and beyond, Dunsworth was one of many industry pundits to voice his disapproval of the provincial Liberal government’s decision to slash a film tax credit more than two years ago.
“How do we explain the decision that these people are making?” Dunsworth told a crowd during a rally outside the provincial legislature in April 2015. “It doesn’t make any sense. It can’t be just bad advice by the stupid Finance Department.”
It wasn’t the first time Dunsworth wore a political hat — he ran as a candidate for the NDP in the then-riding of Halifax Bedford Basin during the 1988 provincial election. Dunsworth placed third, receiving 19 per cent of the vote. The NDP only won two of 52 seats in the legislature and Progressive Conservative John Buchanan was re-elected premier.
“We’ve always been part of an authoritarian kind of society, and in a way that’s true because people in this community, they think something that is has virtue because it is. They will vote for someone because that someone has been the premier and he’s important… They’re a little bit afraid of doing something new,” Dunsworth, sporting a brown moustache, said at the time in a video about his campaign.
Jesse Albiston, who described himself as a family friend who has known Dunsworth since he was a child, said he radiated love to everyone around him and always took time to help family and friends.
“John was a man who moved his soul to ensure others felt at home,” said Albiston, 25, adding that Dunsworth spent a great deal of time with his father David Albiston after he lost his wife in June 2016. “I have never seen patience, intelligence and kindness in such a raw way than how John spoke and held himself for the benefit of other human beings.”
Dunsworth also had another lifelong passion besides acting: Masonry.
In a video posted on his YouTube channel in January 2013, Dunsworth is shown at his coastal home in Southwest Cove, N.S., showcasing his hobby.
“I like to play with cement and rocks. I have no idea why. I think it might have something to do with the fact that I’d like to leave a legacy. Maybe a little after I’m gone people will say, ‘Hey, who made that?’ There I am. Still alive,” said Dunsworth, wearing a winter hat with ear flaps and a red scarf wrapped around his midriff.
“Maybe it’s because I’d like to make some kind of order out of chaos. But not really, because most of my life I create chaos.”
He recalled being a two-year-old boy and telling his mom he has eaten some rocks, as he pushed a wheelbarrow down rows of walkways and retaining walls he created on his property to ward off the punishing waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Dunsworth points to a sea glass mosaic he made for his daughter Molly Dunsworth to celebrate her starring role in the movie “Hobo with a Shotgun.” He also shows off a stone fire pit, salt water pool and theatre.
“Fill your boots. Be as imaginative as you like,” he declares.