Published On Sun Mar 27 2011 (Toronto Star)
Lesley Ciarula Taylor
Actor and comedian Roger Abbott, one of the founders of Canada’s long-running beloved comedy troupe the Royal Canadian Air Farce, has died after a 14-year battle with leukemia. He was 64.
“I’m heartbroken to tell you that our beloved friend, Roger Abbott, died last night at Toronto General Hospital, 14 years after being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a progressive disease that he kept secret from all but a few close friends and family until a week ago,” friend and co-star Don Ferguson said on the show’s website on Sunday.
“Roger was the guiding light of Royal Canadian Air Farce since it began in 1973, and all of us who have had the honour of working with him and the pleasure of knowing him will dearly miss his kindness, generosity, integrity, leadership and wonderful sense of humour.”
Abbott was born in Birkenhead, England, and later lived in Montreal and Toronto.
He played a revolving door of characters on Air Farce, including former prime minister Jean Chrétien, former U.S. president George W. Bush and the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. He said his favourite roles were Chrétien, Mansbridge, Leonard Cohen and the “misogynist TV critic Gilbert Smythe Bite-Me.”
He once said, however, that the former prime minister told him his impersonation sounded more like Preston Manning than Chrétien.
“I’m easy to please,” Abbott wrote of working on the show. “Every time a theatre is sold out, or a new joke gets an incredible roar, or our ratings climb higher, I’m happy.”
The show, which became a CBC radio hit before its long successful run as a weekly CBC Television series, satirized Canadian politics, culture and multiculturalism, using an armoury of accents and dialects, instantly recognizable skit characters and the now retired Chicken Cannon.
The troupe made up the first Canadians inducted into the International Comedy Hall of Fame.
“It was also a highlight when we performed at the ’88 Olympics in Calgary the night after the Battle of the Brians (skaters Orser and Boitano) and Brian Orser was our surprise guest. The audience went wild.”
Among his awards were the Gemini Humanitarian Award, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, 15 ACTRA awards, a Juno and a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
His major influences, he said, were the British comedy troupe Monty Python and fellow Farcer Dave Broadfoot.
Abbott emigrated to Canada in 1953 with his parents and sister. At Loyola High School in Montreal he met Ferguson. He went to Loyola College, now Concordia University, in 1963.
He was working various jobs in radio when he, Ferguson and John Morgan founded the improvisational comedy ensemble The Jest Society in 1970.
Broadfoot joined just as the Society was becoming the Air Farce. They made their first appearance on CBC Radio on Dec. 9, 1973.
The troupe kept performing on radio and television until 2008, becoming one of the country’s best-loved comedy teams. They also played cross-country live tours and recorded several albums of material.
Abbott and Ferguson turned down an offer to write for the American sitcom Taxi because, Ferguson wrote when Air Farce was retiring, “we realized it was important to our listeners’ lives” to keep working on Air Farce.
Of Abbott, Ferguson said at the time, “Roger, the heart, soul and driving force behind Air Farce, possesses a combination of artistic, organizational and business talent that’s rare anywhere.”
During their first eight years on TV, the troupe said, they pulled in 1.27 million viewers for their Friday night show and 2 million for their New Year’s Eve specials. Air Farce was broadcast in the U.S. by public broadcasting stations and in Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
Abbott and Ferguson also produced Dave Broadfoot’s three TV specials and the comedy series Sketchcom (1998). Abbott and Ferguson also hosted the Easter Seals telethon on the CBC for more than 20 years.
In 1993, Abbott was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.