The Hamilton Spectator
William Hutt was a Stratford superstar
You may not know it but Hutt’s first performance ever was right here in Hamilton
The first line William Hutt ever said on a stage was “Beads for sale.” It was his debut performance right here at Christ’s Church Cathedral on James Street North in Hamilton.
A sickly child, who almost died at birth, Hutt had been sent from Toronto to live with his Hamilton aunt.
“It was a Christmas pageant,” Hutt recalled. “I wanted to be in it. Heaven knows why. I had only that one line. It was my Hamilton aunt who was one of the real reasons I went into the arts.”
William Hutt would probably knock me down if he knew I said this, but he was without doubt the grandaddy of the great Stratford stars.
Yes, there was Christopher Plummer, Maggie Smith, Martha Henry and Brian Bedford. All great. But Hutt was there from the start, toiling away in that hot, stuffy tent, all the way back to 1952.
Hutt could be intimidating. He had a reputation for being nobody’s fool. When you had an in-person chat with him you better be on your mettle.
Watching him over the years at The Stratford Festival I didn’t actually meet him until he was well into his 80s.
We met backstage in a bleak little room with only a small sofa and a tall straight-backed chair.
Thinking I was being considerate, I saved him the comfy looking sofa and balanced on the edge of the hard, uncomfortable chair.
When he came in, he looked at the sofa and blanched.
“You better get up,” he said. “You don’t expect me to sit over there do you. How the hell do you think I’d get up?” he roared, his face squished into a grin. “No, dear heart,” he smiled. “I’ll sit where you are, thank you very much.”
In Hutt’s dramatic, still handsome face I saw ghosts — ghosts of iconic performances given over the years, from a rueful “King Lear,” to a wasted James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” From the melancholy Jacques in “Twelfth Night,” to that gorgon Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
We talked about his coming retirement from the stage scheduled for some months later. I wondered if he was saddened by the thought.
“Of course not,” he roared. “I’m comfortable with this. I started thinking about it, five years ago, when I was 80. When your heart specialist tells you you’re in good shape, but you know you’re getting on, it’s a crapshoot how long you’ve got left. You know the clock’s ticking. If I’m to have any retirement it better be now, otherwise it could be in a coffin.”
Hutt smiled a rueful little smile. “I would be a fool to think I’m anything but old. I think I have a young mind and a young heart, but
William Hutt died in 2007 from leukemia. He was 87.
nevertheless I am old. You know I was described as an old lion. Well perhaps I’m a bit grizzled and maybe there’s a certain elegance there, but you know I never thought of myself as handsome. That’s why I was never really interested in Hollywood. I never thought I had a movie star’s face.”
Hutt looked at his hands and flexed his knotted fingers.
“I love being here at The Festival,” he said. “What has never changed is the Festival’s reputation. I’ve worked with a lot of fine people everywhere, but this place has been my foundation.
Hutt says his realistic attitude came from his personal life.
“In many respects, I’m a practical person. I’m not frightened of anything. In the war I saw a lot of death. In some ways I was introduced to death before I was introduced to life.
“I believe things we do in our life fertilize the future. In that way we are animals. We live our space of time and like all things we fade away into the ground for future growth. We’re all part of a natural law. I’m not an avid churchgoer, but I have a spiritual side.
“One thing I do know, I’m absolutely convinced that element in man that is closest to God is the desire to create. Knowing that, you may be able to understand God and be in his service is perfect surrender. It’s about coming to that moment when you know what surrender truly means. It’s about abandonment of ego.”
I asked Hutt about what he did when he was not pondering the universe and he laughed.
“Well, I go over to Richard’s house (Monette) and we have a lot to drink. We shout at each other a lot. And oh yes, we make a hell of a racket. Sometimes gets broken. But never our friendship.”
When Hutt gave his farewell performance as Prospero in “The Tempest” a month after our talk. People stood and wept. William Hutt died in 2007 from leukemia. He was 87.