4 min

Tom Kneebone

May 12, 1932 - Nov 15, 2003

Credit: Robert C Ragsdale

I met Tom Kneebone just in the nick of time. I had returned from a stay in London, England – the city of my birth – and was intending to go back and build a career there.

We started laughing on the first day of rehearsals in the Dell Tavern and didn’t stop till the last time I went on stage with him three days before a heart attack plunged him into a dark abyss. He climbed his way out and sailed through the door of death, into the next part of his journey and the rest, as they say, is mystery.

He’d come from New Zealand, by way of theatre school in London, promptly joining the Old Vic. During a 1963 North American tour that abruptly collapsed in New York, he was left unpaid and stranded. He turned up in Toronto, heralded by all as a superstar. As I myself longed to become one, too, I was delighted to see how easily it could be done. All you had to do was phone Barbara Hamilton.

Now, it wasn’t his fault that he walked away with her show, That Hamilton Woman. She was funny, lord knows, but in that kind of “all over the place” way, delicious and predictable. Tom was unexpected and contained, glorious, silly and sophisticated, all at once.

Then, of course, there was his face. Walter Kerr wrote of him in the New York Times, “His eyes are alright, but I think his nose is crossed.”

Kneebone’s career encompassed Stratford, Shaw, Broadway, film and television. He was awarded the Order Of Canada in 2002.

When I got a chance to play in a new revue with him, Ding Dong At The Dell, I leapt at it. I was a little younger and a lot less brave than he, so I was constantly in shock at his antics, convinced that he’d be removed from “Toronto the good” any minute for so flagrantly flaunting all the rules. Late night parties, running naked through Allan Gardens, throwing up in taxi cabs.… No one had ever done that before in Canada.

He had a few very good friends, men whom I suspected were also his very good lovers. Lots of people had done that before in Canada.

For some reason, we worked well together, and so one show led to another and soon we were touring the US in a hit production of Oh, Coward, jauntily whipping off Sir Noel’s lyrics at 80 miles an hour to Chicago’s crème-de-la-beef barons who yelled at us from the darkness things like “Slow down!” and “Hell! I thought this was Oh, Calcutta.” One night as I was demurely crooning “Mad About The Boy,” some drunk hollered, “Take it off!” Well, it was Chicago.

One wintery Sunday in late 1969, a day off in Chicago for the Oh, Coward troop, Tom and I headed off for dinner at the elegant home of Lady Cynthia and Charles Olsen The Third.

Mr Kneebone had enjoyed a late and liquid lunch at the Ambassador Hotel and so was already flying high and eager as we approached the ornate wrought-iron gates.

Our hostess welcomed us in a flurry of burgundy watered-silk, introducing us to some of her guests, Peter Boyle, James Caan, Candace Bergen. Then Mary Lee and Douglas Fairbanks Jr appeared. I’m sure my mouth fell open and I distinctly heard Kneebone click his heels.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr was just as beautiful in these senior years as he ever had been.

Later, at dinner, the movie stars regaled us with gossip, anecdotes and moving reminiscences. During dessert, a momentary lull descended on the table. And then it happened.

“Mr Fairbanks.”

It was that tilt in Kneebone’s voice that cautioned me. I stopped breathing.

“Is it true you threw a fuck into Gertrude Lawrence?”

A beat, and seven conversations suddenly started up together. “Jabber, jabber, jabber.” No one could hear anything that was said and that seemed to be just fine.

But, as if we hadn’t already learned, we all took another break and during the breath we heard it, again.

With an elfin twinkle in his eyes he cleared his throat.

“I said, is it true you threw a fuck into Gertrude Lawrence?”

That was the winner. I stared at the floor so I can’t report where everyone else looked, but we did hear Mr Fairbanks swivel around in his chair and in a most charming voice say to Mr Kneebone: “Sir, we do not discuss our women at the mess.”

That’s The Knees, and still adored by all. Douglas and Mary Lee came to pick him up at our hotel the next day and whip him off to lunch, so I guess they enjoyed him as much as all his other friends did.

I saw him through trials and tribulations. We all did. Every one of his friends was constantly being sworn to secrecy and then being told exactly what we’d all heard from each other, anyway. That’s what secrets are for.

He was intelligent, extensively well read, naughty, adoring, inventive, loyal and endlessly curious.

He had three true loves of his life that I knew about, but the most enduring ones were with, first, Charlie Kneebone, an exquisite black poodle and then Rosie Kneebone, a gentle Jack Russell wonder dog.

I was refreshed each time we spoke. He was constantly building a future for us and for the products we created together: one-hour long “documentary/musicals” for The Smile Company, playing for seniors all over Ontario. We’ve written about Woodstock’s Joseph Whiteside Boyle, “The king of the Klondike” and “The saviour of Romania.” We’ve written about Tom Longboat, an Onondaga sprinter from Six Nations, the fastest man in the world in 1900.

One of Kneebone’s favourites was a bittersweet look at the life of the Grand Duchess Olga Romanov, the last of Tsar Nicholas’ bedevilled family who spent the final years of her life watching her two boys learn hockey and painting in the garden she shared with her beloved husband while they both enjoyed their neighbours in Campbellville, Ont. She died above a barber-shop on Gerrard St E and is buried in North York Cemetery.

We have 17 more musicals. If I can find a way for them to live or, better yet, get them into Canadian schools, I’ll be a happy woman and Tom Kneebone will applaud from the clouds.

I’ll miss his laugh and his whisper when he’s got good dirt, but he’ll always be around me… as long as I’m writing about people of Canada, the country he’s had his longest love affair with of all.

* Veteran stage actress Dinah Christie is probably best known for her TV work, which includes singing on the groundbreaking 1960s CBC series This Hour Has Seven Days, hosting the ’70s game show The Party Game and starring on the ’80s sitcom Check It Out.