All Yukon’s a Stage

What do Lily Munster, Jonas Wilkerson (the brutal overseer in Gone with the Wind),Battlestar Gallactica’s “Helo” Agathon, Howard Hughes’s mother and Charlie Chaplin’s movie double have in common?

This being a Yukon-based column, the answer might be fairly obvious—all of them have Yukon roots.

It’s not uncommon for stars of the big and small screens to pass through, or work in, the territory.

Clark Gable and Robert Taylor spent a lot of time drinking at the Caribou Hotel in Carcross on their way to Ben-My-Cree in the 1930s.

Bert Lahr, the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, spent the summer of 1962 in Dawson City performing in the Broadway-bound musical, Foxy. Lahr won his only acting award for that show, taking home a Tony for best actor in a musical in 1964.

He did try a spoonful of the high bush cranberry soup my sister and I brewed up, but didn’t particularly like it. He wasn’t really very good with kids and the soup wasn’t really any good, either.

Dan Akroyd strolled into my office one afternoon in 1981 when I was operating the Twin Cinemas. He had noticed that his film, 1941, was playing and just dropped in to say hello.

Akroyd was actually in the Yukon researching sites for a proposed film, The Mountie, which was never made. A film by that name was released last year, but I don’t think it was the project Akroydhad in mind.

He told me he used to come up to the Yukon occasionally to fish. I suggested he try Quiet Lake on the South Canol Road for grayling. Whether or not he ever did, I don’t know.

In the early 1990s, I encountered Corbin Bernstein (LA Law) frequently on the running trails around Whitehorse when he was here with one-time Charlie’s Angels star, Kate Jackson, making Murder on the Iditarod Trail.

His headband was a rag tied around his head with loose, thready ends hanging down his neck. A little weird, even for a runner, but at least he was out there running.

I had a brief brush with him again last year when his production company expressed interest in film rights to my book, One Mush:Jamaica’s Dogsled Team, but it came to nought.

Robin Williams was here a few years back making an eminently forgettable film, the title of which escapes me at the moment.

PHOTO: provided by John Firth

In 2010, Dawsonites and travellers on the DempsterHighway got a chance to star gaze with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, in town to film The Big Year.

I’m sure there have been a lot more I have either forgotten or didn’t hear about.

But to have a small or large-screen actor with actual roots in the Yukon—that’s a far rarer commodity.

Howard Hughes’s mother inThe Aviator was played by Amy Sloan, whose parents still live in Whitehorse. Sloan also appeared in the science fiction thriller,The Day After Tomorrow, and had a starring role in a short-lived TV series, Big Shots.

I’ve never seen Amy Sloan act, but I did see her in the F.H. Collins fashion show the year my daughter graduated.All stage presence and attitude—just the right combination for someone trying to make a mark in a very brutal business.

“Helo” Agathon’s role was filled by Vancouver actor Tahmoh Penikett, son of former Yukon Premier Tony Penikett.

It must be genetics. Before Penikett Sr. went into politics, he was involved in film. His only Yukon-made movie was Challenge to be Free, based on the pursuit of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River. The film credits also included fellow Yukoners Alex Van Bibber and Jimmy Kane.

Tahmoh Penikett has had roles in TV series including Dollhouse, the L-Word, Haven and Smallville.

Lily Munster and Wilkerson were products of Hollywood’s golden era in the 1930s and ’40s and the actors who played them have their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster) was past the peak of her career when she signed onto TheMunsters, which turned out to be a long-running surprise TV hit in the 1960s.

During the 1940s and ’50s she starred in several of that era’s sweeping epic films, opposite the major leading men of her time. She played Charlton Heston’s wife in The Ten Commandments and Clark Gable’s love interest in Band of Angels.

Her only acting award came in 1987, when she was named best actress at Europe’s Fantafestivalfor the slasher flick, American Gothic.

Her link to the Yukon?

According to her son, De Carlo spent her childhood in various locations in western Canada—one of which was a “wild” place called Whitehorse in the Yukon.

“It was a rough area to be raised around, but the region was populated with decent, reverent people,” he told his mother’s biographer.

Whitehorse might not have held the best memories for De Carlo. About that time, her father abandoned the family and she never saw him again. Shortly after, the family moved to Vancouver and didn’t return north.

Victor Jory (Jonas Wilkerson) was one of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces and voices over his six decades in the film industry.

Initially cast for romantic leads, by the time Gone With the Wind came along in 1939, he was typecast as a villain.

In addition to his film career, which included The Miracle Worker in 1962 and Papillon in 1973, he also appeared as the lead character in The Shadow radio serials in the 1940s and TV’s Manhuntand Green Hornet.

Jory, who died in 1989, was born in Dawson City in 1902.

The most intriguing of all Yukon-rooted actors, though, was “Klondike” Pete Hooley.

According to legend, Hooley was Charlie Chaplin’s stand-in during the silent movie era. He looked like Chaplin. He walked like the little hobo. He acted like Chaplin.

The story goes that someone noticed Hooley one day and offered to give him a lead role in his own film.

But this was when Charlie Chaplin ruled Hollywood with an iron fist.

Chaplin was so possessive of his position, he wouldn’t even put Hooley’s name in the film credits. He didn’t want the world to know he didn’t do all his own acting and stunts.

He also didn’t want competition from his stand-in. Through Chaplin’s influence, the offer of stardom for Hooley was withdrawn. Word was put out that he would never work in Hollywood again. And he didn’t.

Hooley left Los Angeles and drifted northward, eventually ending up in Dawson City, where he became a local celebrity doing his little hobo routine in Discovery Day parades and entertaining children and adults alike until his dying day.

John Firth is a writer and history buff who lives in Whitehorse.

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