Veteran actor R.H. Thomson is also an athlete, an activist, and a storyteller. He has many projects on the go. Don’t get in his way.
Canadian actor R.H. Thomson has the energy of someone much younger. Good thing, because he is a man on a mission, or rather, multiple missions. At age 75, his acting career remains in high gear and he continues to head “The World Remembers,” an international not-for-profit dedicated to pointing out the huge cost of war. As a sideline, he spent six years on and off writing By the Ghost Light, a memoir about his life and career, which weaves back over several generations.
Robert Holmes Thomson always had a lot of energy. Growing up in Richmond Hill, Ontario, he and his friends were outdoors in all seasons. The family had a cottage in northern Ontario where the kids were left alone to roam in the woods and swim in the lake.
He caught the sailing bug from his father, who had commanded a Corvette that escorted convoys across the Atlantic during the Second World War. The goal was to head out in high winds and pit your skill and experience against the power of nature. Thomson observed that no matter how tough the conditions, his father never seemed to lose his mental acuity, his strength, or his enthusiasm.
This style rubbed off on him. Decades later, on a cold day in heavy winds, he was responsible for capsizing the boat and putting himself and his crew in the drink, where exposure can quickly deplete the strongest athletes. Luckily, everyone escaped unscathed.
In 2010, R.H. Thomson was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. In May 2015, he received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
At the University of Toronto, Thomson started out in English, then dropped out. He went back later to get a degree in general science, where his favorite subjects were math and physics. Then his passion for acting took over. He attended the National Theatre School, leading to a five-decade career as a Canadian television, film, and stage actor.
“I didn’t really want to be an actor,” he says. “I wanted to tell stories. It all started 44,000 years ago, when someone sat around the fire and described the hunt. The storytellers of any culture are like the warriors, who are there to defend their society. The storytellers are there to tell the stories.”
Besides his father, Thomson had other relatives who also served as mentors. Some he knew only from stories, including those who had been through the world wars. Some survived. Some didn’t. Not just men. A great aunt was a battlefield nurse in the Great War.
In high school, Roy Clifton, a geography teacher, inspired Thomson and many of his friends. Clifton ambushed Thomson in a hallway and convinced him to take a role in a play. “In a conformist age, he was a totally eccentric teacher who ran against all the norms of high school,” Thomson remembers. “He was a lawyer, a Quaker, a pacifist, a vegetarian. Excuse me, this is 1963, where you have roast beef for dinner, hot dogs for lunch, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. What are you talking about—you’re vegetarian? Eventually I tried becoming a vegetarian, but that didn’t last long.”
The theme of a healthy diet continued to follow Thomson. At the National Theatre School, several of the instructors would inspect his lunches. What’s the processed cheese doing in the sandwich? they would ask. You have to pay attention to what goes in—because you are what you eat.
“The message was that if you’re gonna be a real actor, as opposed to someone who dresses up and tries to be a movie star, your body has to work, your mind has to work, your emotions have to work, your spirit has to work,” says Thomson. “So, you gotta pay attention to what you eat. Meanwhile, the industry’s putting sugar, caffeine, salt, and fat in everything to sell their processed products. While everything out there says the more processed food you eat, the shorter you’re going to live. Well, it doesn’t stop the food industry. But I had my awakening. So, yeah, I am mindful of my diet.”
That’s food. What about exercise?
“I’m a physical guy,” he says. “In my early years as an actor, I became a fight director. So, I was doing acrobatics, I was doing the tramp work, the line work, the rappelling work, the fight work. I’m not a gymnasium guy. I could never get into the routine of that. I took up hockey when I was about 40. I was totally inept but I had a great time. I can’t play anymore because I have a heart condition, but I ride a bike in Toronto and I am up and down stairs 20 times a day when I’m working at home.”
Clifton launched a foreign film club at the high school. “He was running against the grain of popular entertainment. ‘You’ve got to understand where stories come from,’ he told us.”
It was always stories that fascinated Thomson. His family had preserved hundreds of letters written by his relatives before, during, and after the Great War. Here’s one: one great uncle was promoted to platoon leader. Guiding operations shortly after his promotion, he became one more victim of German artillery. After an explosion, the injured officer was dug out of the mud, slung over a soldier’s shoulder and carried to a dressing station, where he died soon after.Decades later, Thomson, the “physical guy,” found the location where his great uncle had been hit and arranged to carry a friend on the same trek across No Man’s Land. When the hike was over Thomson was exhausted, and he had a better sense of the last moments of his relative.
As a boy, Thomson listened to family stories, read a lot, and loved films and TV. Stories about war and the Wild West were everywhere. The plotlines were always the same: the Allies and “the cowboys” were the good guys, the Germans and “the Indians” the bad guys. The good guys always won. As he grew older, he realized these stories had been slanted by naive patriotism and propaganda.
The silver years
The word retirement is not in Thomson’s vocabulary. Besides the work on stage and for his foundation, he’s trying to get a documentary made about the 1862 smallpox epidemic in Victoria, BC. After all the decades, the performances, and awards, what keeps him motivated?
It’s being engaged as a storyteller. Do I want to end up sitting in a chair, drooling in the corner of the ward, or do I want to continue to engage? I just did a show in Saint John, New Brunswick, and it is still terrifying to be on stage. But it’s a good kind of terror. The live performance is a bull ring and you have to step into it. But there’s nothing better than an audience engaging deeply in a story. That’s a pretty powerful place.
Here’s the other driving force. You can’t go, well, I’m retired now. No, no, no. You’re there for the next generation. I’m there environmentally. Hawaii’s on fire. The Northwest Territories is on fire. What are we leaving to the next generation? You can’t say, “well, it’s their problem.” You have to engage politically on their behalf.
Artistically, it’s part of my job to help young actors. I’m an old fogey, but I can help. I teach a course called “Listening for the Story.” How do you actually hear what the story really is? At theater schools, I engage students in what I call “a rage or despair” conversation.
You have to know the industry that you’re going into and you also have to know the politics. You need to know that you could only be in a Canadian show, or have a Canadian book, because years ago activists persuaded governments that they had to help. Students have to understand what politically must be done to maintain this, or the Canadian arts scene may be over in 30 years.
If your concern is the environment, what’s the best way to have an impact? It’s about their future. But often they didn’t know what to do. The old activists have to explain: this is what you do in your community, in your church, in your municipal politics, in your provincial and federal politics.
The emphasis for the silver generation is not, “how can we make our remaining years better?” It’s “how do we make life better for the generation coming up?” Not, “how do I do enough exercise to make sure I don’t need a new knee in five years?” Yeah, we should do that, too. But the big job is, “how do I make it better for those who follow me?”
And now, Thomson stands up. He has plays to prepare, projects to manage, courses to teach, funds to raise—and generations to inspire.
Cave of memories
The theatres I’ve worked in banish complete darkness primarily for reasons of safety, but also from superstition. After each performance, before the cast and crew depart, a single lamp, called the ghost light, is placed onstage and left to burn all night. On my way home after a show, I’ve often lingered by the ghost light, the theatre now a dim cavern that an hour before was filled with life. I try to hear the echoes of the character’s lives that were played out that evening.
So writes R.H. Thomson early in his new book, By the Ghost Light, a memoir of his busy life and career and a reflection on the two generations that preceded him, each marked by the world wars of the 20th century. He recalls visiting the Chauvet Cave in France, where paintings from thousands of years ago flicker in the lights of the discoverers, telling their stories as if no time had passed. Without the hunters, he says, there would be little food. Without the storytellers, we would have no tools, no skills, no knowledge from those who came before.
His editor Scott Sellers recalls how the project came together:
I was having lunch with a friend who was working at the Toronto Reference Library back in 2014 and she was talking about “The World Remembers” and the centenary project that would see the names of all of those killed during the First World War projected on various public spaces. It sounded like an amazing project. Shortly after, I ordered a copy of Robert’s script for “The Lost Boys.” I found the text incredibly moving. We asked him if he might expand the story of his family and his journey with “The World Remembers” into a book. Now, we’re on the brink of publishing this incredible work.
By the Ghost Light © 2023 R.H. Thomson is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada, 2023.