The hawk-like features and intense gaze of August Schellenberg commanded attention on stage, screen and television for nearly five decades in such works as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007), Black Robe (1991), Free Willy (1993) and an aboriginal production of King Lear (2012) at the National Arts Centre.
The Montreal-born actor, who was part Mohawk, Métis and Swiss-German, rose to prominence playing tough, often menacing roles. Later, Schellenberg was given the opportunity to add to his range, offering sage statements like “The Spirits are always with us,” as Randolph in the teen hit Free Willy 2 and “You must [dream]. If you do not, how do you see the way ahead?,” in his Genie-award-winning performance as Chomina in Black Robe.
Augie, as his friends and wide circle of admirers called him, was an important presence in Canada’s acting community before Free Willy thrust him into international stardom. He graduated from the National Theatre School in 1966 during its early days; his widow Joan Karasevich met him in a history class taught by the future CentreStage artistic director Eddie Gilbert.
“I knocked timidly on the door and, across the room, there he was. Literally, for me, that was it,” she recalls. “I would say – most people would say – that’s what they remember about him: he had a presence.”
Schellenberg scored a big hit in the premiere theatrical production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), playing opposite such luminaries as Chief Dan George and Frances Hyland in one of the first Canadian dramas about Aboriginal people. That same year, he won the Tyrone Guthrie Award for most promising young actor at the Stratford Theatre Festival. Over the years, he performed at the Shaw and Charlottetown festivals, in Minneapolis at the acclaimed Guthrie Theater and two years in Manhattan in John Krizanc’s widely acclaimed innovative play Tamara.
Thanks to his theatrical background, Schellenberg knew how to be a skilled partner to other performers. Tantoo Cardinal, who played opposite him most memorably in Black Robe, recalls, “It was like a soul connection. There was an exchange of energy, there was a flow, there was a hearing each other, there was being involved in the same moment. A lot of actors are kind of by themselves, but Augie was not like that – you did work with the guy.”
Black Robe was a huge success, winning six Genies, including best picture and director. Schellenberg and his agent, Stephen Waddell, went to Los Angeles after the film’s triumph to secure work for him in the U.S. Waddell, now the national executive director of ACTRA, remembers it being a particularly poignant moment.
“When we were heading to the airport, Augie said, ‘I just had a really moving experience. A hawk landed in my back yard and stared me right in the eye. I knew that he was giving me strength and was saying it was going to be OK.’”
One of their first meetings was with the influential agent Darryl Marshak, who said to Waddell, “They’re looking for a Native American role at Warner Brothers. Can you take him down?” The audition was for Free Willy and Schellenberg won the role as Randolph, the Haida mentor who helps young Jesse to get the orca Willy to escape captivity. “He snagged the deal and got the agent [Marshak], which then catapulted him into all sorts of other U.S. projects,” he recalls.
In 2012, Schellenberg returned to Canada to fulfill a 40-year-old dream, to play King Lear in an all-indigenous production. Directed by Peter Hinton, it was an historic event. Jani Lauzon, who played his daughter Cordelia and the Fool in the production, recalls that Schellenberg, who was always in great physical shape, insisted on holding her in the climatic scene. “I would always jump into his arms at the last minute backstage. We had this little ritual where he would say, ‘Couldn’t have done it without you, Fool,’ and I would respond, ‘No Augie, I couldn’t have done it without you.’”
In 2015, Canada’s imagineNATIVE festival created the “Augie” awards in memory of Schellenberg, to honour indigenous actors for career achievements and longevity. Tantoo Cardinal was the first to receive the honour, and recalls the special place Schellenberg held in her community and the industry.
“I think of Augie as kind of a dying breed,” she says. “There’s a certain style and class of guys – like Jean Béliveau, from that generation – who could also be kind of crazy. There was a toughness about him, and a morality and a sense of what was right.”