This article was originally published in 2013
To millions of Canadians, Al Waxman will always be “the King.”
The comedy King of Kensington, which aired on CBC from 1975 to 1980, made its lead actor a national icon. It pulled in around 1.8 million viewers per week, and in 2001 the Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias called it “the single most important entertainment series ever produced in English-speaking Canada.”
Created by Perry Rosemond, the show gave us a homegrown hit sitcom. It incorporated topical humour in the style of All in the Family, but rather than having a bigot at its core, it had the benign Larry King, who was always willing to help his neighbours in Toronto’s multicultural Kensington Market, where he owned a struggling variety store. The racial jokes were saved for Larry’s mother Gladys (Helene Winston), who, like Waxman’s real-life parents, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Fiona Reid played Larry’s wife Cathy, who left him after season three.
“It was gentle humour in some ways and slapstick in others. It had all the elements the American shows have, but it was very Canadian,” says Alan Erlich, the series’ go-to director and former DGC national president. The show inspired a spate of sitcoms, but none as successful.
Erlich believes Waxman helped elevate English-Canadian TV actors to stars. And no less than the Trudeau government wanted to put that star power to use, asking Waxman and his family to attend summer events across the country to promote national unity. “We went to fairs, legion halls, baseball games and festivals. We were a typical Canadian family,” recalls Sara Waxman, Al’s wife of 32 years and mother of their sons Adam and Tobaron.
Waxman began performing on CBC Radio as a teenager. He attended law school, but the lure of acting was too strong. He picked up erratic work in Canadian and Hollywood TV and movies throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, then tried his hand behind the camera – writing, directing and appearing in the well-regarded 1971 feature drama The Crowd Inside, starring Geneviève Deloir. He helmed TV episodes, as well as the features My Pleasure Is My Business (1975), Tulips (1981, co-directed), White Light (1991) and Death Junction (1994, co-directed).
Canadians beamed with pride when he joined the cast of CBS cop drama Cagney & Lacey (1982-88), playing the titular female detectives’ supervisor Lieut. Bert Samuels. He later hosted Global’s Missing Treasures (1991-92), which sought to reunite missing children with their families by dramatizing their disappearances. His final role was on the CTV drama Twice in a Lifetime as the celestial Judge Othniel, who sent deceased individuals back in time to convince their younger selves to choose a different path. The series sold around the world and he worked on it up until his death, which occurred during elective bypass surgery at age 65.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had earlier offered him the post of Consul General to Los Angeles, but he took a rain check so that he could pen his autobiography That’s What I Am and perform and direct at the Stratford Festival. By the time he was ready to take on the role, it had been filled by former Prime Minister Kim Campbell. “I’ve often wondered what would’ve happened if he had taken that post,” Sara says. “California is so health conscious. He might have been jogging and eating vegetarian food. It might’ve been better for his health, but he lived the way he wanted to live. He was working at what he loves and was successful at it. That made him a fulfilled human being.”
The Waxmans were involved in many charities, including the United Jewish Appeal, Big Brothers and the Canadian Cancer Society. That spirit of giving is one of the things Waxman’s son Adam remembers best. Another beneficiary of his generosity was the Canadian acting community. “He understood what it was like for young actors starting out,” Adam says. “He taught a class called ‘Al’s Gym,’ and he never charged a penny. He said, ‘If you guys can find a space, I’ll be there.’ That kind of big-heartedness was a huge part of who he was.”
And it will long be remembered. After his passing, the Merchants of Kensington Market erected a bronze statue of Waxman in the neighborhood’s Bellevue Square – a fitting memorial for a man who was both local hero and Canadian TV royalty.
Photos: CBC Still Photo Collection/Norman Chamberlin