Jackie Burroughs, 71

Actress Jackie Burroughs passed away Wednesday Sept. 21 from stomach cancer at the age of 71.

Most will probably recognize the multi-talented actress from her years as Hetty King on the Road to Avonlea series with Sarah Polley from 1989-1996, but I remember her as this slightly eccentric, extremely nice lady I’d meet once in a while through work. She was always jovial, completely down to Earth, and very genial with everyone, and she managed to quickly put a co-worker/big Avonlea fan at ease with her warm personality.

My only exposure to Burroughs’ work is rather odd: she provided the narration for Neon, an Electric Memoir (1984), a doc I saw in first year film school. From what I recall, she was the voice of the neon gas, reflecting on life, her relationship with light, darkness, and people.

Years later she once asked about getting a copy of A Winter Tan (1987), a movie she starred in and co-directed. The film played on pay TV and was released on VHS, but she needed a copy because the film print was either hard to come by, or a video master was somewhere with someone in the U.S.

For their Wednesday obits, the CBC and CTV ran a clip from Tan, along with a snippet from The Grey Fox (1982), another film where she had an important role. Neither of these films has ever appeared on DVD, and it again reflects on the absurdity of indigenous films either unavailable domestically, or films we have to import because other countries felt a Canadian film was worth releasing.

Tan, I understand, received mixed reviews, and I know somewhere I have a VHS EP copy in storage, taped off First Choice when dinosaurs still roamed Toronto. I think Burroughs said she co-produced the film (or put some money into the project), but it seems to be another movie that’s become an orphan because no one knows who owns the thing, and where the elements are.

Grey Fox also received TV airings, a grubby VHS release, and from one account, a laserdisc release.
My old screenwriting prof, David Brady, was the film’s executive producer, and he had a good enough relationship with director Philip Borsos that he appeared as a befuddled character in a TV ad for a courier company that ran during the late eighties/early nineties, which Borsos directed because Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1992) either sucked the life from him, or no one remembered who Borsos was after Bethune, reportedly the costliest Canadian film ever, fizzled at the box office, and was banished into oblivion after an expanded CBC TV airing.

Brady may be one of the few people who knows why no one’s been able thus far to release Grey Fox on DVD, but the fact Burroughs wasn’t able to get hold of Tan, a film she was quite proud of directing, is absurd, and wrong.

So while I’d like to recommend hunting down some of her work as a leading lady outside of the Avonlea world, I can’t because with her early work, they’re unavailable, but she did have small roles in a few cult films, include The Kidnapping of the President (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), Gnaw: Food of the Gods II (partially shot at York University in 1989), Willard (2003), Rhinoceros Eyes (2003), and Into the Labyrinth (2008). Her last film, Small Town Murder Songs (2010) will premiere Sept. 27th at the Calgary Film Festival.

Burroughs was able to personify neon gas using her voice, which may not be art, but that small piece of work illustrates her skill and sense of humour – probably two things most will easily glean from her lengthy and prolific career.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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