Over a theatrical career lasting more than 50 years, Canadian actor and director William Hutt (born 1920) became virtually the face of the Stratford Festival, an annual live theater extravaganza, lasting from spring to fall, that draws audiences from all over North America. Festival director Richard Monette told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that Hutt was "arguably the greatest classical actor in the English-speaking world."
William Ian DeWitt Hutt, born in Toronto on May 2, 1920, spent his earliest years with an aunt in Hamilton, Ontario; his mother was in poor health. At age four or five he demanded a part in the Christmas pageant at Christ Church, where his aunt was a member. He was cast as a seller in Bethlehem's marketplace, with a single line: "Beads for sale!" When Hutt returned to his parents in Toronto, however, his stage ambitions were discouraged. His father was a journalist and trade publication editor who sold insurance during the economic depression of the early 1930s. "Both my parents," Hutt told the Toronto Star , "really thought they were British underneath, all about dignity and reserve. The theatre was a diversion to them, not a career."
Already sensing that he had a talent for making a powerful connection with an audience, Hutt worked on his speaking skills in oratory classes. When he was 12 he won a medal for a speech he gave, written by his father on the theme of the greatness of the British Empire. At two Toronto institutions, the Vaughan Road and North Toronto collegiate or prep schools, Hutt took occasional roles in school operetta productions but did not yet think about acting as a career.
World War II interrupted Hutt's education. As a member of the Canadian army ambulance corps, he was sent to the front in Italy and received a decoration for bravery. On occasional leaves, Hutt made his way to London and took in theatrical productions there. His moment of epiphany concerning his future direction came not during one of the Shakespearean masterpieces for which he later became well known, but during a production of the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace . "Instead of enjoying the laugh riot it was supposed to be, I was actually more intrigued with what [the actors] were doing," Hutt told the Toronto Star . "I really believed in those people up there. How did they do that? How did they make me feel that they were real? I went away and thought to myself, 'I'd like to do that sometime.'" Forty years later, Hutt would perform, in drag, the role of one of the play's two murderous old ladies.
Returning to Toronto after the war, Hutt was admitted to Trinity College, part of the University of Toronto. He joined a college theatrical group called the Earl Grey Players and won the role of Theseus in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream . During summer vacations Hutt landed roles with summer stock theatrical companies, and he has credited director Robert Gill at Hart House Theatre, an independent theater based at the university, with honing his skills as a Shakespearean actor.
For several years, Hutt crisscrossed Canada with touring theatrical companies, and an ongoing relationship with the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Canada's capital of Ottawa, beginning the late 1940s, gave him a home base. Hutt never married—he was bisexual, having announced his homosexuality at a family dinner during his teenage years when he blurted out (according to biographer Keith Garebian), "I'm another Oscar Wilde!" In 1953 he won the supporting role of Sir Robert Brackenbury in Shakespeare's Richard III , playing opposite Alec Guinness in the lead role. It was the first of more than 100 Stratford productions in which Hutt would appear over the next five decades. Hutt was so well received that the following year he received the company's inaugural Tyrone Guthrie Award, named after Stratford's founder, for his performance. He had a variety of supporting roles, most of them in Shakespeare's plays, over the next ten years. He also toured Canada and the United States with the Canadian Players troupe, once playing Shakespeare's King Lear in a production set among the Inuit people of Canada's far north.
During that period, Hutt, along with his directors and fellow players, developed a theatrical style specific to the Stratford Festival, mounted in a picturesque Ontario town that, like its English namesake, was situated on the Avon River. "The key to the company's success was its uniquely Canadian approach," noted American Theatre , "a delicate balance between American Method-style realism and the more traditional, artificial, one might say theatrical, British approach." Hutt's presence on stage was formal, but he took care to communicate the emotions in a play directly to the audience. "To this day I'm as confused as anybody by a Shakespeare play the first time I read it," he told the Toronto Star in 2005, at age 84. "I'm just like a high school student, reading all the notes, figuring out what it means, then putting it in my mind in language I can understand." He often likened the craft of acting to, as he put it, being private in public.
Audiences responded enthusiastically to the festival's sumptuous yet accessible productions, and by 1962, when Hutt played his first lead role, a summer trip to Stratford had become an annual pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of theater lovers from Canada and much of the American Northeast and Midwest. Hutt's debut as star was in the role of Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest , and that role became one of several specialties he cultivated over his years in Stratford. He played King Lear four times in Stratford, and he frequently ranged beyond Shakespeare. He also took the stage four times as James Tyrone, the aging Irish-American actor in Eugene O'Neill's family drama Long Day's Journey into Night , and he appeared plays of various types—the classical French comedies of Molière, the incisive social commentaries of Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, and even, in 1975, the Oscar Wilde comedy The Importance of Being Earnest , a favorite of Hutt's fans in which he cross-dressed to play the role of Lady Bracknell.
Having established himself firmly in Canada, Hutt could easily have chosen to seek stardom in American plays and films, a choice that had worked out well for his Stratford contemporaries William Shatner and Christopher Plummer. But Hutt, who strongly preferred the stage to cinema, chose to remain in Canada, eventually moving into a large home in Stratford. "As far as going down to the United States for stage work," he told American Theatre , "I don't believe in starving picturesquely in a garret for my art. I think that's soul-destroying. And one thing I was determined not to do was … to move to New York and sit in a cold-water flat waiting for the phone to ring." As it happened, Hutt made several critically well-received visits to New York stages, with a Broadway debut in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice and a 1968 production of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan at Lincoln Center.
In Canada, Hutt became well known even beyond the world of theater. In 1974 he starred in The National Dream , a miniseries about the early history of the Canadian nation in which he played the country's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. That role brought him two of Canada's top performing arts awards, an Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) and a Canadian Film Award, the following year. Hutt also appeared in several television productions of Shakespeare's plays. The roster of national honors on his shelf began with his designation as a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1969 and expanded in 1992 when he was given a lifetime achievement award by the country's Governor General.
Despite occasional detours into film and television, the Stratford stage remained Hutt's first love. He played every major lead role in Shakespeare's plays except for Othello. He often took on three major roles in a single season, and he was an instantly recognizable figure no matter what character he played. Hutt was a commanding figure, standing six-feet, two inches tall and weighing over 200 pounds. And his early oratorical training was everywhere in evidence. "Hutt used his deeply sonorous voice to calculated effect," Garebian wrote in a description of a Hutt performance of the lead role in Molière's comedy Tartuffe . "It sounded like a grand organ as it quavered sententiously, paused dramatically, and audaciously overemphasized the most sanctimonious phrases." In the grand Shakespearean soliloquies like that of Hamlet, which he named along with James Tyrone as one of his two favorite roles, Hutt was unmatched.
Hutt was appointed associate director of Stratford's touring arm, the Stratford National Company, in the 1970s, and he intermittently directed individual productions at the festival itself. In the 1980s, as the festival drifted through what some saw as an artistically unfocused period, Hutt appeared with other companies, including Canada's rival classical summer repertory event, the Shaw Festival in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Controversy continued after Richard Monette assumed the helm of the Stratford Festival in 1994 and steered the company in what was perceived as a populist direction. But Hutt appeared in several major new Stratford productions and defended Monette, telling American Theatre that "he was an actor in the company for a number of years. Then he got an opportunity to direct a couple of productions. Now he heads the joint. I think he's a very exuberant man. And populist? Yes, but I don't think that's a fault. We needed a populist."
Hutt entered his 70s and then his 80s without slowing down much, remaining in satisfactory health despite a lifelong enthusiasm for both tobacco and alcohol. In 2003 he had a sizable role in the World War II drama The Statement . His final King Lear in 1996, directed by Monette, inspired Linda Bridges of the National Review to call him "a treasure of the English-speaking theater who seems to gain depth with each passing year." Hutt's 2004 appearance at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre in Samuel Beckett's minimalist-existentialist drama Waiting for Godot received wide coverage. "It's one of those emotional, end-of-the-road things he likes these days," former Stratford artistic director Robin Phillips told Ian Brown of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. But during the production Hutt began to complain of difficulty in remembering his lines. His final Stratford performance came the following year, as Prospero in The Tempest , the same role he had first taken as a star more than 40 years earlier. He is retired at his Stratford home. "Death is fertilizer for the future, that's what I think," he told the Star . "We're all annuals, and at the end of our season … we go."
Garebian, Keith, William Hutt: A Theatre Portrait , Mosaic, 1988.
Who's Who in the Theatre , 17th ed., Gale, 1981.
American Theatre , November 1998.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 19, 2004.
National Review , September 2, 1996.
Toronto Star , April 10, 2005.
"Hutt, William," Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. http://www.canadiantheatre.com (October 21, 2006).
"William Hutt," Northern Stars, http://www.northernstars.ca/actorsghi/huttbio.html (October 21, 2006).
"William Hutt takes final bow," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.cbc.ca/arts/story/2005/10/28/huttretires_051028.html (October 21, 2006).