Award-winning stage and screen actress Janet Wright, the frank-talking and resilient comedy star best known for her portrayal of the long-suffering matriarch on “Corner Gas,” died Monday in Vancouver at the age of 71.
No cause of death was released. Her death was confirmed by CTV, which aired the long-running sitcom.
The gravelly-voiced performer starred as Emma Leroy on the beloved hit Canadian series, which ended its six-season run in 2009 and returned with a big-screen adaptation in 2014.
Wright’s character was the wife of Oscar Leroy, played by Eric Peterson, and mother to the character played by series creator Brent Butt.
Butt called her “strong and true and incredibly talented,” noting her infectious humour, professionalism and directness made the cast enjoy the work more.
“You never had to say, ‘I wonder what Janet’s thinking.’ You just never had to think that, and we all loved her for it. She was one of the truest people I’ve ever met,” said Butt.
“There was part of that attitude that reminded me of my mom in real life. If she didn’t like something she would let you know, like, ‘This is stupid.'”
Peterson, who had known Wright for 50 years, said she was “an incredibly, wonderfully complex woman of tremendous strength and intelligence and a wonderful actress.”
“She knew a lot about the art of acting and the art of theatre as a director,” Peterson said.
“The wonderful thing about her as an actress — especially in something like ‘Corner Gas’ — she brought so much to that part as only Janet could. Even the simplest line, she thoroughly thought it through. She seemed to be able to give a straightforward line that was redolent with meaning. Often my character was the brunt of that redolent meaning too.
“I’m just very sad. We’re the same age. One’s reminded how short life is.”
Other “Corner Gas” cast members took to social media to express their condolences.
Actor Fred Ewanuick, who played Hank Yarbo, posted on his Twitter account: “We lost a member of our family. It hurts. I love you Janet.”
And Tara Spencer-Nairn, who played Dog River police department Const. Karen Pelly, tweeted: “Today we lost a warrior woman with a big beautiful heart and soul. My heart has shattered in pieces. I love you Janet.”
Born in England on March 8, 1945, Wright and her family relocated to Canada and eventually settled in Saskatoon.
Her family discovered a passion for local theatre and Wright joined her sister Susan as co-founder of Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre in 1974.
While she eventually moved away from Saskatoon to pursue other acting roles, Wright never forgot her theatre roots, said Del Surjik, Persephone’s artistic director.
In 2014, she returned to direct its season opener “Hedda Gabbler.”
Wright endured two horrific personal tragedies that gave her a strong resolve throughout her career, said her colleagues.
Her sister Susan, along with her parents Jack and Ruth, died in a house fire in 1991 in Stratford, Ont.
And 13 years later, Wright’s daughter, Rachel Davis, was killed outside of a nightclub in Vancouver’s Gastown area. Davis, 23, was leaving the club at the time and intervened to protect a teen boy from being assaulted by a group of men.
“She was one of those people that, for whatever reason, she took a beating in a number of ways,” said Butt. “The type of beating that would crush a lot of people and she found a way to (keep going).
“It was like it was OK, to be crushed, but being crushed doesn’t mean you have to stop, being crushed doesn’t mean you’re beaten. She just pushed through.”
Surjik remembered Wright for her ability to be upfront and outspoken with her friends and colleagues.
“You can’t help but laugh with her while she does it,” he said.
“She’d do it with a smile and a wink. (And) made every bit of it an exercise in comic delivery.”
Agent Alicia Jeffery said Wright found inspiration in the theatre, acting and directing whenever she had the chance. The actress also dedicated her time to mentoring younger actors and trying to connect them with the right people to get their careers in motion.
“If she didn’t feel it from her gut, she wouldn’t do it,” said Jeffery. “That’s why her parts were infused with that kind of devastating honesty.”
Wright performed at virtually every major theatre company in Canada.
She had been affiliated with the Vancouver Arts Club Theater since the early 1970s, and also directed for many major theatre companies across Canada, including productions at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. She was a member of the company for seven seasons and made her debut alongside her sisters in the 1991 production of “Les Belles Soeurs.”
“Janet was an artist on an uncompromising search for the truth in all its unvarnished beauty,” said Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino, who directed Wright as Ma Joad in the 2011 production of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“She was a profoundly talented actress, director and champion for the importance of the arts. I will never forget her passion and forever be inspired by her commitment to our work.”
She won the best actress Genie Award in 1992 for “Bordertown Cafe,” and won the best supporting actress in a dramatic program or miniseries award in 2003 for “Betrayed.”
Her film credits include “The Perfect Storm,” opposite George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and TV appearances on series “Dark Angel,” “The King of Kensington” and “The Beachcombers.
Butt said Wright’s health had been frail in recent years, noting her mobility was limited when they shot the “Corner Gas” film.
“We had her on a scooter, you see it in the movie, her character, we wrote it in that she’s riding a scooter,” he said. “But she was there every day and nailed her lines and did an amazing job, despite everything.
“Every one of us in the cast — every one of us in the cast — you hear it a lot but we all truly loved her.”
— with files from David Friend and Victoria Ahearn