Mary Walsh: Warrior princess

Waiting on the porch of her restored farmhouse in downtown St. John’s, Nfld., and listen to that famous voice chiding her three furiously barking dogs, one half-expects to see Marg, Princess Warrior, stride to the door in her delightfully ridiculous breastplated, red-booted, orange-lipsticked getup, revealing a hairy armpit as she hoists her plastic sword and prepares to verbally smite the nation’s powerful and pompous.

The experience is equally surprising. The door opens and here’s Mary Walsh, for 11 seasons the star of CBC-TV’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, at high noon in her nightie. It’s long and white and plain. She’s barefoot, she wears not a speck of makeup, and her shoulder-length red hair – veering toward orange in the front – hasn’t been styled yet today.

While actresses often dress down when they’re not in front of the camera, Walsh is so defiantly unadorned that she makes being clothed look overdressed.

At home with herself
After hauling the dogs away, Walsh pours coffee, then retreats to change, reappearing seconds later in an outfit only marginally less casual than the nightie – a red cotton short-sleeved minidress th a low scoop neck, revealing that she’s comfortably braless.

As she leads the way to her deck on this unseasonably mild day and settles back on a lounger, it’s clear that she’s very much at home in her own freckled skin.

In fact, after a turbulent life fraught with emotional and physical problems, Walsh at 52 is happier with herself than she’s ever been, even in the throes of recent radical changes in her professional and personal life. She’s left the series she created – she calls it a one-year sabbatical, but no one really expects her to return – in order to pursue her new creation, Hatching, Matching and Dispatching, a dark comedy in which she plays the nosy matriarch of a Newfoundland family business that’s a combination ambulance service, wedding chapel and funeral home. If the hour-long pilot (to be aired on CBC-TV in the New Year) is successful, a series will follow next fall.

Since leaving This Hour Has 22 Minutes, she’s been busier than ever. She’s involved in the third season of CBC-TV’s Mary Walsh: Open Book, where she discusses books with enthusiastic readers such as actor Paul Gross and musician Tal Bachman.

She was an advocate on CBC-TV’s show The Greatest Canadian, arguing passionately for Dr. Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin. (Her personal choice for greatest Canadian was literary theorist Northrop Frye, who didn’t even make the cut.) And after appearing in a few successful movies, including her scene-stealing role as the Italian mother of a gay cop in 2003’s Mambo Italiano, she’s pursuing other film projects.

And then there’s her new husband, Don Nichol, also 52, a tall, affable, white-haired English professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He clearly adores her. He comes out to the deck from time to time to refill her coffee mug.

At one point, he brings out a bowl of purple grapes, and you wouldn’t be surprised to see him peel a few for her. Last night, when she flew home from Halifax after the successful completion of Open Book, he presented her with a store-bought cake bearing “Congratulations, Mary” in coloured icing, but she hasn’t had time to take it out of its plastic dome.

Marriage is a brand new experience for this first-time bride. She doesn’t pretend it’s easy, especially with her 15-year-old adopted Inuit son, Jesse, in the mix. “It’s been rocky,” she admits, but so far she’s enjoying the journey. “I’ve never felt more at home inside myself. I think I finally grew up, but it took me a long, long time.”

Afraid to be alone
Walsh spent much of her early life confused and unhappy. The seventh of eight children born to an alcoholic boiler worker and his wife in a working-class St. John’s neighbourhood, baby Mary contracted pneumonia at the age of eight months and was sent to live with two maiden aunts and a stroke-afflicted uncle. The official line was that the environment in her aunts’ home was drier – curious, since it was right next door to her parents’ house.

As Mary reached her teens, she was still living at Aunt Mae’s, even after her parents moved away to Conception Harbour. “Being abandoned is a recurring fear in my life because I felt myself abandoned quite young,” Walsh says, adding that her fear has led her to cling to bad relationships to avoid being alone. “I hang around way too long, holding on till my fingers bleed.”

At Holy Heart of Mary Regional High School – a strict Catholic school that some irreverently called Hearty Hole of Mary – Walsh was intelligent, well-read and “a bit of a dork, really,” she says. Smart girls weren’t cool so, at 15, Walsh started drinking, smoking, shoplifting and sneaking booze into her locker, creating a credible tough-chick persona. Problem was once she started drinking, she couldn’t stop – for almost 25 years.

“I started to drink in order to deal with a lot of things that I didn’t end up dealing with – emotions, sex,” she says, adding, “I wish I’d discovered sex before I discovered liquor. Then it was impossible to discover sex because you were just liquored up all the time.” She was engaged briefly to an American serviceman and moved to Colorado to be with him, but the engagement didn’t last and she moved back to St. John’s, working at a dead-end job in a five-and-dime store.

Finding her calling
Despite the alcohol – or perhaps because of it – Walsh found her comic voice. She mastered accents, from British to Brooklyn. She worked on the art of the caustic comeback. She had the Irish gift of gab and, when the local CBC radio needed a summer replacement announcer, she got the job. She recalls her media debut as dreadfully amateurish, but it prompted her to audition for a part in a local play and then to join the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company.

There, she started working with other talented young actors including Cathy Jones (who would later become her co-star on This Hour Has 22 Minutes), as well as Cathy’s big brother Andy, Tommy Sexton, Greg Malone and Robert Joy.

Newfie jokes were popular back then in the 1970s, and Newfoundland itself was the biggest joke of all – the laughingstock of Canada. Walsh and her buddies decided to turn that joke on its head. If Newfies made fun of themselves, they reasoned, then mainlanders couldn’t. They formed the troupe CODCO – a wink at the province’s fishery – and started performing their own collections of skits, including “Cod on a Stick” and “Would You Like to Smell My Pocket Crumbs?” Suddenly, Newfoundland was trendy, and mainlanders came calling.

Before long, CODCO was performing everywhere from Toronto to Philadelphia and England.

Walsh was always astonished by good reviews, especially when she was singled out for praise. “I was extraordinarily ambitious but with no sense that I was any good,” she recalls. “I felt terrifically untalented but pushed on anyway.” 

The troupe lived, worked, drank and did drugs together. “I was a booze bag really, but I did a lot of acid,” Walsh says. “They would do acid and go to the CNE and go on the rides. I’d do acid and want to sit around and talk.”

Family of the heart
CODCO became Walsh’s new family. She says Greg Malone was like the dad, Tommy Sexton the favourite son, Cathy Jones the baby girl and Walsh the rebellious older sister, always making trouble. Walsh and Andy Jones had a tempestuous, eight-year affair. She says, “Andy Jones continues to be a person I have the greatest respect and admiration for but he really is a difficult row to hoe, as I am myself, so it was not exactly peaceful. And CODCO wasn’t exactly peaceful.”

Andy Jones, now working as an actor and writer in St. John’s, remembers Walsh as the conscience of the group. “Mary would lead the philosophical discussions about whether we should say this or that about a public figure or whether we were making fun of the right person or just because it was easy to make fun of them,” he says. “But Mary is a big personality – driven, ambitious, smart – and people like that are hard to get along with.”

When the two of them finally split up, Walsh was brokenhearted. When she wasn’t on stage cracking up audiences with her wacky characters, she was alone and sobbing.

CODCO also broke up, only to reunite later for a TV series that would last a successful six seasons, but Walsh still felt lost. She was drowning in the loneliness of her alcoholism, caught in a cycle of drink and despair. “It was ‘Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink,’” she says. “There’s a sense somehow or other that it’s you alone in the world out on a darkling plain with the wind howling. You create some little dark hole for yourself that there seems no way out of. I really didn’t see much point to being alive.”

Next generation
And then baby Jesse came into her life. A lawyer friend knew that Walsh and metalsmith artist Ray Cox were interested in adoption and also knew that Walsh had spent a summer organizing a community theatre project in a small Innu village in Labrador. When he learned of an Inuit mother-to-be in Vancouver who wanted to find an adoptive mother for her soon-to-be-born son, the lawyer got Innu and Inuit mixed up and thought of Walsh.

It was a lucky mistake. Walsh and Cox happily adopted Jesse, and Walsh stopped drinking. “Suddenly, there was this wonderful presence in my life, and I realized I couldn’t go on the way I was going and do the job that needed to be done,” she says. “That first year, all I did was cry because drinking had been my pal. It was a very big struggle.”

In the span of a few years, she found herself dealing with crisis after crisis: a difficult breakup with Cox, back surgery to relieve chronic lower back pain, the AIDS death of CODCO member Tommy Sexton and the death of CODCO itself. But out of the chaos, Walsh had the idea of doing another TV series that would satirize the news, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes was born. Ratings soared, and viewers fell in love with her characters: redneck reporter Dakey Dunn, wacky Prairie correspondent Connie Bloor, old Mrs. Eulalia and, of course, Marg, Princess Warrior.

As Marg, Walsh could ambush unsuspecting politicians and embarrass them on camera into red-faced silence. She gave former Alliance leader Stockwell Day a carton of chocolate milk instead of white, saying, “All they had was homo, and I knew you wouldn’t like that.”

After former Ontario premier Mike Harris suggested drug testing for welfare recipients, she handed him a small bottle and asked, “How about a little something for me? A urine sample.” She gave Conservative leader Stephen Harper a big orange-lipsticky kiss, offered MP Stephane Dion french fries to beef up his bony physique and tried to restyle Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s hair to make him look “a little more manly, like a real leader.”

She sought golf tips from former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and demanded, “When are you going to normal up and start acting like a Liberal again?” Sometimes, the mock-news show had more viewers than the actual news, and it would go on to win 24 Gemini awards.

Walsh’s professional life was humming, but her personal life was not. At 43, she received the devastating diagnosis of age-related macular degeneration, a progressive eye disease that can eventually cause blindness. Even worse, she had the more aggressive “wet” type. She underwent two surgeries to slow its progress but still lost central vision in her left eye, leaving her barely legal to drive. Colleague Cathy Jones accompanied her to the doctor for the diagnosis and offered a shoulder to cry on.

Having an age-related disease only heightened Walsh’s awareness that she was growing older alone. “Mary was lonely,” says her longtime friend, actor Paul Rowe. “She was kind of preoccupied with that, and I knew she was looking.” Rowe wasn’t consciously matchmaking, but one night in 2001 at the Ship Inn, a St. John’s hangout for actors and artists, he introduced Walsh to Don Nichol and watched the sparks fly.

Years before, Nichol had acquired an autographed copy of a book of CODCO plays. He says with a smile, “When I went home to look at it, it said, ‘Love Mary Walsh’ with no comma, so I just thought, ‘This is an order!’ I obeyed.”

They were married a year later in a romantic wedding aboard the tour schooner Scademia. When they moved in together, they also brought their respective dogs together – Train, a blue merle collie; Maddy, a mixed breed; and Gobber, the smallest and yappiest of the bunch, a Bichon Frisé-Maltese mix.

Both Walsh and Nichol have been working on creating a stable environment for Walsh’s son, Jesse, a striking black-haired, dark-eyed youth who has no aspirations to become an actor like his mother. “I’m more into organized crime,” he cracks with typical Newfoundland dry humour. “I’d do that before I’d be an actor. I’d really like to be a writer.”

When Nichol is asked out of Walsh’s earshot what appeals to him about her, he says, “Everything. She’s a beautiful, gutsy woman full of life and energy and character. She’s got an incredibly sexy singing voice – I think she should do an album.” And does he, an English professor with a doctorate, consider Walsh, a high-school graduate, his intellectual equal? “Oh, no. No, no, no, no,” he replies. “She’s miles ahead of me. She’s done three seasons of the book show, and I figure that each one is at least worth a PhD. So she’s got three PhDs. I only have one.”

Walsh is equally enamoured of this man she calls chivalrous, romantic and somewhat absent-minded. But while Nichol is a romantic, Walsh is a realist. When her husband goes back in the house, she confides, “It’s difficult being married. The state of marriage is a bit oppressive because it’s coming with all the ‘I should be doing this’ or ‘He expects that.’ We’ve all had a difficult time with the adjustment.

“Last year was heaven because Jesse and I were in Halifax having our old life and Don was here and we only saw each other on the weekends, so we were always gloriously happy to see each other. Of course we still are, but it’s just the day-to-day grind of being married, which is sometimes difficult. You kind of go, Why did we do this? I went through a period of time in February, which is the wickedest month, where I sort of went, ‘Oh, my God, I want my old life back.’ You think, Aargh, I can’t go on like this! But then you come back to being madly in love again, and suddenly things look rosy. There seems to be a solid centre that you can return to.”

Roots also provide stability
Adding to that solidity is Newfoundland itself, which has always been Walsh’s rock, providing her with not only her comic material but with her history, her identity and her strong sense of community. She’s a familiar sight in St. John’s as she walks her dogs, goes to coffee shops and hosts local events.

While people in the community know her as friendly, approachable, unpretentious and a giver of fabulous Boxing Day parties, they also view her as a national treasure. Neighbour Jean-Ann Rose says, “I show her off if I’ve got family over. I’ll say, ‘Oh, look, there’s Mary Walsh!’ just because we’re really proud of her.”

Local innkeeper Neil Oates says, “She has a smile and a hello for everyone and, at parties, people are drawn to Mary, and they listen to what she has to say. I think the next logical step for her is politics.”

She could do that. She could also move to Los Angeles and have an international career like Canadian comedians Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Catherine O’Hara. But she won’t.

“I want to stay here,” she says. “I wish they would all come back and be brilliant here because there doesn’t seem to be much need for more people to tell the American story, whereas we have a crying need for people to stay and tell the Canadian story. Sometime or other, the Canadian film industry will blossom, as the Canadian publishing and Canadian music industries have, and I want to be here in the beginning and help create that industry.”

If anybody can do it, Mary Walsh – Princess Warrior – can.