TRIBUTE: Al Waxman will forever be the King of Kensington

Al Waxman with co-stars Fiona Reid, left, and Helene Winston in King of Kensington CBC STILL PHOTO COLLECTION/HAROLD WHYTE

One day, Sara Waxman was driving around Montreal with a French-Canadian guide. Waxman told the woman that she was a widow but that her husband had visited Montreal quite often. When the guide asked for her late husband’s name, she replied, “Al Waxman.”

“The King of Kensington?” the Québécois guide asked, stunned.

Waxman says the guide instantly pulled over and explained that her father watched King of Kensington – the CBC series that made Al Waxman a household name across the country – religiously. Her father couldn’t speak English, the guide said, but he made sure to watch the show every time it was on television. 

“He had an impact in many, many small ways,” Waxman says of her husband, who would have turned 80 this year. “After he died, I got over 1,000 letters – and I still have them – from strangers all over the country.”

Even 14 years after his death, Sara and son, Adam Waxman, often hear about the impact King of Kensington had on the lives of Canadians. Some tell them the show helped to teach their parents English. Sara says a young boy ran away from home and travelled to Kensington Market to meet Al Waxman, who played convenience store owner Larry King on the popular CBC series. 

“He was so tender,” Adam told The CJN. “I think a lot of people felt they knew him because he put so much of himself into his characters.” 

Audiences hoping to spend some time in the company of the late acting great should line up early for the Canadian Archival series at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

The TJFF will play an afternoon of King of Kensington episodes May 2 at the ROM Theatre. A Q&A with Sara Waxman, series creator Perry Rosemond, actors Jayne Eastwood and Rosemary Radcliffe and producer Joe Partington will follow the episodes. Adam will lead the Q&A. 

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The archival series will also highlight some of Waxman’s screen work. On May 9, the festival will screen Sun in My Eyes, Waxman’s film debut, where he plays a Jewish man confronting the darkness of Nazi-occupied Poland. The same day, audiences can check out The Winnings of Frankie Walls, for which Waxman won an Earle Grey Award, the Gemini Award for lifetime achievement.

When she first saw The Winnings of Frankie Walls, Sara was astonished to discover that the character in the opening scene was her husband. She didn’t even recognize him until a few minutes into the film.

“All his performances amazed me because I know the man,” she says. “I know every movement, I know every expression. [On-screen], his whole body, his whole demeanour… he became a stranger.”

The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Waxman was on his way to becoming a lawyer when the flu made him miss several months of classes. He abandoned law school to pursue acting, initially much to his parents’ chagrin. 

Waxman was working as a director at the CBC and doing occasional acting gigs when he was offered King of Kensington. Although he was first asked to direct, Waxman campaigned for the part of the lead character. The producers approved.

The part of King came to him naturally. As a boy, Waxman grew up near the corner of Spadina Avenue and Nassau Street in Kensington Market in Toronto, living in a small apartment above a poultry shop. 

The show was an instant hit, pulling in nearly two million Canadian viewers a week. Canadians responded to King’s working-class sensibility, as well as the show’s humour, social commentary and ethnic diversity. 

“He was so unabashedly proud to be Canadian and to be Jewish,” Adam says. “He wasn’t one of those actors who would change his name so it sounded less ethnic. He was a really strong proponent of promoting Canada.”

He also began Al’s Gym, where he mentored professional actors rehearsing a role or preparing an audition. Waxman gave advice and his time, and didn’t ask for any money in return.

Adam says that despite his father’s busy schedule, he was constantly available for him. 

“He would fly home from Los Angeles to help me with my math homework or to watch my judo tournaments or my track meets,” he says. “I’d hear him shouting my name, and it would just ignite my spirit because he was there.” 

After finding fame on Canadian and American TV with Kensington and Cagney and Lacey, Waxman continued to be a mensch in his community. He was the national campaign chairman for the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as a spokesman for Israel Bonds and UJA. 

Waxman was named to the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. There is also a statue of him, appropriately, in Kensington Market. However, he is not on the Canadian Walk of Fame, a point of some controversy. 

Late in his career, he put a lot of focus on stage performances. His performance as Willy Loman in a Stratford Festival production of Death of a Salesman in 1997 earned him rave reviews. He lost close to 80 pounds for the play.

Waxman also directed for the stage (Lost in Yonkers in Toronto, The Diary of Anne Frank in Stratford) and television, earning an Emmy nomination for the TV movie Maggie’s Secret.

Waxman was slated to play Shylock in a Stratford production of The Merchant of Venice in 2001. However, he died during a bypass operation in January of that year.

“He said, ‘I’m going to make everybody love Shylock,’” Sara told The CJN. “And he would have, if he had the chance.”

After his father’s death, Adam decided to move into acting. He went to the same theatre school his father attended in New York – a symbolic way  to walk alongside his father’s path, Adam says. 

“Under the stage lights, he was a star. But in my eyes, he was so much bigger than that,” he says. “He was the greatest man I’ll ever know. He gave me enough love to fuel me for a lifetime.”

Jordan Adler is a frequent contributor to The CJN.


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