“People used to say to younger, teenaged me, ‘Enjoy yourself now Mary; this is the best time of your life.’… Thanks be to God they were wrong, because this is the best time of my whole life.” Mary Walsh, age 71
By Jennifer Hartley
It is hard to pin down Canadian actor, author, filmmaker, comedian and activist Mary Walsh. The fireball is always up to something, her fingers in many pies. This year alone, she has been creating a six-part movie series, finishing her second novel, producing an animated show and somehow finding time to crisscross Canada performing An Evening with Mary Walsh. And that is just a start. “I am so superstitious, though, because I don’t want to talk about things that are in development, just in case.” You get the idea. She is a busy lady.
Mary Cynthia Walsh was born on May 13, 1952, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and though this Canadian icon has been making us laugh for decades, believe it or not that’s not what she originally set out to do in life. “I actually stumbled into comedy. I really wanted to be a reporter when I started out, but I went through a long period of failure where I bombed at everything. I didn’t have the marks to get into Carleton journalism. I did work as a summer replacement at a local CBC radio station but was terrible there, too. However, a fellow who was doing an amateur theatre show heard me and he liked my voice. He asked me to be part of it.”
That completely changed her trajectory. She applied and was accepted to Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan University) for theatre, but in the end school couldn’t grab her attention for long. However, she notes, “I got in with the right crowd.” She joined the Newfoundland Travelling Theatre Company in the early 70s with her childhood friend Cathy Jones and one thing led to another. The hugely successful theatre company CODCO was founded with a few other Newfoundlanders. They toured the world sharing their biting, satirical, counterculture humour until the late 1970s. The team reunited in the late 80s and a TV version of CODCO ran until 1993.
“I finally came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a journalist, but I came up with the idea for This Hour has 22 Minutes. I got to pretend to be a journalist on TV and that was great.” Great, to put it mildly. That collaboration with Greg Thomey, Cathy Jones and Rick Mercer soared and this year marks its 30th season on CBC. “It has been a wonderful generator of talent.”
Mary’s quick wit and creativity are second to none and the range of her characters is staggering. The obvious question is whether she has a favourite. “You know, different times have different issues so my favourites vary. I am always happy to play Marg Delahunty. But the thing is people see me ambushing politicians and think it is easy. The truth is I feel absolute terror. But it is always fun.
“I love Dakey Dunn from This Hour and the Mrs. Es with Cathy Jones as well. I love them all.”
Her television repertoire is long, with series after series covering a variety of topics, including books. A passionate reader, she even had a weekly book club show called Mary Walsh: Open Book. She has appeared in over 30 films as well, ranging from New Waterford Girl and Closet Monster to Geraldine’s Fortune. She has been in front of the camera, behind it, directed the magic and penned it, too.
She never stopped. Until COVID. “I know COVID had many, many challenges, but for me, it gave me an opportunity to reflect. It allowed me to come to terms with myself but also it gave me the chance to do things I have wanted to do for a while.” One of those things was the short film Dad and the Fridge Box. It was based on a poem by Newfoundland poet and playwright Agnes Walsh, who in turn based the poem on her own father. Had it not been for the pandemic, she says it would not have happened.
Like many renowned Canadians, Mary has a long list of accolades, including 25 Gemini Awards. She holds honorary doctorates from Trent University, Memorial University, McGill University, University of Prince Edward Island and Mount Saint Vincent University. She is also the recipient of the Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award in the Performing Arts.
“People used to say to younger, teenaged me, ‘Enjoy yourself now Mary, this is the best time of your life.’… Thanks be to God they were wrong, because this is the best time of my whole life,” she says. And despite Mary’s dizzying repertoire of characters, these days she is enjoying portraying older folks. Broad Appeal: Living with E’s, a This Hour spinoff with Cathy Jones as Mrs. Enid and Mary as Mrs. Eulalia, is the perfect example. There are also, of course, characters like Marg Delahunty, who, over the years, has matured from Warrior Princess to Warrior Queen.
“So much of your material as a comedian is tied to your life. This is my life. I am over 70. And very happy—happier than I have ever been.”
She also addresses the topic of aging in a more serious way in speeches, participating in conferences such as TedX or ideacity. “Getting old has a lot of bad press. But I am finding that getting old is good. Emotionally, mentally and spiritually, it is great.” She speaks of the “U” bend of happiness in her speeches. Science, she says, shows that people get happier as they get older. (The 30s are the low end and from age 50, things go up.) “I think it was Betty Friedan who said that aging is not about mourning for our lost youth, but truly it is a new stage of opportunity and strength. That is has been my experience. In youth we learn, in age we understand. Old age is a work of art.”
Mary Walsh is a woman who gives back. A lot. She suffers from macular degeneration and has served as a spokesperson for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Her phone, one of the things she can’t live without, is now a tool she uses to access books with apps that read to her.
She has been involved with OXFAM, and in the 1990s she addressed the United Nations Global Conference on Development in New York. She has a strong social conscience. “I am still fighting for social justice.”
She is also a well-known advocate for mental health and addiction. While she jokes, “I am not a person who gets on a roller-coaster. I find life is frightening enough,” her advocacy comes from lived experience. Anxiety is one of the backdrops of her life and when she was younger it was coupled with addiction. “Mental illness and addiction: they are tied up together. I was a working alcoholic way back. I changed because of my son [Jesse, born in 1989]. I realized that this could not go on. I didn’t feel happy about it. As an addict, you think what is killing you is your best friend, but it is the opposite. I knew there was no other option.” She has been sober for over 30 years. “My son has serious addiction issues as well, so I got involved because it’s a big factor in my life.”
An accomplished artist in multiple realms, Mary dreams of one day expanding her repertoire to include the piano. “Language and music are two areas I would love to tackle but you know, I want to be perfect from the beginning and that is impossible. So I am learning to learn. I have to let go of insecurity, ego or low self-esteem and not let them get in the way of learning. And yes, I would love to learn a few notes on the piano along that journey.”
While this 71-year-old dynamo says she is having the time of her life and is grateful to audiences for the ride, Mary Walsh is bringing us along with her, sharing her joy, laughter and joie de vivre.