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Friends and colleagues celebrate the life of theatre legend Brian Bedford

As published in the Stratford Beacon Herald, Monday, July 18, 2016.

At the end of Sunday's celebration of the life of the late Brian Bedford, audience members in the Festival theatre did what countless others have done for decades to show their appreciation of the beloved theatre great.

They rose as one and offered a long and heartfelt standing ovation.

It was a fitting conclusion to 90 minutes of tributes that were by turns humorous, profound and illuminating. Each and every reminiscence, too, was filled with gratitude for Bedford's friendship, his mentoring and, ultimately, the talent and passion that he brought to the stage as both actor and director during his illustrious career.

Bedford died at age 80 of cancer in January.

"I can only describe knowing him as a master class in the theatre and in life," said Michelle Giroux, who in her first Festival season acted alongside Bedford in a star-studded production of Much Ado About Nothing.

His energy on stage was palpable, she said, recalling Bedford's entrances as being "like he'd been shot out of a cannon, his body tingling with vitality and information."

No surprise that he was so watchable as an artist, she said. "You didn't want to take your eyes off of him."

Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino remembered the sense of anticipation that audiences felt before every one of Bedford's performances.

"When Brian entered, the stage seemed to light up," he said. "All of a sudden, all of our lives were a little bit brighter. Life was more fun, infinitely more interesting, and we were suddenly just a little bit smarter."

The transformative aspect of Bedford's stage presence continued off stage, as well, whether in a rehearsal hall or at a dinner party, Cimolino said.

"He was luminous. He made everyone and everything in the room shine."

Cimolino credited Bedford's profound connection with an audience as being instrumental in his own decision to pursue a life in the theatre.

"I thought, 'That's what I have to do. I want to be a part of that.'"

Actor and director Scott Wentworth recalled a similar experience upon first seeing Bedford on stage. As a teenaged theatre usher, Wentworth watched every performance in a two-week run of Moliere's The School for Wives. It happened to star Bedford, who'd earned a Tony Award for his portrayal of Arnolphe.

"It changed my life," Wentworth told the audience. "I was gobsmacked. His command of the language, his ability to get into a relationship with the audience where you felt he was speaking directly to you, asking for help in solving the crises of the world--it remains in my memory the funniest performance I have ever seen.

"As the house lights came up on his closing performance, I remember saying to myself, 'I want to do that. That's the kind of actor I want to be.'"

Also among those offering respects was David Hyde Pierce, the multiple Emmy Award-winning actor who portrayed Dr. Niles Crane in the critically acclaimed NBC comedy Frasier. Bedford was guest star in an episode of the series.

Hyde Pierce read several emails from Frasier alumni, including co-creator David Lee, who admitted to feeling somewhat intimidated as the director of the Bedford episode.

"'The thought of directing an actor of his stature had me wilting a bit. I had seen him in many plays and was in awe of his ability to wring comedy out of thin air by sheer force of will,'" read Hyde Pierce.

In another email, Frasier star Kelsey Grammer described Bedford as "a remarkable man, a blessing."

Though the two first met on the set of Frasier, Grammar said he was already well acquainted with Bedford's career thanks to a high school English teacher who regularly visited Stratford.

"'He loved the theatre and always went on and on about Brian Bedford. How lucky I was to become his friend so many years later.'"

Hyde Pierce said Bedford's stage gifts included his ability to "do more, and less, and sometimes simultaneously."

"I remember him in London Assurance when he would sometimes do the tiniest takes to the audience, which were as broad as all of vaudeville. And his Lady Bracknell was an enormous performance. It was like the British Empire had somehow wandered into the drawing room and moored itself centre stage.

"But at the same time he elucidated with such subtlety and wisdom the issues of class, and patronage, and humanity."

He described the Stratford production of Waiting for Godot that Bedford directed as simply perfect.

"Usually people get some of it, or part of it. He got it all. It was perfect, neither too much, nor too little.

"And the reason is that Brian and that play shared certain qualities: clowning, and wit, absurdity and fear, courage and hope, and love. And as we know, the greatest of these is love."

Lucy Peacock offered these words from Martha Henry, who was unable to attend Sunday's celebration. Henry and Bedford shared the Festival stage a total of six times.

"We all remember his talent, his incredible skills, his connection with audiences. Have we ever heard them laugh harder? We were so fortunate, so blessed to have him here for so long.

"We are not so fine without him."

During her closing comments, Seana McKenna praised her late friend and co-star for his warmth and kindness, both of which "knew no bounds."

She was among a class of National Theatre School students who once had the privilege to sit with Bedford under a tree outside the Festival and listen to his insights on life, the theatre, and his beloved Shakespeare.

"That I would actually act with him, be directed by him, and call him my friend still surprises me, humbles me and makes me thankful."

The celebration also included a video tribute narrated by James Blendick, reminiscences by Sara Topham and Graham Abbey, a scene from Waiting for Godot by Tom McCamus and Stephen Ouimette, and a performance of Irving Berlin's Always by Barbara Fulton accompanied by Franklin Brasz.

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