Whenever I ran into actor Al Kozlik, he always had a smile and a warm word.
Al, who died Tuesday at Niagara-on-the-Lake, worked across Canada, spent eight seasons at the Stratford Festival and 28 years as an ensemble member at the Shaw Festival, where he appeared in over 40 productions.
I recall seeing him in a 1974 touring production of the classic Yiddish play The Dybbuk, staged by the Manitoba Theatre Centre and adapted and directed by the legendary John Hirsch. It was, to my knowledge, one of Al's few Toronto appearances shows before he become a member of the Shaw family.
He came to Shaw in 1980, the same year that Christopher Newton became artistic director, bringing with him a number of the artists he'd worked with in Vancouver.
Over the decades, Al played every type of character, from peasant to royalty, pauper to businessman, hero to villain. His work was always solid, whether the production was a comedy or a tragedy, and it always lingered in your mind after the final curtain.
Toronto audiences saw him a few times in productions by local theatres - One Crack Out for the Tarragon, Dog And Crow for Necessary Angel, Hunting Cockroaches and Delicatessen for Toronto Free, the last a co-production with Shaw.
Al was also a regular at Theatre Plus Toronto, one of the several actors who followed artistic director Duncan McIntosh from Shaw. He was a memorable Teddy, an engaging if not always reliable storyteller cajoling his listeners, in director Jim Mezon's version of Faith Healer, and a conniving, suspicious Polonius in Neil Munro's striking update of Hamlet.
Over the years, I'd run into Al at the Tarragon, where his spouse of 41 years, Scott Sunderland, was one of the box office managers. He'd always ask what was happening in Toronto theatre. With all his work out of town, he wanted to be brought up on what was worth seeing.
He retired from the Shaw Festival at the end of the 2010 season, after playing a role that he wanted to perform for years: Firs, the devoted family servant in The Cherry Orchard.
In the play's final act, the family supposes the ailing, elderly Firs has been taken to the local hospital; they close up the house for the last time and leave as we hear the sound of the orchard being cut down. Firs appears, the last character onstage; he realizes he's been forgotten in the locked-up house and surrenders to his fate.
Unlike Firs, left by those who surrounded him, it's Al Kozlik who's left us. And unlike Chekhov's forgotten servant, we'll remember his performances for years to come.
And shortly after Al's death, Michael Langham, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival and the man who helmed some of its strongest productions, passed away, too - Saturday in England.
There's a comment that's been going around Facebook, that someone's building a hell of a rep company in heaven. I hope that company's full for now; I don't want to have to write about more losses in the theatre community for a long time.