For the four decades I've known her, a dear friend who studied in London in the 1950s has been raving about John Neville. The best Shakespearean actor of his generation, she said - and a very sexy man, too.
But Neville, who died Saturday (November 19) in Toronto at the age of 86, impressed generations of Canadian audiences both with his acting and directing skills. He moved to Canada in 1972 and his first directing job here was a production of Sheridan's The Rivals at the National Arts Centre.
He helmed a succession of regional theatre companies, including Edmonton's Citadel Theatre (1973-1978) and Halifax's Neptune Theatre (1978-1983).
Before leaving England, Neville was associated with the Old Vic, the Chichester Festival and the Nottingham Playhouse. His motion picture and TV work included the title role in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen and a recurring role in The X-Files, both on TV and film.
Toronto theatregoers will best remember him for his time at the Stratford Festival, where his premiere roles in 1983 were the loquacious Don Armado in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost and the fatherly Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing. In later seasons he played Shylock and roles in Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables before assuming, in 1986, the artistic directorship of the festival.
His three years in administration didn't keep him from continuing his work onstage. Neville directed Brent Carver in Hamlet and played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady; you couldn't get a more elegant, elocution-savvy actor to perform the role.
During his tenure, he also directed productions of Othello (with Harold Rollins), Three Sisters (with a frequent co-star, Lucy Peacock) and Brecht's Mother Courage (with Susan Wright). He also gave later artistic director Richard Monette, until then known as an actor, his first major directing job, The Taming Of The Shrew.
In Toronto, Neville appeared in a World Stage production of Krapp's Last Tape, helped spearhead The Strindberg Project at Hart House and directed the first production by Actors Repertory Company, Strindberg's Creditors.
John Neville was a luminous talent, and theatre communities around the world are mourning his loss.