Shirley Douglas, actor, activist (b at Weyburn, Sask 2 Apr 1934). Shirley Douglas was born to parents Irma née Dempsey and former Baptist minister Tommy Douglas, who is celebrated across Canada as the leader of the first socialist government in North America, and the "father of medicare." Douglas began her study of performance by watching her charismatic father, leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), inspire people in numbers large and small. She began singing and performing in plays on the little Cavalry Baptist Church stage, which is now Weyburn's Signal Hill Theatre and dedicated to her father's memory.
Training and Early Years Onstage
Following the landslide victory of the CCF in the 1944 provincial election, the family moved to Regina. At age 16, Douglas won the Dominion Drama Festival's best actress award for the Regina Little Theatre's entry. She proceeded with her training, first at the Banff School of Fine Arts, and then at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, England. After her graduation in 1952, she began working in British theatre, film, and television. Her first feature film role came in 1955 in Joe Macbeth, a modern gangster version of the Shakespearean play. In 1962 Douglas won the role of Mrs Starch, the piano teacher, in Stanley Kubrick's acclaimed film Lolita.
In 1967, Douglas moved from England to Los Angeles. While working as an actor, she began an intense period of radical political involvement within the American civil rights movement. In 1977 she returned to Toronto and embarked upon her Canadian stage career.
Work in Canada
She quickly became sought after for the size and power of her stage presence, the intensity of her playing style and her astounding voice. Over the next decade she graced stages across the country, from small alternate theatre venues to prestigious companies like Stratford. She supported new works by Canadian playwrights SSharon Pollock, Michel Tremblay, and Brad Fraser, as well as performing the classical repertoire. She played a range of powerhouse characters. In 1996 Douglas was offered the opportunity to perform with her actor son Kiefer Sutherland in a co-production of The Glass Menagerie with the National Arts Centre and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. She then landed the choice role of imperious matriarch May Bailey in the television series Wind at My Back (1996). In 2000, she won a Gemini award for her performance in the 1999 television film Shadow Lake.
Douglas remained politically active, lending her voice and support to collective causes for world peace. As her father had predicted, a slide toward the privatization of health care had begun. For Douglas it became imperative to call for a halt to the wilful neglect of the system. She accepted film roles and made several appearances on stage, most notably in The Vagina Monologues (2000). But her activities as spokesperson with the Toronto Health Coalition and Canadian Health Coalition, her lobbying efforts, her public lectures, and the formation of the artist-supported group Friends of Medicare began to take precedence.
Ryerson Polytechnic University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2000 and the same year she was honoured by the Variety Club, an international charity for children in need, with a Diamond Award for her volunteerism. In 2003 Douglas was awarded the Order of Canada; in 2004 she was given a place on the Wall of Fame at the National Arts Centre; and in 2005 Douglas was inducted, with a star, onto Canada's Walk of Fame. Women in Film and Television honoured her with their 2009 Crystal Award. She received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Regina in 2011, and a lifetime achievement award from ACTRA. The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal was presented to Shirley Douglas in 2012.