Actor Jonathan Crombie of 'Benediction' has died at 48

Jonathan Crombie. Photo by John Moore.
Jonathan Crombie in ‘Benediction.’ Photo by John Moore.

Actor Jonathan Crombie, who played two roles in the DCPA Theatre Company’s recent world premiere of Benediction, has died, Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson announced today.

jonathan-crombieCrombie, who was best known for his work in the Anne of Green Gables movies, the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows and starring on Broadway in The Drowsy Chaperone, suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage on Wednesday in New York City, and physicians could not revive him. He was 48.

Thompson said it is both deeply painful and ironic that Crombie’s last job in the theatre was in Benediction, “a play about death, loss and pain, and how do we deal with it and go on?” he said.  

Benediction was performed in January and February at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Thompson already is grieving Crombie’s smile, sensitivity and good spirit. “He was imaginative and clever and funny,” Thompson said, “and I know everyone in the Benediction company is devastated by this news.”

Crombie came to Denver as a heartthrob turned major TV and film star. Thompson, who already had been a fan of Crombie’s work, remembers doing a double-take when Crombie’s name came up for possible casting. Thompson was impressed by Crombie’s continued reinvention throughout his career, including his work with his stand-up comedy troupe, Skippy’s Rangers.

Benediction cast members knew Crombie as a fun and friendly colleague they finally convinced to come along with them to “Motown nights” at the nearby Beauty Bar in Denver.

“The company liked him so much, and we were always very happy to have him around,” said castmate Benjamin Bonenfant. “He almost even seemed embarrassed by the attention. He was kind, amiable and engaged. He was always game to talk about movies or politics or the craft. He was very generous, on and off stage.”

Added castmate Amelia Corrada, a student at Denver School of the Arts: “I remember on my first day of rehearsals, he was the first one to come up to me,” she said. “Nervous as I was, he was the one who encouraged me. Such a fantastic man. Another quiet genius lost.”

Benediction was the final chapter in the late author Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, which brought the Colorado plains and its rural residents to vivid life. The final chapter focused on a dying hardware store owner who is estranged from his adult son (Crombie).

Richard and Frank presented two small but challenging roles for Crombie. The former was an unsuitable suitor to the dying man’s grown daughter; the latter, Frank, was presented onstage as a manifestation of the son the old man drove away as a teen when he discovered the boy was gay.

Frank was a particularly challenging character, Thompson said, “because we never know for sure if he’s ghost, or real, or something in-between.

“I was impressed because even though the roles were small on the page, Jonathan just kept working with his fellow actors, going over his scenes over and over to see what else he could discover. I am sure that kind of work ethic was the secret of his success throughout his career.”

Said audience member Marilyn Welsh: “He was absolutely riveting in those two small roles in Benediction. His performance exemplified the saying that it isn’t the role, but the actor.”

Jonathan Crombie was born on Oct. 12, 1966, in Toronto. He was the son of David Crombie, who was mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978 and served as a federal Progressive Conservative cabinet minister in the 1980s.

Crombie played Gilbert Blythe in the CBC movie series Anne of Green Gables between 1984 and 2000. He and his character became so popular in Canada, he happily took to answering to Gil as his new nickname. 

“I think he was really proud of being Gilbert Blythe,” his sister, Carrie Crombie, told the CBC. “He really enjoyed that series and was happy; very proud of it. I think his proudest part was when he played the lead in Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway. That was just an amazing thing for him to be able to do.”

Slings & Arrows was a popular Canadian TV series set at a fictional Shakespearean festival similar to the real-world Stratford Festival (which Crombie performed at). In the second season, Crombie played a comically inept playwright named Lionel Train.

Backstage at Benediction, the most drama you would get out of Crombie were epic cribbage matches with castmate Adrian Egolf.

Carrie Crombie said she didn’t think her brother had any major health issues, and was committed to staying healthy. She said his organs have been donated, “which is something he would have been proud of.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Click here to read the CBC’s full tribute to Jonathan Crombie

Statement from ‘Benediction playwright Eric Schmiedl:

“I’m trying understand what’s happening.”  Jonathan Crombie softly said this several times as we worked and reworked and re-reworked the meeting between Dad Lewis and his estranged son, Frank, in our stage adaptation of Kent Haruf’s novel Benediction for the DCPA Theatre Company.  Jonathan played the role of Frank.  While brief, this confrontation was critical to our understanding of Dad and his attempt to reconcile the events of his life, and it proved to be a tricky scene to get right.  I would bring in a new draft, and we would read through it.  Afterward, Jonathan would nod his head quickly several times keeping his eyes down on the script.  He would pause, cock his head to the right, smile and earnestly say, “I’m sorry, but …”  And this phrase would lead us into a lengthy discussion about Frank and his motivation for a particular statement as well as his overall reason for being in the play.  These conversations were intense.  They were sometimes awkward and often clumsy, and I cherished them because they forced me to drop my guard and look deeper at the character and the scene and the play.  In his firm but gentle manner Jonathan demanded it.  Now, I must say that in many ways Jonathan reflected in microcosm the talent, kindness, humor, and passion of the entire cast and company of Benediction at the Denver Center.  This was a truly remarkable collection of artists who not only challenged one another with the level of their artistry – they wholeheartedly celebrated each other’s achievements.  We were fierce about the story.  We were fierce about the play.  We were fierce about each other.  We were a unit – a family – which makes it all the more heartbreaking to have lost such a unique and essential part of our family.  Sometimes it feels like a curse, the ephemeral nature of theatre, but I think it may also be a blessing because it provides a heightened shimmer to these pivotal moments which can help us better “understand what’s happening” and to celebrate the wonderful opportunity they have provided for us.  Thank you Jonathan for helping us recognize this gift.  None of us, none of us will ever forget it.”

Jonathan Crombie with the cast of 'Benediction' on opening night. Photo by John Moore.
Jonathan Crombie with the cast of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘Benediction’ on opening night. Photo by John Moore.

Jonathan Crombie: Theatrical bio

U.S. theater includes: Freud’s Last Session (Pittsburgh Public, Hartford Theaterworks); Clybourne Park, Beneatha’s Place (Baltimore CenterStage); Drowsy Chaperone [as Man In Chair] (Broadway, National Tour).

Canadian credits include: Oxford Roof-Climbers Rebellion, Dishwashers (Tarragon); Arcadia, What The Butler Saw (CanStage); Romeo & Juliet, Oedipus Rex, Comedy of Errors, Hamlet (Stratford); Godspell (New Vic); Dig? (Flatzbo); Film/TV includes: Haven, Good Wife, Cottage Country, Slings & Arrows, Power Play, Mount Royal, Bullies and Anne Of Green Gables. He’s a member of the sketch troupe Skippy’s Rangers and co-director of the documentary Waiting For Ishtar.

Our previous coverage of Benediction:

Opening night photos
Kent Haruf: The complete final interview
For two inaugural DCPA company actors, you can come home again
Video, photos: DCPA celebrates life of Colorado novelist Kent Haruf
‘Benediction’ opens as a celebration of ‘The Precious Ordinary’
Video: Your first look at Benediction
Doris Duke Foundation awards $125,000 for Benediction
Bittersweet opening for ‘Benediction’ rehearsals
Kent Haruf, author of ‘Plainsong’ Trilogy, dies at age 71
Kent Thompson on the 2014-15 season, play by play
2014 Colorado New Play Summit will complete ‘Plainsong’ trilogy
Video: ‘Benediction’ reading at the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit

Jonathan Crombie with castmaet Nance Williamson on opening night of 'Benediction.'. Photo by John Moore.

Jonathan Crombie with castmate Nance Williamson on opening night of ‘Benediction.’ Photo by John Moore.