(b. December 8, 1909 St-Tite-de-Champlain, Quebec - d. March 16, 1999 Deux-Montaignes, Quebec)
In 1967, the Centennial Commission singled out Gratien Gélinas as “one of the twenty-five great Canadians whose achievements stand out above all others in the century since Confederation.” An influential and pioneering playwright, actor, director, filmmaker and theatre manager, Gélinas – who also served as Chairman of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now Telefilm Canada) from 1969 to 1978 – is considered the godfather of Quebec theatre and one of the great links between English- and French-speaking Quebec culture. His personifications of the common man paved the way for Quebec’s leading writers and gave a voice, at home and abroad, to French-Canadian culture and society.
Though he was trained as an accountant, Gélinas left a secure job with an insurance company to pursue the theatre and founded the Troupe des anciens du Collège de Montréal in 1931. He also acted with a number of different theatre companies, including the Montreal Repertory Theatre, and in 1937 created the character Fridolin – an adolescent pretending to be naive in order to comment on the social mores of the day – for a radio series. The character became extremely popular and launched Gélinas’s career; he toured with the Fridolinades revue from 1938 to 1946. In 1942, Gélinas brought Fridolin to the screen in the film La Dame aux camellias – the first colour talking film made in Canada – which he wrote, directed and starred in.
His first play, Tit-coq, which incorporated popular language and everyday people caught up in the era’s major social and political issues, is often considered the first true French-Canadian drama. Its original 1948 stage production was an overwhelming success; Gélinas performed it in French and English, in Canada and the United States, 542 times in less than three years. Gélinas’s film adaptation of the play premiered to great acclaim in 1953, winning Film of the Year at the Canadian Film Awards.
During the fifties, Gélinas worked in television at Radio-Canada as a writer and leading actor in the series Les Quatre fers en l’air (1954-1955). He performed regularly at the Stratford Festival and founded the Théâtre de la Comédie Canadienne, where he was also playwright, actor and director. His many successful plays were translated into numerous languages and performed in the United States, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. Two of his plays were presented on the CBC’s Festival series: Bousille et les justes (1962) and Yesterday the Children Were Dancing (1968).
The winner of three Canadian Film Awards, Gélinas also had a passion for film and appeared in Gilles Carle’s Red (1969), Claude Fournier’s Bonheur d’occasion (1983) and Les Tisserands du pouvoir (1987), and Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God (1985). He served as Chairman of the Canadian Film Development Corporation for a decade and, as co-president of a federal inquiry on the arts, was the driving force behind the creation of a permanent Canadian Council on the Status of the Artist.
Gélinas was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 1958, the Ordre national du
Québec in 1985 and the Order of Canada in 1989. He also received honourary degrees from a dozen Canadian Universities and was named Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Pléiade de l’Assemblée internationale des parlementaires de la langue française, section du Québec in 1991, and Chevalier de la section du Paris in 1994.
Film and video work includes
Fridolinons, 1945 (actor)
Métropole, 1947 (actor)
La Famille Plouffe series, 1953 (actor)
Les Quatre fers en l'air series, 1954-55 (writer, actor; TV)
Bousille et les justes, Festival series, 1962 (writer, actor; TV)
Yesterday the Children Were Dancing, Festival series, 1968 (director, writer, actor; TV)
Red, 1970 (actor)
Aux frontières du possible, series (actor; TV, one episode)
Cordélia, 1980 (actor)
Peau de banane, series, 1982 (actor)
Bonheur d'occasion, 1983 (actor)
Agnes of God, 1985 (actor)
Les Tisserands du pouvoir, 1988 (actor)
Les Tisserands du pouvoir II: La Révolte, 1988 (actor; TV)