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Heart and Soles

For veteran actor Paul Soles, BA’53, growing older is another performance to embrace

by Jason Winders, MES’10, PhD’16

Paul Soles, BA’53, wants you to understand that growing old is a monumental pain in the ass.

Encroaching double vision may cost him his driver’s license. Prostate cancer has become an everyday reality. He takes drugs to hold things up and keep things down.

“At my stage, it’s another day, another doctor,” he laughed. “If it’s Tuesday, it’s Dr. Bernstein. If it’s Friday, it’s Dr. Williams. If it’s Thursday, it’s Dr. Stewart. If it’s Monday, hey, I have that open.

“My mother used to say, ‘Aging is not for sissies.’ I now understand what she meant. It is happening to me and I don’t like it.”

Nevertheless, at 87, the iconic Canadian stage, screen and voice actor of the last seven decades has found new life in a young person’s medium. His latest effort, in fact, has not only introduced him to a new generation of fans, but reinvigorated this veteran actor in a profession he loves.

Raised in Toronto during the Depression, Soles’ father was a traveling salesman of infant novelties and children’s clothing who always spoke well of his trips to London. So when it came time for the younger Soles, an “average-to-lazy student,” to choose a university, he picked Western – sight unseen.

“I was an 18-year-old kid who had never been away from home. At Western, I learned about the whole world – and loved it. The discovery. The comradery. The spirit of the school. It didn’t take long to learn ‘Western, Western, Western U, college fair and square.’”

Paul Soles, BA'53 (Photo courtesy of CBC)
Paul Soles, BA'53 (Photo courtesy of CBC)

Soles always worshipped his cousin, ‘Buddy’ Cowan, the Voice of CBC shows like Front Page Challenge, Wayne and Shuster Show, as well as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. That led Soles to jobs as a radio announcer during summer breaks from university. In 1953, he started in television as host and producer of variety and current affairs programs for CFPL-TV, the Forest City’s first TV station.

But it was on the CBC where Soles rose to prominence as one of the original hosts of Take 30 in 1962. Designed to be a light-hearted women’s show, the daytime series evolved into a showcase for serious journalism, airing documentary reports and interviews on social and cultural topics. Soles shared the hosting duties until 1978.

Soles always loved his Saturday afternoons at the movies and when a high school English teacher cast him in a one-act play, Soles enjoyed it. “But I am not sure I can tell you why,” he said.

Not big enough for football or hockey, Soles arrived at Western and gravitated toward the London Little Theatre and the university’s long-standing production company Purple Patches.

Humbly crediting his career success to “more good luck than good management,” his arrival in London was timed to the city’s cultural golden age. Broadway plays arrived in London almost as soon as the runs ended in New York. The quality of the city’s theatre troupes and musicians, combined with the sophistication and wealth of the audience, made London a popular arts destination.

“There was an amazing legacy of top-quality facilities and work being done. It was an absolute stroke of my good luck to be there when all that was developing,” Soles said. “You had wealth, education, proximity to everything important, right there in London. Everything was arranged to give London a particularly rich heritage. What an exciting time.”

“Because of the CBC, people all over knew what a good pool of actors there were in Toronto,” Soles explained, crediting Canadian actor versatility to their American and British influences. “Orson Welles himself said the world’s best English-speaking acting voices were in Canada.”

Thanks to timing and location, plus incredible talent, Soles became a fixture in radio and television, as well as theatre and film, over the next several decades where his face and voice have become instantly recognizable. His credits are too numerous to list. He has appeared on Broadway in Macbeth with Christopher Plummer, LLD’04, and Glenda Jackson; on film with Edward Norton in The Score (2001); on radio, alongside thousands on hundreds of programs.

Soles holds a special place for pop culture fans. He provided the voice of both Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, in the 1964 stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as the original voice of Spider-Man in the 1967 cartoon series of the same name. As those shows pass landmark anniversaries, Soles has become a popular convention guest in the United States and Canada.

"It is unbelievable – it’s a whole new world. When we were doing these shows back in the 60s, nobody knew these things would have the legs that they did. Nobody. We hoped – sure. But we never expected to be talking about them years later.”

Recently, Soles teamed up with Ethan Cole, BA’06 (History), to star in My 90-Year-Old Roommate, a CBC Comedy online-only show. Think Pardon the Interruption meets The Odd Couple.

The show is shot digitally and produced in more of a freestyle, ad-libbed, guerrilla style than anything Soles has ever experienced. He has embraced the technological shift – although admits to wondering when it will all stop.

Soles with Ethan Cole, BA'06, creator and co-star of CBC's My 90-Year-Old Roommate (Photo courtesy of CBC)
Soles with Ethan Cole, BA'06, creator and co-star of CBC's My 90-Year-Old Roommate (Photo courtesy of CBC)

“How many times do I have to buy the White Album?” he laughed.

Just wrapping its second season, My 90-Year-Old Roommate is funny and a tad blue with language Soles still wonders what his mother would think of him saying. He appreciates its underlying message of both an old dog and a new dog learning new tricks.

“The idea isn’t just about what my character has learned about growing old, but also what he can learn from those who are young and don’t know what it is like to have had a another life, or another set of values or culture, different from the one they have now.”

The subjects discussed are universal – life, death, sex, frustration. Little is taboo.

But for an actor closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he has found a new appreciation in the work and the life it has afforded him.

“I have done things to myself that I suppose I am lucky to be 87. I have been lucky all my life to get up every morning, work a 12-hour day and enjoy it. Today, I am the so-called star of a show. I am the title role. If you can keep doing that, you are pretty lucky.

“Especially when you get to work, as I have, with some extraordinary good people. Once you have had that experience, you don’t ever want it to quit.

“If you can, there is no job better – and I can always use the money.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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