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COLUMN: Peter Donat, Kentville-born thespian turned X-Files actor, left his mark in the Valley

Peter Donat answering questions from June Jain’s students at Kentville Elementary in 1995.
Peter Donat answering questions from June Jain’s students at Kentville Elementary in 1995. - Wendy Elliott

KENTVILLE, N.S. - In 1995, three titans of Canadian theatre assembled in Wolfville, but only one was from here.

Peter Donat was born in Kentville and got two undergrad degrees from Acadia University.

Donat was probably best known for his recurring role as Agent Fox Mulder’s father in The X-Files television series, and taking part in two Francis Ford Coppola films, but he loved live theatre.

His first professional gig was a tour of 50 towns in 60 days with the Nova Scotia Players. That tour in 1951 was due to revered Acadia director Harold Fitz Sipprell.

Donat died this past weekend at the age of 90. I once got to chat with him because now-retired Kentville teacher June Jain invited him into her Grade 5 classroom in 1995. They had met during Donat’s seven seasons at the Stratford Festival. She later invited him to speak to graduating students.

After that first classroom visit, Donat smiled at me, the reporter from The Advertiser, and recalled his first mention in the paper was at the age of seven when he found the spring’s first mayflowers. I remember a gentle, intelligent man.

He had a kind of quiet intensity and innate confidence born, no doubt, of more than 40 years of theatrical experience. He told Jain’s students that he had a strong belief in the power of live theatre:

“It’s life giving, no computer screen, no machine can give you what theatre does. And it is more and more necessary to have that living experience.”

Donat was in town to rock the role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was the first play produced at the late lamented Atlantic Theatre Festival. He compared Prospero to a highly placed nuclear or genetic scientist in our era and noted that the power he wields is, “too much to handle in a moral way. The play is all about power. That’s the raft we’re riding in.”

And who dares say Shakespeare is not relevant today? That production, directed by the second titan - Michael Langham, was so powerful. Donat was strong and wise, while Shelly Thompson played a haunting Ariel.

Donat told Maclean’s Magazine he had no hesitation when festival co-founder Michael Bawtree asked him to join the inaugural cast, saying "Who would not go for an adventure like this?"

Who indeed?

In fact, once in the area, he said, he enjoyed being part of the adventure of launching a new theatre festival. It was agreeable being back in the Valley. He was hard at work, while his wife familiarized herself with the region. He smiled again.

“It’s really nice to be here,” he said.

Sometime in the 1970s, Donat and one of his sons stopped into Wolfville to visit his old friend and KCA classmate, Eleanor (Lockhart) Mason. As a child, he was a frequent guest at her birthday parties.

Donat’s father, Phillip, and her Dad both worked at the Experimental Farm in Kentville. After the death of her mother, Mason said, Donat’s French-born mother worked as housekeeper in the Lockhart home.

She recalls an attractive fellow who played her husband in one of the many drama productions they worked on at KCA. He was very popular and Mason said as a student she had a real crush on him.

He was a nephew of actor Robert Donat, who won an Oscar in 1939 for his role in ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’. His younger brother, Richard, is also an actor.

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