Jackie Burroughs was born when all of England and most of Europe dreaded the possibility of war and desperately hoped for peace. She was just eight-months-old when war broke out. Although far removed from London and the south coast where German bombers and rockets did their worst damage, her home town of Lancashire was bombed during the war. As recently as August 2010 an unexploded shell was found by workman digging a trench. Burroughs obviously survived, living through the war and growing up under the privations of a harsh rationing system that began shortly after the outbreak of the war and continued until July 4, 1954. But by then she had escaped, her family having left England like so many others to come to Canada. They arrived in Toronto in 1952 when Jackie Burroughs was 13-years-old.
Early life was relatively normal for a girl who would grow up to be anything but. She went to Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school, and then on to the University of Toronto. By time she graduated in 1962 she had already started performing in summer theater. Admitting later that she more or less “fell into acting,” Burroughs went on to appear in most of the major theatres in Canada, particularly the Stratford Festival, National Arts Centre, Toronto’s Tarragon and Royal Alexandra Theatres, and at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. She worked with some of Canada’s top directors including Christopher Newton and Robin Phillips in roles that included the classics playing, for example, the role of Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, with Hume Cronyn at Stratford in 1976. But it was her film and television work that allowed her to reach her largest audiences.
It began in 1963 when a neighbour, director René Bonniére, offer her a role in a television show titled Twelve and a Half Cents. It was the beginning of a career that lasted almost five more decades.
While many woman, particularly performers, would have thought their careers would end should they develop premature wrinkles, Jackie Burroughs used it to her advantage and was able to play woman who were far older than she really was, bringing to each role that critical sense of energy so many of her characters demanded.
Burroughs was just 35 when she landed the role of “The Old Lady” in the 1974 National Film Board film called Running Time. The following year she was cast as the “Old lady at the pool” in My Pleasure is My Business. She was 43 when she landed her breakout role, starring opposite Richard Farnsworth in the The Grey Fox. Nominated for a remarkable 14 Genie Awards The Grey Fox took seven, including awards for Burroughs and Farnsworth in addition to being named Best Picture. Burroughs had won her first award several years earilier taking a Best Actress Etrog at the 1969 Canadian Film Awards for the short, Duclima.
In 1985, she played Dorothy in the NBC mini-series Evergreen, and was then asked to play the role of Amelia Evans in the made-for-TV movie Anne of Green Gables, which allowed her to work once again with Richard Farnsworth. The movie led to a spin-off series titled Road to Avonlea and Burroughs became a household name playing the eccentric Hetty King who takes in her young niece. Road to Avonlea went on to became one of the most popular Canadian series of all time, running for seven years on CBC in Canada, and as Avonlea on The Disney Channel in the U.S. It also attracted international interest helping to create a new generation of Anne of Green Gables fans around the world. Burroughs was rewarded for her work on the series with three Gemini awards. The series ended in 1996 but her character was so strong the production company, Sullivan Entertainment, created a special television movie, Happy Christmas, Miss King, inwhich Burroughs reprised her role as the beloved Hattie (pictured above). It aired on CBC on December 13, 1998.
In 2001, Jackie Burroughs was recognized by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television with the Earle Grey Award for her outstanding achievements over what was then almost 30 years in front of the cameras. But her career was beginning to shift into high gear.
Between 2001 and 2010, Burroughs appeared in 24 films and a handful of television roles, including the mini-series Further Tales of the City. She often took offbeat roles in small Canadian films with tiny budgets, The Limb Salesman being a prime example, but she was no stranger to the trials of making movies in Canada. She often said that she was most proud of her work on the 1987 feature A Winter Tan, calling it “one of the best films ever made.” Burroughs co-produced, co-directed, wrote, and starred in the film, which was based on the letters of Maryse Holder, which had been published in book form in 1979 as “Give Sorrow Words.” Holder was a feminist author who met an untimely death in Acapulco. According to Burroughs it took somewhere between three and five years to write the script, find the money, develop, shoot, edit and complete the film. She once recalled that the people who worked on it each made “about $3,000” for all their efforts. “It consumed all of our time, but it’s worth it to get a film out that went all over the world.” Burroughs won a Genie Award Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in A Winter Tan.
There was, of course, a life beyond the lights. She met and married Zal Yanovsky, a founding member of the musical group The Loving Spoonful, but the marriage ended in 1968 soon after their daughter Zoe was born. Zoe was raised by Yanovsky in Kingston, Ontario, where he became a restaurateur and cookbook author after his career in music. Yanovsky died of congestive heart failure in December 2002.
Burroughs kept an apartment in Toronto so she had a place to stay when she was working, but retreated to her home in Oaxaca, Mexico whenever she could. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, Burroughs died at her Toronto home surrounded by friends and family on September 22, 2010.
Also see: Jackie Burroughs’ filmography.