Jack Gray: Playwright defended writers’ right to a living wage – The Globe and Mail

Jack Gray devoted most of his life to protecting the rights of freelance scriptwriters for film, radio and television in this country –a group he believed were the most vulnerable to exploitation in the creative industries. A talented playwright himself in his younger years, he gradually gave up imaginative writing in favour of reports, speeches and policy papers for the cause he passionately believed in.

First as a member of the executive of ACTRA, then as the first president of the autonomous Writers’ Guild of Canada, he helped create the conditions and structures that underlie the astonishing growth of Canadian film and television production.

“He made it possible for me to make a living in this country as a freelance writer,” recalled Pete White, who first met Mr. Gray in the early eighties as a writer in Edmonton, when Mr. Gray came from Toronto representing ACTRA. Mr. White wrote several episodes for CBC’s The Beachcombers and Da Vinci’s Inquest; for the ABC network, he wrote Peacekeepers and The Legend of Ruby Silver, among other programs.

Mr. Gray chaired the Writers’ Guild that operated within ACTRA and was swamped by it, since the writers numbered only about 1,500 out of ACTRA’s total membership of close to 10,000. According to Mr. White, the majority of members were performers whose interests did not align with those of the writers.

Still, Jack Gray had managed to negotiate with film and TV producers a so-called production fee, a second payment in addition to the fee paid for the script, that was due to the writer on the first day of shooting. “It effectively doubled our income,” Mr. White said. “The day Jack got us the production fee was the day I could make a living.”

Jack Gray was diagnosed with liver cancer in November and died at his home in Port Hope, Ont., on Feb. 23, aged 89.

The production fee was just the beginning. A Herculean task awaited him: negotiating a divorce of the writers from ACTRA, which took well over a decade of acrimonious argument, financial calculation and painstaking work, as divorces do.

The problem was that the writers had long been paying into the same pension plan and health scheme as the performers. “ACTRA was pissed off at us. Jack was a founding member of ACTRA but he lead us out of ACTRA – he was instrumental – because ACTRA did not have our best interests at heart,” recalled Fred Yackman a freelance writer and former member of the national council of the Writers’ Guild. He wrote The Bird Guy, a bird watching series on the Life Network, a legal series out of Calgary, and another series– for the Discovery Channel–about great cemeteries.

“We managed to negotiate a deal and didn’t lose anything. Our membership would not have come with us if they could not have remained in the ACTRA Fraternal Benefit Society, which administers the shared funds. ” These came from a percentage of writers’ and actors’ earnings as well as contributions from the production companies.

Largely due to this split, finally achieved in 1991, ACTRA has evolved into an alliance of autonomous guilds including the guild for broadcast journalists, one for performers and the Writers’ Guild of Canada (WGC), with Mr. Gray as its first president.

John Russell Gray was born Dec. 7, 1927, in Detroit, Mich., the elder son and namesake of John Russell Gray and his homemaker wife Jessie (born Jessie Parson Paterson). His parents were from Toronto but happened to be living in Detroit when Jack, the first of their two sons, arrived because his father, a journalist, had found a job there. He later went to work on a paper in Williamsport, Pa., but when Jack was 6, the family returned to Canada. When the boy was 16, his father died of tuberculosis in London, Ont., and his mother remarried.

He attended the University of Toronto, where he hung out at the Hart House Theatre and the office of The Varsity student paper. At Hart House, he met and fell in love with a gifted student actress, Araby Lockhart, who was to become his first wife. He was drawn to theatre but was not much of an actor, according to his son, also named John (Jack) Gray, now a stage manager at Stratford. “He could not remember his lines, “ his son said.

At the Varsity, he became managing editor, then editor, but had to quit after half a year when he failed French. After graduating, he was hired as a writer by the legendary editor of Maclean’s magazine Ralph Allen. Yet he continued to feel the pull of the stage.

When Donald Davis, a celebrated actor and founder of the Crest Theatre in Toronto, offered him $500 to write a play in 1957, he wrote Bright Sun at Midnight, staged at the Crest. By 1960, when his play The Teacher was mounted at the Stratford Festival, he had given up journalism. Married to Araby and the father of three children (John, Nicholas and Rebecca), he took the family to England and worked on various television and theatre projects there for the next eight years. Two more children – Suzannah and Felix – arrived.

In 1967 his play Godiva! was staged at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry England 1967, while Araby found roles in the West End, especially in a long-running review called Clap Hands.

The couple were part of a lively circle of Canadian expats that included Mordecai Richler and Donald Sutherland.

After returning to Toronto with his family in 1968, he wrote his best-known play, Striker Schneiderman, set against the background of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. It was put on at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre among other venues and published in 1973 by University of Toronto Press.

In the 1970s, he became involved with the Association (now Alliance) of Canadian Cinema Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), soon heading up its writers group.

His relentless contract negotiations obtained not only higher fees for writers but continuing ownership of copyright of their work, which U.S. screenwriters do not have.

“He was articulate, a good speaker,” said Pete White, who succeeded Mr. Gray as president of the WGC in 1993. “He’d keep at it. If it didn’t work one way he’d try another. He was tough. You are always fighting with people in that job. It wears you down. But he could take it.”

Before Canadian content rules came into effect, ACTRA’s chief concern was to make sure that Canadian actors and writers would be hired to work on Canadian productions.

Mr. Gray soon understood that instead of fighting case by case, he had to engage with cultural policy. “He saw the big picture and became a policy guy and a planner,” said Mr. White. “It’s important to lobby governments to make sure writers are included in the industry, to work out for example, when is a production Canadian and therefore eligible for public funding. We helped work out the point system – don’t bring in American writers.”

In the late 1970s, at a CRTC hearing in Ottawa about Canadian content, he met Sandra Macdonald, who had a TV production company in PEI and was as passionately interested in cultural policy as he was. In 1981, she went to work for Francis Fox, then minister of communications in the Trudeau government. Later she worked on broadcast and film policy in the context of NAFTA, became chairperson of the NFB and president of the Canadian Television fund.

“I was on the board of the Canadian Conference of the Arts when he (Jack) was. We crossed paths in Canadian content activism, before finally getting together in 1983 or ‘84,” Ms. Macdonald recalled. Mr. Gray divorced Ms. Lockhart to live with Ms. Macdonald. “After about 20 years, we figured it was a keeper and in 2003 we eloped to Santa Fe [to get married]”

Given their community of interests, Ms. Macdonald said that they never ran out of things to talk about at the breakfast table.

At one time, the CBC was the sole maker of television programs but in the eighties, new broadcasters arose who sought licences to operate. “Jack was always there at the hearings,” said his wife. “You can’t get a licence if you give nothing back. Canadian content rules were the backbone of the industry.”

Mr. Gray was also active on international screenwriters’ organizations hammering out reciprocal agreements about payments and working conditions for Canadian writers when they worked abroad. With increasing globalization of movie and TV production, this, too, was crucial.

He retired from the WGC in 2001, and worked on his enormous collection of books, DVDs and stamps.

Remarkably, he had served the cause of Canadian culture on a volunteer basis, never collecting a salary, though his travel and other expenses were covered by ACTRA or the WGC. He earned some money as a speechwriter and for a time, as an instructor at the University of Waterloo.

“We lived very frugally,” recalled his son Jack.

He leaves his five children, nine grandchildren, wife Sandra Macdonald and first wife Araby Lockhart.

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