Puppeteer Rod Coneybeare brought Rusty and Jerome to life in The Friendly Giant

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Rod Coneybeare on the set of CBC-TV children’s series ‘The Friendly Giant.’Fred Phipps / CBC Still Photo Collection via CP

For many Rod Coneybeare fans, meeting him was like walking through a portal to childhood. Wilson Coneybeare, Rod’s youngest son, got used to seeing adults melt away when they met his father.

“When people realized who he was, they immediately changed,” Wilson said. “Even their faces have changed. They wanted to tell him how much The friendly giant meant to them like children. It was important for them to tell him that. “

Mr. Coneybeare’s career in radio and television has spanned over 50 years, starting at the age of 15. He was best known for performing – and improvising – the Rusty and Jerome puppets on the CBC show. The friendly giant, which lasted over 3,000 episodes over 26 years.

He died of pneumonia on September 5 in Lindsay, Ontario. He was 89 years old.

By 1958 Rod was a freelance CBC writer writing television dramas. He was doing well financially, apparently better than many of his peers, but it was still a tumultuous industry. The jobs were there today and gone tomorrow. With his first wife, Beth, pregnant with their first child, Monroe, the couple realized they would need the extra cash.

That’s when he meets Bob Homme, the friendly giant himself. Mr. Male gave Rod a giraffe puppet and asked if he could operate on it.

“My father looked at him and said, ‘I have to get out of here; it’s embarassing. I don’t want to do this, ”Wilson said.

Still, he tried the puppet. Rod looked at what we now know to be Jerome and decided that the giraffe was meant to look like a confident, mature, and intelligent aleck.

Mr. Homme loved it. After that, Rod’s Jerome became a foil for the giant Mr. Male, named Friendly, who was a nice guy but a little boring, and the other puppet, Rusty the Rooster, a quiet lover of music and literature. .

Mr. Homme, who designed the puppets, shaped their personalities to reflect the dynamic between an older and younger preschooler. “Jerome is more social, more outgoing than Rusty, who is younger, more introverted, more interested in books,” he said.

“Not many people know my dad wasn’t the first Rusty,” Wilson said. “Because there were three actors at the start, the show had to be scripted and there were a lot of people behind the wall where Friendly is standing.”

Wilson says his father was invited one day to stay after the shoot and try to use both puppets at the same time.

“The guy who was playing Rusty came home and everyone pretended to be packing,” he said. “After he left, they turned the lights back on and the cameras on.”

For the next quarter of a century, Rod and Mr. Homme were the only actors in The friendly giant. They stopped scripting the episodes altogether, working only from a one-page outline written by Mr. Homme, and improvised the rest of their 15-minute segments.

Rod Coneybeare was born on March 31, 1930 on a farm in Belleville, Ontario. He was an only child and lived with his mother, Jean Cross, secretary to the CEO of a large insurance company, and his sisters. Rod never knew his father, Roy, which Wilson suspects made Rod the loving and caring father he later became. Little is known about Roy, but Wilson believes he left Ms Cross and Rod for economic reasons, sparked by the stock market crash. Roy and Mrs. Cross were never married, but Rod was given his father’s last name at the insistence of his grandmother.

Amid financial difficulties, Rod, his mother and aunts moved with his grandparents to Sherwood Avenue in Toronto. This is where Rod’s lifelong love of superheroes and radio plays began, as he lived through the Great Depression on a diet of comics and radio shows broadcast from Buffalo. , NY

Much to the chagrin of his family, Rod knew he wanted to get into show business as a child. At 10, he was imitating radio broadcasts in his bedroom using a cardboard microphone. He would ask his cousin, Elizabeth McIntyre, to perform his scripts, which picked up classics such as Lone Ranger and Green Hornet.

Five years later, in 1945, Rod went to a CBC radio audition and walked away feeling like he had missed it. His family didn’t offer much solace, instead appearing “astonished and sad” that Rod was doing something so embarrassing.

A little later, a Radio-Canada producer called him back and invited him to the station to obtain his union card. He was in it. Rod would continue to cut his teeth in radio plays and accumulate writing credits until he met Mr. Homme, Jerome and Rusty.

With only two cameras and two shots, Rod and Mr. Homme continued to do The friendly giant into an undeniable cultural touchstone. The life lessons they passed on have become part of Canada’s collective consciousness and their slogans, “a chair for two to snuggle in”, “a rocking chair for someone who loves to rock” and ” look up, wa-aa-ay up, ”clung to the national lexicon.

Rod passed his post-Friendly Giant career writing novels, drawing and painting, appearing on television and lending his voice to cartoon series such as X-Men: The Animated Series and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3.

In 1985 Rod also collaborated with Wilson, who now works as a filmmaker, writing an episode of the television show Check it out, which earned them an ACTRA nomination. This is in addition to the two Nellies (the precursor to ACTRA) that Rod had previously won for broadcast excellence.

Wilson says his father was supernaturally comfortable in front of a microphone. Rod often demonstrated this by drinking coffee and smoking a cigar while recording, timing his sips and expertly shooting.

“I don’t think most performers, no matter how relaxed they seem, are really relaxed in front of the camera or the microphone,” he said. “There is always a feeling of apprehension, nervousness, no matter what. But I was amazed at how comfortable my dad was. He was like a wonderful jazz musician who knows exactly how to practice his instrument.

“It was magical to watch,” he added.

In Rod’s later years he moved from Toronto to Lindsay in search of a smaller community and a quieter life. He started working on a graphic novel, which was not finished by the time of his death. Rod died at Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, where he filled his final days with Gore Vidal’s essays, Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, and conversations with loved ones.

Even as he neared the end of his life, Mr. Coneybeare never stopped performing. He found himself surrounded by fans at the Ross Memorial and had no problem entertaining them with his Rusty and Jerome voices.

“Suddenly you would see a 50-year-old doctor turn into a 5-year-old boy,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen it perform in grocery stores, in movie lines. I’ve seen it all my life. The friendly giant dissolves the barrier between adulthood and childhood. It represents all quiet, thoughtful and peaceful moments.

Rod leaves his wife, Moira; children, Monroe, Cameron, Susannah and Wilson; and seven grandchildren.


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