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Stage actor William Hutt dead

TORONTO (CP) – William Hutt, who was widely considered one of the world’s finest Shakespearean actors and trod the boards at the Stratford Festival of Canada for almost four decades in some 130 productions, has died.

He was 87.

CBC reported he was suffering from leukemia, entered a hospital in Stratford, Ont., on Tuesday, and died Wednesday morning.

"William Hutt was my mentor, my friend, a great actor and a national treasure," said Stratford artistic director Richard Monette.

Monette went on to quote Hamlet, remarking: "He was a man, take him for all in all: we shall not look upon his like again."

For theatre aficionados, Hutt’s name belongs in a select club of master thespians that includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

Rave reviews were a matter of course for the actor, whose most famous performances included Prospero in Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" and the title character in "King Lear"; James Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey Into Night"; and Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde.

One critic called Hutt "a star who dazzles by being so sane."

At six-feet-one and in heels, with a Queen Mary hat, Hutt was a formidable Lady Bracknell in Wilde’s comedy. One little girl is said to have told her father after Act I that if she didn’t know that was a woman, she’d think it was a man.

"That was the greatest compliment I could possibly get," Hutt said of the remark.

Shakespeare remained a fascination for the actor throughout his career. When asked about the power of the Bard in a 2006 interview, Hutt said: "First of all, he froze the English language. Nobody has used the English language better than he has. Nobody. … And also the world that Shakespeare creates with his language, his storylines, his characters, it’s an incredible world."

With his rumbling voice and his lion-in-winter mane of white hair, Hutt commanded the stage well into his 80s, winning praise for his last turn onstage at Stratford as Prospero in 2005.

In honour of Monette, the outgoing artistic director of the southwestern Ontario theatre company, Hutt agreed to return for a role in Edward Albee’s "A Delicate Balance" scheduled for this year.

He eventually had to withdraw from that performance, however, because of ill health.

"He was our northern star," said festival general director Antoni Cimolino. "He shone strong, bright and true, helping the rest of us find our way."

Born in Toronto in 1920, Hutt was a member of the 7th Canadian Field Ambulance from 1941 to 1946, serving in Italy, France, Belgium and Holland.

He spent several summers in various theatre productions after graduating from Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 1949. Hutt joined the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Company in its inaugural year in 1953 under Tyrone Guthrie’s direction.

That year, the actors rehearsed while workmen raced to get the theatre built in time for opening night. Hutt would remain with the company for some four decades, except for an absence in the mid-’80s when he moved to the Shaw Festival for a couple of years.

In the ensuing years, Hutt also travelled the world, acting and directing, and wowing Broadway in 1964 when he played the lawyer in Edward Albee’s "Tiny Alice" alongside Gielgud.

He also visited London’s West End, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Australia and Hollywood and just about every theatre in Canada.

Despite his command of the stage, Hutt was never a snob about theatre versus television or film.

He was praised for his role as Sir John A. Macdonald in the mid-1970s TV miniseries "The National Dream."

And in recent years, fans were able to catch him on the acclaimed TV show "Slings & Arrows," in which he played a somewhat grumpier version of himself, an aging Shakespearian master.

Still, Hutt decided early on that he wanted to make a career on stage.

"I like the association with people who breathe, and I can hear them breathing," he explained in a 2006 interview.

When it came to awards, Hutt’s were legion: an Earle Grey ACTRA for "The National Dream" in 1975, the inaugural Governor General’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Performing Arts in 1992, a special one-time Dora Award for contribution to Canadian theatre in 1995, a Genie for playing Tyrone in "Long Day’s Journey Into Night" in 1996, and a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000, to name a few.

Hutt was also named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1969.