When Paul Soles steps into this cafe, no one notices – not even me. Only when I glance up from my newspaper do I realize he’s been standing there for a few seconds, looking lost in the doorway, swallowed up by his black toggle coat and rumpled herringbone trilby hat. At 87, Soles looks archetypally elderly, the Platonic ideal of an old man: unassuming, congenial, harmless. When I stand up to shake his hand, I ask if I can get him anything. Without missing a beat, he lifts his eyes and says, “My youth.”
And suddenly, there it is: the Paul Soles who’s been kept secret from the world for some time, the wit and depth hidden behind his wrinkles and jowls, his alter-ego superhero persona. He inches forward with his walker, fumbling to fold it up as he eases into the bench, apologizing with self-effacing jokes. “I was young once,” he assures the woman sitting beside him; she giggles. I ask him what kind of coffee he wants. “The brown kind,” he says; the barista laughs.
His is the bygone wit of Groucho Marx, Phil Harris and Jack Benny – fast quips, deadpan delivery, no stutters. Soles was born to perform, and he’s been doing it for seven decades: on CBC Television, on Broadway, on radio and in cartoons I grew up watching, like the original 1967 Spider-Man.
Hearing Soles tell his story, he sounds like a Peter Parker type growing up. He was an outcast – short, nonathletic and Jewish. Schoolmates shouted “kike” and “heeb” at him, and his uncle played on the Jewish baseball team that sparked the Christie Pits riot in Toronto. Like Parker, Soles worked in journalism, joining one of Canada’s first private broadcast stations, CFPL in London, Ont., in the 1950s.
“you stick to it, eventually, your time comes.”
He is ostensibly reserved, but can quickly switch on his humour, revealing it in winks and rejoinders. See, for example, his take on another of his iconic characters: Hermey, the elf who yearned to be a dentist in the stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. What was the inspiration behind Hermey’s uniquely nasally pitch?
“I wish I could say it was fantastic research and hard work and endless hours in a garage at night,” he says. Then he leans in, drops his voice and adds, bluntly, “Look, he’s an elf. He’s an elf who wants to be a dentist.”
I laugh at the punchline, and at how ridiculous my question suddenly sounds. But Soles is too earnest to leave things there. “Now, you can think of that any way you want,” he adds, leaning back. “But just imagine: you have an ambition and somebody puts everything in your way, thwarts you.… The fact that Hermey and Rudolph were segregated, separated out – everybody has been dismissed or ignored at one time or another, and that’s the basis of the appeal. Plus, there’s redemption: you stick to it, eventually, your time comes.”
* * *
Soles’s career has been consistent in its inconsistency. In the ’60s and ’70s, he interviewed the likes of Kirk Douglas, Joni Mitchell and Michael Caine, as a co-host of CBC’s Take 30, sitting beside a young Adrienne Clarkson, who went on to become governor general, and Moses Znaimer, who later co-founded Citytv. In the ’80s, he shared a Broadway stage with Christopher Plummer in a touring production of Macbeth. In the ’90s, he lent his voice to an Oscar-nominated documentary. Since 2000, he’s worked with Edward Norton, Robert De Niro and Frank Oz.
Yet these last two years have seen some of Soles’s greatest successes. On April 26, the second season of his hit web series, My 90-Year-Old Roommate, debuted on CBC Comedy’s YouTube channel. The role earned him an Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists award nomination and a Canadian Screen Award in 2017.
And this month, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival will be spotlighting him with a retrospective, as part of its annual archival series.
“I love his screen presence, I love his warmth and variety. There’s a versatility that people take for granted,” says Stuart Hands, the festival’s program director. “I’m interested in looking at our Jewish icons – he’s one that I would say is quite vital.”
But Soles, who can be humble to an almost frustrating degree, refuses to take credit. “I’m very flattered, if only for my father and mother who put up with a lot while I was trying to get established, and if only to justify Bunny Cowan’s confidence in me,” he says. “Because without him, I would have had no career.”
That name comes up often with Soles. Bernard (Bunny) Cowan was his older cousin who worked as a prominent CBC announcer while Soles was still studying at the University of Western Ontario. It was Cowan who encouraged him to go to Toronto in the early ’60s for two CBC auditions. What Soles lacked in formal performance training, he made up for in genuine charm: he got won the part in both auditions. One was for a new afternoon talk show geared toward women called Take 30, which he would helm for the next 16 years.
Life on set was stressful. Long hours and a tiny studio meant that the crew was always looking for ways to blow off steam. In those moments, Soles was the off-camera comedian, Adrienne Clarkson recalls today. “Paul was always extremely funny.”
Soles would talk to Clarkson often about his roles with the comedy duo Wayne and Shuster, not quite bragging, but eager for acknowledgment. He would also play little pranks around the studio, like creeping up behind people in the makeup room, or putting on his superhero voice and announcing, “Heeere’s Spidey!”
But it was clear to Clarkson that hosting Take 30 “wasn’t exactly his main thing. He always wanted – longed – to be an actor.”
The cartoons, recorded when Take 30 broke for the summer, were closer to what he really wanted to be doing: acting in comedy. He joined an informal troupe of voice actors organized by Cowan – Billie Mae Richards, Paul Kligman and Alfie Scopp – who’d get together on sunny afternoons and crank out silly performances for fun and negligibly low, non-unionized wages. (None of the Toronto cast received residuals for Rudolph; in the ’90s, Richards fought the copyright owners for compensation and Soles recalls receiving a cheque for $400 – a bizarre sum that he cannot explain.)
But the low wages were worth it for Soles. He was having fun. On Take 30, he was confined to acting like an ideal dinner party guest: polite, straight-backed, inoffensive, stiff but curious, well read and intimate. In other words, the CBC personified.
In some ways, that persona was true to life. “He’s a very ethical and good person,” says his sister, Ruth-Ellen Soles, who worked as a spokesperson for the CBC for decades. “I’ve never heard anything but praise from crews, other performers and producers. I can tell you that’s very unusual in this business.”
Every year, he joins his enormous extended family (his father was one of 11 children) for Passover and Hanukkah, a Soles family tradition that dates back over a century. He looks forward to bringing his signature dishes of chopped liver and gribenes (an old-world Jewish delicacy composed of onions and chicken skin fried in schmaltz), according to cookbook author Bonnie Stern, who is first cousins with Soles.
When Stern was starting out in the early ’70s, she got a gig doing cooking demos at Eaton’s. But public speaking terrified her, so she asked Soles for advice. His response stayed with her: “Just be really, really good at your job,” she recalls him saying, “and it will all come to you.”
Soles believes in serendipity – he often attributes his career to “more good luck than good management.” So when he got an offer to leave Take 30 in 1978 and star in a new late-night talk show called Canada After Dark, he jumped on it. A CBC press release at the time boasted that TV Times called the show “entertaining rather than significant.” In fact, revisiting some clips today, it isn’t even that entertaining. It seems as though Soles was unable to shed his CBC persona, and the show struggled to find an audience. It was cancelled within months.
The news devastated Soles, who refuses to talk about it, even today. In the following decade he rebounded, working odd jobs on quiz shows, sitcoms and made-for-TV kids’ movies. He tried moving to the United States, but failed to find work once the recession struck in the early ’90s.
In these years, Soles found real solace on stage. One of his favourite roles was in 1987, in the play I’m Not Rappaport. He wasn’t yet 60, but played an octogenarian struggling with neglect.
“I was born old,” he told a CBC interviewer during the show’s run. “The frustration of all people who pass 40 is that in your mind, you still feel great – why isn’t the body coming along? Or why does society simply say, ‘Well, that’s it, fella, goodbye’?”
* * *
In 2016, Ethan Cole was sitting in an audition room in Toronto’s studio district, waiting to improvise with a handful of old men. He was nervous. They were casting for his new web series, My 90-Year-Old Roommate, a fictional adaptation of a previous series he’d made for the comedy website Funny or Die. In the original, he hangs out with his grandfather, introducing him to millennial stuff like Tinder and sexting.
Now they needed an actor to play his zayde. But what were the odds they’d find a warm, Jewish comic actor who could pass for 90 and hold a leading role? “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, finding that character,” Cole says.
Like most millennials, he’d never heard of Paul Soles. It had, after all, been years since Soles was in the spotlight. In 2001, he earned headlines for getting cast last-minute as Shylock in the Stratford Festival’s production of The Merchant of Venice, after the original actor, Al Waxman, died just months earlier. (Despite the late notice, Soles was praised by one critic as the production’s “only actor to give his character any realism or depth.”) That led to three more years with Stratford, before returning to his roots with a series of brief TV gigs and cartoon voiceovers.
Watching Soles audition, Cole knew he’d found his grandfather. His improv was hilarious. His demeanour was kind. In many ways, the role is a fitting culmination of the years Soles has spent sharpening his wit; an inexplicably serendipitous blend of his age, humour and openness. The series has drawn more than half a million views on YouTube alone, likely making this his most-watched starring role in decades.
When Soles was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best actor in a digital series, Cole knew he’d win. And, sure enough, at the gala in March 2017, Soles’s name was announced and the audience cheered. Most attendees were dressed semi-formal; Soles wore a full tuxedo. He limped to the mic stand, his right hand clutching his cane, his left covering his mouth, holding back tears. The applause grew louder. He tried to speak but failed, moving away from the microphone. It was overwhelming. One by one, audience members popped up into a wave of standing ovation. They hadn’t all seen the show, but that didn’t matter. They were clapping for him.
The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is highlighting Paul Soles this year. For a full list of his films that will be shown at the festival, click here.