RIP: Don Francks

Photo: Don Dixon
Photo: Don Dixon

RIP: Don Harvey Francks, actor, jazz musician, environmental activist in Toronto on April 3, at age 84, of cancer. Born in Burnaby, BC, Francks was singing at age 6 and acting at 10. He worked briefly as a teen disc jockey in Vancouver before leaving school to join the merchant marine. During a long career as an actor for film and TV, he  made appearances in American TV series like Jericho and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and in the Hollywood film version of Finian's Rainbow (1968), in which he starred alongside Fred Astaire and Petula Clark.

Francks dropped out of showbiz to live on the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan with his wife Lili Francks. He was adopted as a Cree, and named Iron Buffalo. He returned to the spotlight in the late ‘70s, narrating the CBC series This Land. He won 2 successive ACTRA Awards for performances in CBC's Drying Up the Streets (1980) and The Phoenix Team (1981).

His extensive filmography included such TV series as Nikita, Kung Fu, Road to Avonlea, Top Cops, The Diviners, Flamingo Estates and Side Effects.

Notable film credits include The Drylanders, Ivy League Killers, The Tomorrow Man, Old Fish Hawk, Labour of Love, I’m Not There, Good Times at the Rainbow Bar and Grill (which also featured his daughter Cree Summer), The Big TownJohnny Mnemonic, and Paint Cans.

On the music side, Francks was a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, playing trombone, drums, and flute. He was most active musically in the ‘60s, playing such noted clubs as George's Spaghetti House in Toronto, and the Village Vanguard in New York City. He recorded the early ‘60s albums Jackie Gleason Says No One in This World Is Like Don Francks and Lost... and Alone in NYC. Lenny Breau played as part of The Don Francks Trio then.

 In 2004, Art of Life Records released a four decades-old recording as Live at the Purple Onion. A National Film Board documentary called Toronto Jazz '62 includes rehearsals and performances of two other groups. In recent years he returned to performing in such Toronto clubs as Top O’ The Senator and Hugh’s Room, often with his friend, musician/radio host Jaymz Bee.

Bee helped fund Francks’ last recording, 21st Century Francks, as he explains to FYI. “I first met Don when he played Top O' The Senator in 2002. I went back every night with different friends and caught all four shows. A decade later I got together with my pal Ray Irwin and we financed (as a gift to him) a pressing of 1000 CD's of the Senator show, recorded by Danny Greenspoon, and put out 21st Century Francks, available on iTunes.

To Bee, “Calling Don Francks a Renaissance Man is stinting praise. A poet, actor, singer, jazz musician, writer, arranger...the guy could paint, dance...he collected and restored vintage cars, rode a chopper and usually performed bare footed. He made friends in nano seconds and never cared if you were a millionaire or a homeless person. His entire family are in showbiz and all extremely talented. The apple doesn't fall far from the blender.”

Another huge fan is Canadian songwriter and global copyright advocate Eddie Schwartz. He recalled to FYI that “I was maybe 12 or 13 years old when my parents took me to see The Fantasticks at the Toronto Central Library Theater. I loved every minute of it and I remember the music and Don Francks’ wonderful performance vividly. As a budding songwriter and artist Don inspired me and so many others, and imparted a courage to those of us dreaming of a life in music and the arts – and at a time when Canada could seem a very cold and remote place for those kinds of ambitions.”