Maury Chaykin, RIP

Canadian character actor Maury Chaykin passed away in Toronto on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, on his 61st birthday; according to the Canadian newspapers, he had been suffering from a kidney ailment. He was famous for his “comic roles with disturbing undertones, and disturbing roles with comic undertones”, according to his New York Times obit. Chaykin was a favorite of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who cast him in “The Adjuster”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, and “Where the Truth Lies”. His career was by no means limited to Canadian productions, though; he had strong roles in “Dances With Wolves”, “My Cousin Vinny”, and the HBO series “Entourage”.

Far and away his best known role among mystery aficionados, though, was his portrayal of the iconic detective Nero Wolfe, first in an an A&E movie, “The Golden Spiders”, then later in a television series (also on A&E) that expanded upon the film. Timothy Hutton co-starred as Wolfe’s wisecracking right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. It was wildly popular at the time (2000), with the fourth highest viewership of any A&E movie.

Wolfe was, in many ways, the original slacker; among Goodwin’s duties as confidential assistant was the constant goading of Wolfe to drum up new business, as Wolfe’s expensive habits (a Manhattan brownstone, live-in help, an orchid greenhouse, his taste for fine beers, and of course his notorious gourmandizing) routinely nudged the bank accounts to the edge of insolvency. Chaykin played the part to a tee: he was physically suited to play Wolfe, to be sure (Stout once described Wolfe as weighing one-seventh of a ton, about 286 pounds), and he brought the requisite petulance and “sniffiness” to the role. Hutton provided the humorous counterpoint, and the two played off one another magnificently. Critic Martin Sieff, writing for UPI, had this to say about the dynamic duo: “The great veteran actor Maury Chaykin was born to play Nero. And Timothy Hutton is equally perfect as his leg-man and always squabbling employee/amanuensis/Dr. Watson/Captain Hastings sidekick, Archie Goodwin. Hutton, an Oscar winner, and Chaykin are at the heart of it all. They have done many prestigious things in their careers and no doubt will do many more. But it is clear they know they will never have more fun than doing this.”

Never having met or known Maury Chaykin, I can only imagine what a huge personal loss his passing must represent to his loved ones. As an outside observer, though, I followed his career from high spot to high spot; he could occasionally be in a clinker of a movie, but his performances were invariably inspired. Over the years he won numerous awards, but perhaps the coolest (and weirdest) was the 2006 “Career So Far Award” from the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film. Chaykin had this to say about the award, in the Toronto Star: “I got this strange call from Chlotrudis…I thought it was a disease. It’s a society for independent film, and they said, ‘We’re giving you The Career So Far Award. Not The Lifetime Achievement Award. We hope you will do a lot more indie films.’ They want me to fly down to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last year’s winner was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I looked up their website and they are legit. Nero Wolfe raised orchids. Maybe he had a rare form of Chlotrudis.”

Sleep ye well, Maury Chaykin.

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