Michael Magee in character as the cracker-barrel philosopher Fred C. Dobbs.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 30, 2011
In a three-piece chalk-stripe suit, the farmer Fred C. Dobbs railed against political perfidy and bureaucratic stasis. With tumbleweed eyebrows and a soup-catching mustache, his hair as disheveled as the bristles on a barnyard broom, Dobbs expounded on his philosophy with the subtlety of an Old Testament prophet.
“If the Lord had meant for us to go metric,” he pronounced, “He’d have given us 10 apostles.”
Such were the sayings of the cantankerous Dobbs, the self-proclaimed sage of Beamsville, Ont., a cracker-barrel philosopher who challenged Bay Street from Main Street.
Dobbs was the alter-ego of Michael Magee, who has died, aged 81, after a long struggle with colitis, which ultimately led to heart failure. The actor had a long career in radio and television, where he also enjoyed great success as an analyst of thoroughbred horse races.
“Michael Magee is as enthusiastic about racing and its future as anyone I’ve ever known,” the industrialist and celebrated horseman E.P. Taylor once wrote. “It would be fair to say that he is having a lifelong love affair with the sport.”
Where an older generation was familiar with him as a curmudgeonly sage, or as an evaluator of horse flesh, a younger generation rooted against him as the voice of the dastardly Cyril Sneer in the popular animated series The Raccoons.
Magee was born on Oct. 11, 1929, a fortnight before cascading days of panic selling led to the Wall Street crash, plunging the world economy into depression.
His parents belonged to the Ontario Jockey Club, which was headed by Taylor, one of Canada’s wealthiest men. Taylor’s mother was a Magee and the industrialist was Michael Magee’s uncle.
At age 12, Michael criticized his parents’ passion for horse racing. His father challenged him to learn about a subject before offering a critique. The boy then became a regular at the track, a refuge during what would prove to be a tumultuous tenure at a series of private schools in Ontario.
As a teenager, he worked as a money runner for the mutuels department at the original Woodbine track in east-side Toronto, before taking a similar job at Exhibition Park in Vancouver. In 1956, he became a partner in Triangle Stable, whose lone racer was the filly Brighton Queen, named for an English Channel paddle steamer. Magee joked that she was slower even than her namesake.
That same year he debuted on radio station CKNW, based in New Westminster, outside Vancouver. His daily feature on the It Could Happen Show included a simulation of a fictitious horse race complete with cheering and faked public-address announcements.
“I’d dramatize a race before it was run, as I thought it would be run, speedsters setting the pace and so on,” he once said, “but I’d make sure the winner would be the one I was tipping that day.”
Magee spent nearly a half-century on the radio talking about the Sport of Kings, including stints on CBC Radio, CKEY, CKO and The FAN, where, in 1994, he began co-hosting a Saturday program during the racing season called Racing With Magee. He was also a familiar commentator on CBC television broadcasts of such prestigious races as the Queen’s Plate.
As a young man on the West Coast, he worked as a janitor, a surveyor, a hotel desk clerk, and on the line of canning factory, “crummy jobs,” he once acknowledged to an interviewer, “all designed to free me to go to the track in the twilight hours.”
Magee also launched a stage career, notably as a solo performer in the challenging, one-act Samuel Beckett play, Krapp’s Last Tape. The first quarter of the 80-minute play includes no dialogue.
“It is due to the work of actor Magee that the lurid and lucid picture of a man kept alive by the descriptive excesses of his past gets across as vividly as it does,” the Vancouver Sun noted in an unsigned review.
Magee did not last long on the stage.
“You starve acting,” he said, “and you need money to go to the races.”
He returned to Toronto in 1962 and three years later was co-host of a public-affairs program out of Winnipeg called The View From Here.
The Dobbs character was introduced to a national audience in 1968 on Gerussi: Words and Music, a mid-morning CBC Radio show hosted by Bruno Gerussi. The popularity of the crusty character led to a slot the following summer as a 10-week holiday replacement for The Max Ferguson Show.
It was while working as the overnight cleanup man at a Vancouver hotel that Magee conjured a character who mistrusted politicians and bureaucrats, big labour and big business.
“All the old ‘lobby generals’ used to congregate there and talk, and I used to listen to them,” Magee told the Toronto Star in 1969. “Fred is based on those guys, and on the old guys that hang around race tracks. They’re honest and opinionated, and they’ve got guts. You see an old guy walking across the street and a car pulls up short and the driver honks his horn at him. The old guy is liable to bring his walking stick crashing down on the hood of the car. Can you see a doctor, or a lawyer, or a guy from McLaren’s advertising doing that?”
The name Fred C. Dobbs was freely borrowed from the main character in the B. Traven novel, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, popularized by a 1948 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Dobbs.
Dobbs also appeared weekly on Ottawa television as a parliamentary correspondent from Beamsville before making his national television debut with Don Harron on a 1969 New Year’s Eve broadcast, That’s the News??? Good Night!!! The Star called it “CBC’s best TV comedy special ever,” while Magee was heralded as the comedy find of the year.
The duo again paired a year later in Wring Out the Old, which the same critic, Patrick Scott, described as the disappointment of the year.
In 1969, Magee hosted a television show shoehorned in the remaining time left in a half-hour slot at the conclusion of Hockey Night in Canada. The show, Champion, profiled a Canadian athlete.
The comic’s acidic take on hypocrisy found expression during a pilot episode of a series titled True North during which Magee angrily denounced Canadians for a placid, colonial mindset. “For America, Canadian water,” he complained. “For China, Canadian wheat. For Russia, Canadian hockey. For Canada, Canadian mewing, whining and puking.”
Magee paired with his wife, Duddie, a former secretary, on The Real Magees, a half-hour midday talk show. Guests on their debut week in 1973 included a taxi driver, a nightclub bouncer, and a fortune teller who informed the couple they were not suited for one another.
The couple “argue with each other with the most incredibly bad taste,” Helen Worthington wrote in the Star. “Who needs it? This, most of us can get at home without turning on the TV.”
As well as appearing together on television, the couple owned and operated a meat market on Church Street in Toronto, for which they imported dulse seaweed from the Maritimes and sold sauerkraut from a barrel.
The Dobbs character continued to delight audiences as one of a parade of Magee creations appearing on Magee and Company, a satirical, 15-minute show that ran on TVOntario and developed a cult following. Magee showed off a cast of characters, including The Pastor, Baunston Tudball, and J. Carter Hughes, chairman of the Dominion Gas and Screw Co. Ltd., a businessman who served as a foil for Dobbs.
Magee as Dobbs authored a humour book, titled The Golden Age of B.S. (1977), which was favourably reviewed in the Globe by Ontario premier William Davis, who proclaimed the character to be “honest, direct, frustrated and appealing.” This was followed by a sequel, The Platinum Age of B.S. (1981). Magee also wrote Champions, reviewing the careers of 17 thoroughbred winners from the 1970s, a golden age in horse racing. The book featured 80 colour images by the Toronto photographer Pat Bayes.
Dobbs became so popular a figure that he was once billed as a speaker at a Toronto conference with the likes of Peter Gzowski, Marshall McLuhan and John Diefenbaker. He also appeared in the Merry Posa Review during the annual Leacock Festival of Humour at Orillia, Ont.
In 1983, Global aired an hour-long comedy special, Fred C. Dobbs Goes to Hollywood, during which the curmudgeon joined country singer Hoyt Axton, met a Burt Reynolds lookalike, and watched as William Shatner polished his star in the sidewalk at Hollywood and Vine.
In time, the Dobbsian sense of humour came to be less universally appreciated. He was the after-dinner speaker at a conference of the Writers’ Union of Canada when his comments, including a description of his fictional wife as “the old mattress,” led some members to exit. Years later, he dismissed the incident as “four women with mustaches walk(ing) out,” a bitter reaction that did not reflect well on him.
In 1976, Magee lost a suit for damages for wrongful dismissal after he said he was replaced as host of a public-affairs show on Toronto’s CITY-TV. An Ontario Supreme Court judge ruled that while Magee had an oral contract with CITY president Moses Znaimer, the conversation took place on a Sunday, contravening the Lord’s Day Act.
His lengthy list of credits includes an appearance as a baffled police inspector in David Cronenberg’s The Brood, a horror film about mutant children.
In 1980, Magee voiced Cyril Sneer, a cigar-chewing aardvark who is the villain of The Christmas Raccoons, an animated special featuring voices by Rich Little and the singer Rita Coolidge as well as hockey play-by-play by Danny Gallivan. The Raccoons later aired for several seasons as a popular children’s series. Magee modeled Sneer on a schoolmaster under whom he had suffered.
One of his odder gigs involved serving as master of ceremonies for a fundraiser for John Crosbie, who incurred a $200,000 debt in an unsuccessful campaign for the federal leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1983. Others on the bill included the pianist Andre Gagnon, singer Helen Reddy and Playboy playmate of the year Shannon Tweed, who was born in Newfoundland, as was Crosbie, who currently serves as the province’s lieutenant governor.
Magee produced several institutional films for the Canadian Trotting Association, as well as features on such horses as Nijinsky and Secretariat. He won a journalism prize for a documentary on the trotter Armbro Flight. He also earned an ACTRA (Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists) award nomination for documentary writing for his work on True North.
His great passion for the turf led to horses being named after him, including Michael Magee by Dacotah Stables in Manitoba, as well as Ontario-bred Fred C. Dobbs, a stakes winner as a two-year-old.
Despite having evaluated thousands of horses over the years, their tendencies and pedigrees committed to memory for live broadcasts, Magee never forgot his first winning bet, placed at Thorncliffe Park Raceway at Leaside, Ont., later absorbed by Toronto. Years later, he would recall with delight a horse named Isbright.
Magee, a resident of Caledon, Ont., died on July 15 at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont. He leaves Sally Hamilton, his companion of 26 years.