Before going into the Pattinson-Mortensen business in the mid-2000s, David Cronenberg made a point of almost never casting the same lead actors. Instead, every film featured a new nervy, skinny, slightly off, brown-or-dark-haired alter ego: James Woods, James Spader, Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Irons (the rare two-timer), Christopher Walken.
But when it came to the supporting cast, Cronenberg frequently employed the same actors, often drawn from Canadian TV and theater—actors like Nicholas Campbell, Stephen Lack, Robert A. Silverman, and Les Carlson, the versatile Canadian-American character actor who appeared in three successive Cronenberg films: Videodrome (for which he received a Genie nomination), The Dead Zone, and The Fly. Carlson, who began as a stage actor before embarking on a lengthy career in TV and film, died of cancer in Toronto on May 3. He was 81.
Born in Mitchell, South Dakota, Carlson received a BFA and an MA in theater from the University of South Dakota before emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s. From 1972 up until last year, Carlson appeared in dozens of films and TV series—sometimes credited as Les, sometimes as Leslie.
Most of his roles were small—bit parts in movies, guest roles on Canadian-shot shows like 21 Jump Street or The X-Files—but they showed a diverse talent. In 1983, the same year that he appeared as Videodrome’s Barry Convex and The Dead Zone’s Brenner, Carlson also popped up as the Christmas tree salesman in A Christmas Story. (Carlson had earlier appeared in director Bob Clark’s less family-friendly Black Christmas.) He seemed as at home in an exploitation shocker like Deranged: Confessions Of A Necrophile as he was in his half-dozen appearances on Avonlea. All in all, Carlson was a prototypical working actor, a profession too rarely appreciated.
Carlson re-united with Cronenberg in 2000 to play the lead role in Camera, a short commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival.