Born July 22, 1945 in Regina and laid to rest September 28, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario.
Written by MARTIN MORROW SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2, 2015 and UPDATED MAY 15, 2018
Michael Burgess made you feel proud. Whether he was singing the national anthem, stirringly, for a Toronto Maple Leafs game or leading an exceptional cast as a mighty Jean Valjean in the landmark all-Canadian production of Les Misérables, Mr. Burgess knew how to pluck the national heartstrings. He was the world-class singer who chose to remain in Canada; the exquisite theatre artist whose biggest thrill was playing old timers’ hockey with the NHL greats.
Mr. Burgess was also a man with a big heart to match his big voice, whose acts of generosity were legion. He continually lent his golden tenor and magnetic presence to charitable causes and was always there for his friends. Their appreciation was reflected in the huge outpouring of love and affection that swiftly followed the news of his death at the age of 70 on Sept. 28. Everyone from theatre impresario David Mirvish to hockey legend Bobby Orr expressed their sorrow via both traditional and social media. “Today, we have lost a great Canadian,” Mr. Orr said in a statement – a sentiment few would dispute.
Mr. Burgess, known as Wally to his family, was born Walter Roy Burgess in Regina, on July 22, 1945. A Roman Catholic, his confirmation saint’s name was Michael and he later adopted it as his professional name. He was the oldest child of William (Bill) Burgess and Dorothy (Dolly) Burgess (née Aldercotte), who would go on to provide him with six brothers and sisters.
Bill Burgess, an aspiring lawyer, moved the family to Toronto in 1946. Growing up in suburban Etobicoke, Wally began to embrace two of his lifelong passions at an early age. “He was an excellent hockey player,” his brother Wayne recalled. “Every winter, between the ages of eight and 13, we created a hockey rink in our backyard and broke many a basement window with our unerringly accurate slap shots.”
His true gift, however, began to emerge when he and Wayne were enrolled at St. Michael’s Choir School. By the time he was a teenager, Wally Burgess was singing on CBC Television’s Cross-Canada Hit Parade and Holiday Ranch as well as on the radio.
After briefly considering the priesthood and a career in law, he studied acting at the University of Ottawa, inevitably playing the lead roles in student and amateur productions
As his career progressed, Mr. Burgess began to shift away from musical theatre and into opera. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that he found the perfect role that melded both art forms. When he landed the part of Jean Valjean in the first Canadian production of the London-New York hit Les Misérables, which opened in March, 1989, at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, he helped prove that his country had talent every bit as extraordinary as what could be found on West End and Broadway stages. And while Les Mis was an ensemble show with no official “stars,” Mr. Burgess’s performance soon became one of its major attractions.
While there was nobody like Mr. Burgess for making hearts swell at the singing of O Canada, his signature song remained the tear-inducing Bring Him Home from Les Mis. It’s the hero Jean Valjean’s aching plea to God to take him in exchange for sparing the life of the young man whom he considers a son. Perhaps the power of Mr. Burgess’s rendition rests in the way that prayer seemed to come from his own heart, reflecting his own selfless nature.
Bring him home