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Sam Moses: Canadian actor had a familiar face on stage and screen

By on July 16, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

Sam Moses acted, sang and danced his way through a career that spanned more than 50 years. (Phil Williams/Courtesy of the Moses family)

Sam Moses acted, sang and danced his way through a career that spanned more than 50 years.
(Phil Williams/Courtesy of the Moses family)

Sam Moses had one of those faces you know you’ve seen somewhere before. The Canadian performer, who has died at the age of 72, was seen everywhere in a career that stretched more than 50 years. He played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Judas in Godspell, a hot-dog vendor in Ghostbusters, and the hapless piano-playing foil in one of the most memorable Canadian TV commercials of the 1980s, one for Spumante Bambino sparkling wine.

Mr. Moses, who died in Toronto on June 21 of complications from Legionnaires’ disease, also played Zach in A Chorus Line, which showcased his versatility. That role required a dancer, and the lithe, wiry Sam Moses could certainly dance, having trained and performed with the National Ballet of Canada. In plays such as Fiddler on the Roof he also had to sing, and he could handle that, too. In the world of entertainment, Sam Moses was a triple threat.

Samson Moses was born in Bangalore, India, on March 19, 1944. He and his twin brother, Ralph, were the youngest of 11 children in an Orthodox Jewish family who had fled Baghdad and moved to India. Anticipating the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, France and Britain drew lines on a map that, among other things, created the separate country of Iraq. After Iraq became fully independent in 1932, many Jews left, some of them for India, then part of the British Empire.

Sam’s father, George, was a tailor who made suits for Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister (and a man so stylish that the Nehru jacket became a fashion icon in the 1960s). In 1954, the family immigrated to Canada; Sam turned 10 on the boat in the mid-Pacific.

The family settled in Vancouver, where they lived in some poverty. Sam was a top athlete in school and one day he mocked ballet dancers on a CBC television program he was watching with his sister. She told him it was more difficult than it looked, so he tried ballet to improve his co-ordination in track and field sports.

His first dance instructor was Vancouver’s Kay Armstrong, who taught him from 1960 to 1962. “Sam was the youngest in a family of 11 children and his parents could not afford to pay for his classes so Kay put him on scholarship and he did janitorial work in return for free study,” Kaija Pepper wrote in a 2001 biography of Ms. Armstrong, The Dance Teacher. “He and fellow student John Klampfer would later enter the National Ballet School on full scholarship.”

The move to the ballet school in Toronto was the first time 18-year-old Mr. Moses had been away from home. It was also the first time he had left his mother, Sarah’s, kitchen. “He had never eaten anywhere but home, because they were kosher,” explained his wife, Anne Moses.

There were other freedoms to explore in the early 1960s. Mr. Moses had an affair with a young woman who became pregnant; she had the baby, a girl, who was put up for adoption. In 1992, the daughter found her biological father and became part of the Moses family.

When Mr. Moses was 20 he joined the National Ballet and danced with the troupe for two years. But he wanted to do more on stage. “He just felt that he needed to speak. It wasn’t complete enough for him as a dancer. Also because he had a wonderful singing voice, he could do musicals,” his wife said.

He soon found work on television variety shows such as CTV’s The Pig and Whistle, light years from the world of classical ballet.

“Nobody looked like Sammy Moses. He was an outstanding presence just because of his physical being, and part of it was just how he moved his body because of his dance experience as a younger person,” recalled Miriam Adams, co-founder and director of Dance Collection Danse, who was in the National Ballet with him.

It was at the National Ballet school that he met Anne Steele, his future wife. The two worked at Expo 67, the world’s fair in Montreal, performing in shows at the outdoor theatre there, including performances with Maurice Chevalier, the legendary French singer and actor.

In 1971, the couple moved to Vancouver, where their first son, Karim, was born. Sam joined Playhouse Holiday, a touring troupe that offered children’s shows.

In Vancouver he auditioned successfully for the Stratford Festival, and the family returned to Ontario. He performed at Stratford in three seasons: in La vie parisienne in 1974; in Rice Boy in 2009; and in Romeo and Juliet and Fiddler on the Roof (as the rabbi) in 2013. He was also a member of the Shaw Festival ensemble in its eighth and 15th seasons, performing in The Doctor’s Dilemma in 1969 and The Apple Cart in 1976.

Like most stage actors, he did more than one thing to earn a living. His big earner was commercials, where his face and subtle movement, born of his ballet training, made him a favourite. Perhaps his most famous TV commercial was a humorous ad for Spumante Bambino, which made his face famous across Canada.

“People start to laugh when they see me on the street,” he said in 1986, referring to his comic role in the ad, in which a glamorous woman knocked him off a piano stool.

For several years in the 1980s, he lived in New York because he was doing a lot of U.S. film work. In all, he performed in more that 50 movie and television productions, including a recurring role for two years on the Canadian TV program Due South, and playing a hot-dog vendor in the popular 1984 movie Ghostbusters. More recently, he appeared in The F Word (2013) and this year’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.

“Adventures in Babysitting is one of the favourites with our family, because he played a very funny Indian doctor, as he did in Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams,” his wife said.

Although movies were more glamorous, he preferred live theatre work. “Acting on stage you get immediate feedback – you get energy from everybody in the audience and instant gratification,” Ms. Moses explained. “He just loved to perform, and television and film is not that kind of performing at all.”

In 1985, he returned home to star in A Chorus Line at Toronto’s Limelight Theatre, in which he played the lead role of the director, Zach, who is choosing dancers for a musical.

“I got to see what it was like to say no to people in terms of hiring. The role gives you an insight into what directors have to go through and the coldness they have to put on just to protect themselves,” Mr. Moses told an interviewer at the time.

The role he loved best was Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof. He first performed it at Stage West in Toronto in 2004 and again at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont. Although he sometimes had trouble learning his lines, that was not the case with Tevye: He said the role seemed part of his life, so it came naturally to him.

Mr. Moses leaves his wife, Anne; their sons Karim and Ari; his daughter, Julia Fillmore; four grandchildren and extended family.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .


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