Len Cariou, O.M. was born and raised on the Manitoba prairie. He has carried Canada in his heart throughout a 55-year career that has taken him from his theatre debut in Damn Yankees at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage, to becoming a founding member of the Royal Manitoba Theatre, to achieving international prominence as a theatrical legend and star of both TV and feature film. His global reputation is inseparable from his identity as a proud Canadian. Indeed, Len has served with distinction as a steadfast, loyal and eloquent Canadian ambassador to the arts. Moreover, his unprecedented success as a Canadian actor on Broadway has been such that from The Great White Way to Britain’s West End to Dublin’s famed Gate Theatre, the name Len Cariou is synonymous with Canada’s reputation for producing great theatrical talent. Len is the first Canadian to have received three Tony nominations as Best Actor in a Musical; for Applause (1969), A Little Night Music (1975), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). He was only the second actor in Canadian history to win the Tony in this category, playing the title character in Sweeney Todd, which not only sealed his status as a legend, but set a standard of performance for that role that many say remains unparalleled to this day.
Len is an esteemed Member of the Order of Manitoba, and of the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame. Two Canadian universities (University of Winnipeg and University of Windsor) have recognized his contribution to the arts and theatre in Canada by awarding him with honorary doctorates. A scholarship has been established in his name at the University of Winnipeg Theatre Department, which he continues to fund. He has served as Honorary Chair for the Endowment campaign at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Without question, the young Canadian actors who are now routinely welcomed on Broadway – the likes of Nick Cordero, Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy – stand on Len Cariou’s shoulders. In 2016, the Stratford Festival of Canada and the Shaw Festival produced the now iconic musicals A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (respectively) – each of which still bear the indelible imprimatur of their original star, Canadian actor Len Cariou.
For all of this, Len Cariou carries himself with quiet humility and integrity. He is a man of his word who keenly upholds the virtue of loyalty; loyalty to his family, friends and colleagues, and above all to his beloved country.
Len made his stage debut as part of the chorus in Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage Theatre production of Damn Yankees in 1959. The following year he became a founding member of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (Canada’s first English-language regional theatre) under the mentorship of Artistic Director John Hirsch.
In his first season there, he appeared in six productions highlighted by his performance as Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts. Having made his mark with that role, within a year he was invited to join the Stratford Festival. Over the next few years he split his time between MTC and Stratford, appearing alongside the great actors of his day, both British and Canadian. His work at Stratford was brought to the attention of Tyrone Guthrie by Douglas Campbell, which occasioned a coveted invitation to join the Guthrie Theatre (Minneapolis) in 1966. While at the Guthrie, Cariou appeared as Orestes in Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s compilation of The House of Atreus. In turn, his work at the Guthrie opened doors to the American Shakespeare Festival company in Stratford, Connecticut in 1969.
The early years of Len’s professional career highlighted his soaring talent as he was cast in a range of successively more important roles in both classical and contemporary genres. It must be said that Len had no set ambition to seek his fortune outside of Canada; only to do whatever it took to become the best possible actor he could be. It so happened that the young Len’s burgeoning career brought him into a stellar cohort of actors, all of whom were pioneering both a golden reputation for Canadian theatrical talent, and seeking opportunity beyond Canadian borders. This group included Christopher Plummer, Gordon Pinsent, William Shatner, Martha Henry, Zoe Caldwell, Kate Reid, Douglas Rain and Roberta Maxwell. This talented group encouraged and actively assisted Len’s growth toward a career of international stature. His development as an artist is singular, however, in that he is the only known actor to have learned and practiced his craft under the purview of of arguably the four most important North American theatre directors of the 20th Century: Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Michael Langham and John Hirsch, and the fabled Harold Prince.
Len’s love for Canada and his dedication to Canadian theatre in particular, is such that he returns regularly to stages in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto. For two seasons in 1981 and ’82 he came home to his classical roots, leading the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival company under his mentor John Hirsch. It was there that Len in turn mentored such actors as Colm Feore, Karl Pruner, and Susan Wright, who were just beginning their careers.
In 1970, while he was appearing in the title role of the American Shakespeare Theatre company’s Henry V, Len landed his first starring role on Broadway opposite Lauren Bacall in Applause, a musical adaptation of the film All About Eve. This earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. He also won the Theatre World Award, both for his performance in Applause as well as the New York reprise of Henry V in which he had made his Broadway debut six months previous.
In 1973, he garnered his second Tony nomination for originating the role of Frederick Egerman in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, (which he reprised opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the 1977 film). Success on Broadway, however, did not mean turning his back on Canada. In 1975, he stepped into the role of Artistic Director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre for the 75/76 season. During his tenure as A. D. he rejected the long-held practice of importing out-of-town actors, instead choosing to fill his productions with local performers. The repercussions are still being felt today as many Winnipeg actors have moved on to star in productions throughout Canada and the US. He also lent his acting talent to that season, appearing on MTC’s stage in Cyrano and Equus. In doing so he gave a career boost to the other young actors opposite him, as both their craft and their resumes were notably elevated by their association with an actor of such stature.
Len returned to the Guthrie Theatre in 1978 as both actor and Associate Director, once again under the aegis of Michael Langham.
In 1979, he became a theatre legend when he originated the title role in Sondheim’s master work Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, winning both the Tony and a Drama Desk Award. Throughout the years Len also generously appeared in numerous charity benefits, including A Christmas Carol for the Riverside Shakespeare Company, playing Scrooge with Helen Hayes, Raul Julia, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Cariou continued to practice his craft on stages in the US, Canada and the UK through the 80’s, 90’s and into the 21st century. He appeared as King Lear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alta. in 1985/86, while also working as the Citadel’s Associate Director. While giving 8 performances a week as Lear, Len directed an award-winning production of Death of a Salesman in which he gave Canadian actors Allan Royal and Ron White the rare opportunity to star opposite legendary actor James Whitmore.
In 2007, in recognition of his versatility, artistry and depth as both an actor and director, Len was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. His classical stage repertoire is far ranging, encompassing the title roles in Oedipus the King, Macbeth, Cyrano, Coriolanus, and two productions of King Lear, as well as Iago, Petruchio, Prospero and many others. Off-Broadway, he is proud of his work as Ernest Hemingway in Papa, William 0. Douglas in Mountain, and Joseph Stalin in Master Class.
In 2009, he triumphed in The Gate Theatre’s definitive production of All My Sons, in Dublin, Ireland, reprising his role as Joe Keller, which had also won him raves at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles in 2007. The Dublin production was the longest-running, highest-grossing in that theatre’s history to date, largely due to the quality and magnificent reception of Mr. Cariou’s performance.
Regionally, he has starred in a multitude of productions at theatres throughout North America, including the Kennedy Centre, the Mark Taper Forum, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the American Shakespeare Festival, the Guthrie Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre and the Old Globe Theatre. He was involved in the development of two new musicals: Paramour, (Old Globe Theatre, San Diego) a reworking of the play Waltz of the Toreadors by Joe Masteroff and Howard Warren, and Himself, (Caldwell Theatre, Boca Raton) based on the life of James Joyce, by Shelia Walsh and Jonathan Brielle.
He has also worked extensively in film, beginning his screen career in 1977 with a Genie award (Canada’s Oscar) for Best Performance by a Lead Actor in One Man. Over the last 50 plus years, Cariou has divided his time between the stage, film and television. He currently appears as Henry “Pop” Reagan in the television series Blue Bloods, a top-ten rated show both in Canada and the U.S.
In addition to his many film and television credits, Len is also known for his voice-over work in commercials, audiobooks and film. In particular, he narrated Academy Award winning documentary The Johnstown Flood, the PBS film Tick Hall, and also played Harry Bosch in the audiobooks of Michael Connolly’s well-known novels.
In 2016, he created the solo theatre work Broadway and The Bard, which garnered glowing reviews for his off-Broadway performance at New York City’s Lion Theatre.
This bio was written by Heather Summerhayes Cariou, author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir.