The Friendly Giant contributors are shown in a still in front of the set for the show’s 25th anniversary episode on Sept. 18, 1982. Front row, from left: harpist John Duncan, puppeteer/voice actor Rod Coneybeare with Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster, puppeteers Karen Valleau and Nikki Tilroe with Patty and Polly Raccoon and Rockin’ Roosters Joe and Buster. In the back row, from left, show creator Bob Homme as The Friendly Giant and puppeteer Nina Keogh with Angie and Fiddle. (CBC)
Rod Coneybeare, who enjoyed a three-decade run at the CBC hosting, producing and appearing on a variety of shows, including voicing the beloved characters Rusty and Jerome from The Friendly Giant, has died.
Coneybeare, according to an obituary from his family that appeared in the Toronto Star, died in Lindsay, Ont., at the age of 89.
The family said he “leaves behind beloved and everlasting memories of a man with a biting intellect, a dark and incisive humour, an appreciation of art, popular music and classic movies.”
Born in Belleville, Ont., Coneybeare was influenced early on by radio at a young age. After early success as a teen appearing on a CBC radio show and selling a radio program script to NBC, Coneybeare told the Star in 1970 he became a “radio bum,” working at Ontario stations in Orillia, Chatham, Guelph and Ottawa, while supplementing his income with work in the theatre world.
In the late 1950s, he was selected to voice characters on The Friendly Giant, the children’s show created by and starring Bob Homme.
Homme, an American, had first produced the show on public airwaves in Wisconsin in the early ’50s, where it eventually attracted the attention of CBC producers.
The show, which would ultimately air on CBC from 1958 until 1985, featured Homme as the giant Friendly, who tells a simple story to his puppet friends Rusty and Jerome, usually in front of the castle in which he resided.
Coneybeare would tell interviewers part of the show’s appeal was that it did not patronize to kids. It was “an island of quiet and intelligence, humour, music and books — much like a real conversation bright kids might have with a witty adult,” he once told an interviewer.
Over the years, both men would attest to the enjoyment they received ad libbing with each other in character.
Homme told Weekend Magazine during the show’s heyday that scripts were just a one-page outline due to a “special kind of understanding between Rod and me, and instinctively being able to follow each other’s thoughts.”
Coneybeare is shown with Jerome the Giraffe on the set of the Friendly Giant on May 30, 1965. (CBC)
For Rusty, the bookwise, earnest but a touch naive rooster, the naturally baritone Coneybeare employed a falsetto.
Jerome, the more boisterous and demonstrative of the two puppets he voiced, was “a bass baritone giraffe doing a Jimmy Stewart impression,” he told the Province in British Columbia in 1979.
Additional puppeteers and characters would be added to the show during its run.
Over the years, Coneybeare would be involved in a number of other CBC programs, usually on radio, utilizing a mix of intelligence and whimsy.
The Rod and Charles Show, with Charles Winters, was a science-based show, Yes, You’re Wrong a comedy-quiz show and Bananas sketch-based satire. Coneybeare delved into his love of music by producing radio biographies of artists like Fats Waller and Frank Sinatra.
After leaving the CBC, Coneybeare would earn an ACTRA nomination along with his son, Wilson, for co-writing an episode of the Don Adams comedy vehicle Check It Out, and he lent his voice to animated television series in the 1990s such as X-Men, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Busy World of Richard Scarry, according to IMDb.com.
Homme died in 2000, while Daniel McCarthy, a former head of children’s programming at CBC who helped develop The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, died in 2013.
Coneybeare, according to the obituary, is survived by his wife Moira, four children and seven grandchildren.