Gregory James Kramer

He was a magician and a musician, but theatre was his first love

Gregory James Kramer

Michael Sinelnikoff; illustration by ian phillips

Gregory James Dowlen was born March 12, 1961, in the village of Codicote, north of London, England, to Edward Mark Dowlen, a research engineer, and Rosemary Philippa Craven Midgley, an artist and teacher. Each of the seven Dowlen children was expected to learn two instruments; at five, James (he went by his middle name) took up the piano and clarinet. He also learned magic, and was able to cut a deck of cards with one hand, 50 times in a row. He became one of the youngest members accepted into the Magic Circle, a London order of magicians.

Stricken with lymphatic cancer, his mother lost the use of her right arm at 43. Undeterred, she taught herself to paint with her left hand, and had painted portraits of all her children by the time she died two years later. Family life became unsettled in the wake of her death. His father, who until then designed guided weapons for English Electric, remarried and became a priest.

At 13, Jim, as he now called himself, left his home for the streets of London, with stints at his godmother’s house in the city’s north. Surviving on the streets required resourcefulness. He joined a typing pool—he could type in excess of 125 words a minute—and learned how to breathe fire. He also found work with London theatre troupes and moved to Hunky Dory, a teeming, chaotic residence run by a barrister named Henry.

At 19 he met Patricia Kramer, who at 18 had fled Vancouver for London, and the pair bonded over similar family hardships. She saw a beautiful young man with thick, straight red hair who, at five foot ten, was the same height as her, and who smoked as though there was a looming tobacco shortage. They were married five weeks later at the Marylebone registry office in Westminster. He signed their marriage certificate as “Greg Kramer,” itself a marriage of his first name and Patricia’s last.

The pair moved to Vancouver in April 1981, lulled by the promise of theatre work and a proper place to live. The two produced and performed “Cute Tricks,” a travelling magic revue, in Vancouver bars and theatres. Artistically, Greg was nearly everything: musician, writer, director, actor. He was also gay. He and Patricia split in 1982, though they wouldn’t formally divorce for another eight years.

Greg contracted HIV sometime in the mid ’80s, though it hardly affected his work. He became a staple of Vancouver’s fringe theatre scene, through which the word of his acting and directing ability began to spread. His theatrical roles included the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Marquis de Sade in Sade, Antonio in The Tempest and Lucifer in Creation. “I think Greg was in touch with darkness,” says long-time friend Richard Cliff. “It was part of his nature not to shy away from it.” In 2006’s Hellenic-era action movie 300, Greg played a hooded Spartan overlord. He played the wandering vagrant Mississippi Gene in 2012’s On The Road, and contributed a song to the film’s soundtrack. He voiced characters in video games such as Assassin’s Creed. He had a recurring role as a vampire on the television series Forever Knight. He wrote several novels. “He was also a hell of a knitter,” Cliff says.

His first love, though, was theatre. He garnered several Montreal English Critics Circle Awards for his work, including a best actor nod for Player’s Advice to Shakespeare and best director for Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

In the spring of 2004, tired of being out of breath, Greg quit his two-pack-a-day smoking habit. One month later, doctors found a large tumour in his chest, and removed one of his lungs. Again, it hardly affected his work. “People, I’m doing this with one lung!” he belted in 2004, as he and a cast struggled through a rehearsal for Oliver!

Last year, Greg returned to B.C. to write a stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, in which he was set to act at Montreal’s Segal Centre this summer. He was to play Inspector Lestrade, the scheming foil to Inspector Holmes, played by Hollywood actor Jay Baruchel. “He couldn’t have been more self-effacing and collaborative,” says Baruchel of the sometimes-fraught exercise of reading someone else’s work with them. “He wasn’t precious or protective about it. He knew I had to be invested in the character.”

Greg was uncharacteristically late for the first rehearsal of Sherlock Holmes. After 45 minutes, another cast member received a call. Greg had been found dead in his apartment in Montreal’s Plateau district. The cause of his death was not known as of early this week. He was 51.

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