UPDATED at 5:37 pm, Jan. 24
Toller Cranston, a prolific Canadian figure skater widely credited for bringing new artistry to the sport, has died, his longtime friend Jeanne Beker told the Toronto Star on Saturday. He was 65.
Beker said Cranston was found dead Saturday morning in his home in San Miguel, Mexico. The circumstances are yet unclear, though Beker said there is no foul play suspected.
Born Toller Shalitoe Montague Cranston in Hamilton, the skater was the Canadian senior men’s champion from 1971 to 1976. He won the free-skate segment of the world championship four times and won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria.
But he was more well-known for his creative free-skating style — which inspired future generations of champion skaters — and was one of the most sought-after choreographers.
Off the ice, Cranston was known for his humour, energetic manner and wide social circle.
“Absolutely outrageous, without question,” said Beker, who first met Cranston in 1979, when she lived across the road from him in Cabbagetown in Toronto.
“The dinner parties he threw were beyond anything you can imagine.
“There was a great sense of drama to him and he just made such a mark on all who knew him.”
That drama, however, did not always translate well into skating.
In 1976, the same year Cranston would be inducted into the Order of Canada, he was punished at the Olympic Games for what he said was a balletic approach — an over-emotional, flamboyant performance.
The bronze medal Cranston won would be his highest ever finish at the international level, a frustrating result that underscored what he said was the judges’ refusal to accept change.
“The judging world,” he wrote in his book Zero Tollerance, published in 1997, which he adamantly said was not an autobiography, “is an eternal Jurassic Park. There are always the same dinosaurs out there. They’re immune to the aging process. . . They simply refused to die.”
But Cranston’s style would influence the great male skaters of the 1980s and ’90s; the Orsers, Brownings and Boitanos were all said to skate with Cranston’s dynamism.
And as the new generation took to the ice, Cranston would retreat.
The skater retired from competitive skating, following up on an earlier-stated goal of developing “theatre on ice.”
Cranston performed in his own show with former elite competitors and headlined some hit-and-miss European skating shows.
And by 1992 he would retreat again. After battling depression for nearly two years, he auctioned nearly all his possessions, sold his Cabbagetown home and moved to San Miguel, Mexico, to pursue his passion for painting.
It was a necessary move, he told the Star in an earlier interview: “I’ll never be taken seriously as an artist, at least in this country, (but) I am absolutely convinced I am one.”
While Cranston was a talented and disciplined painter — Beker said he would get up at 5 a.m. daily to paint — his art had always been underappreciated.
“Skating obviously overshadowed a lot of what he did,” Beker said.
Cranston would go on justify that move, painting more than 70,000 pieces — dwarfing Vincent Van Gough’s 2,500, he said — and selling one at a high of $40,000.
He drew often upon his skating experience, saying the two activities came from the “same creative reservoir,” though he would more or less abandon the blades. In an interview with the Star in 2003, Cranston said he had not touched the ice in four years.
And when he did then it was with ill-fitting old boots that had shrunk and were painful to put on.
“I realized I could never skate again because I couldn’t stand the pain,” he said.
- With files from Morgan Campbell and Lynda Hurst