Thursday, March 23, 2017

Denis McGrath

We lost one of the best writers I know tonight. A writer, and a firebrand for writers. And a good friend. And a wit, and a style, and a voice. Damn it.

I met Denis McGrath on a plane to South Africa. We were parachuting in on a show where the previous writing team, who were on a plane going the other way, had not got along too well with the showrunner. When we got there, we had to retcon some sort of sense out of the episodes that had been shot, and then rewrite the next script literally over the course of 24 hours.

We got along like gangbusters. Denis was a New York native who'd moved to Toronto as a kid. He was big, and he was loud, and he was funny, and he was whip smart. He liked to complain. He was generous. He cared. He loved stories. We spent a lot of time breaking story above a nice restaurant, having them bring us takeout on actual plates, since we were right upstairs. We decided his talk show would be called, "Here's Why I Hate That."

A couple years later, Denis and I instigated the Writer Mafia Party At TIFF, which became an annual event for a decade. Starting at The Paddock and moving to Czehoski, it was the antidote to all the producer parties at the Toronto International Film Festival. No free drinks, but your friends were there. Like him, it was big, it was loud, it was fun, it was packed to the gills with brains and creativity.

He would hold court at the Writer Mafia Party. He did not get around easily, so friends would come to him, and bask in him. He always had a bunch of Ryerson kids around him who were starting to break in. He was one of the top television writers in Canada, but he also taught, because he didn't want to keep it all for himself. He said in every class there was one kid you knew was going to do it. That was my experience too. You really taught the class for that one kid that had it.

He had a million friends; he had a few bosom buddies who went back to his high school days. But he always made time for me when I showed up in town.

He was a hell of a writer. He was certainly one of the best television writers in Canada. When, as a juror for the WGC awards, I read a script that really popped, more than once it turned out to be Denis's. I remember an episode of The Border where every act out not only amped the story out, it made you have to rethink everything you'd seen up to then.

He blogged passionately. He got himself in trouble calling a certain very powerful individual a fatuous gasbag, someone who could easily reach out and discourage people from hiring him. He ranted about Canadian networks that refused to believe in Canadian shows, always trying to get permission to stop funding them, even though shows like Corner Gas and Durham County were successful and good. He was a permanent fixture in the Writer's Guild of Canada, a long time counsellor for Ontario, and a member of the negotiating committee. I'm glad I was not one of the producers on the other side. He was not afraid to call shenanigans when he saw them.

Like a rising tide, he lifted everyone around him.

Damn it, I miss him.


  1. Oh, I am so sorry to hear this. There are some wonderfully talented and genuinely great people in this business -- and Denis certainly sounds like one of them. He will be missed.

  2. Denis and I were at school together. He was in the year behind me at Ryerson. What he said about there being one kid who would make it as a writer? In RTA'90, that kid was him. So sad...

  3. Try being in a comedy troupe with that genius! Oh we who were have truly lived. So very lucky and so very heartbroken that our brother is down.

  4. I weep not for what he was, because what he was, was great. I weep for might have been. The drinks not downed. The lies not told. And that big smile that went on for days at a time punctuated by deep, true chuckles.

    Fuck Cancer.

  5. Well over a decade ago, I was one of those Ryerson kids being like, "Hi Denis! I'm here. Uh, so what's up?" He was my teacher at Ryerson, and he also wrote a letter of recommendation for me to get into the CFC while you guys were working across the pond. He was always generous with his time and advice, constantly helping young writers get a foothold in the biz. There will never be another Denis McGrath and we'll miss him, but I believe he inspired a whole bunch of writers to be just as passionate, generous and outspoken as he was, and his influence will live on.

  6. Oh, crap. I only just saw this and it's the first I knew of the bad news. I never met Denis face-to-face but his was one of the first blogs I discovered when I got into the wider online world of writers sharing about writing. I followed him with awe, traded the odd comment, and looked out for his work whenever I could. I envied his forthrightness, admired his integrity.