Pat John, a member of the shíshálh Nation who gained international stardom in the role of Jesse Jim on the long-running Beachcombers television series, died on Wednesday, July 13, at a relative’s house in his hometown of Sechelt. He was 69 years old and had experienced a decline in health over several years.
John's death comes only three months before the 50th anniversary of the iconic series, which first aired in October 1972. Filming began in Gibsons on September 11, 1971. The show's unaired pilot episode was titled "Jesse's Car," foreshadowing the outsized influence that the unassuming John was to wield over the history of the 19-season CBC Television program. Its record as the longest-running Canadian TV drama was only surpassed 10 years ago when the Degrassi franchise outpaced Beachcombers' 387 episodes.
John attended the erstwhile St. Augustine’s Indian Residential School in Sechelt which closed in 1975. He dropped out of school to find work at a local sawmill.
In 1971, one of his former teachers contacted John, urging him to audition for the part of a 16-year-old Indigenous male in a new TV series. He did a camera test, performed a discursive monologue, and returned to the sawmill job. Half a year later, he was hired for 10 weeks at a weekly rate of 600 dollars.
During an interview with Coast Reporter last year, John recalled wondering, “What did I get myself into? And then 19 years went by.”
In John's character as the stalwart business partner to log salvager Nick Adonidas, played by Bruno Gerussi, he led a vanguard of Indigenous television actors in iconoclastic parts. Chief Dan George, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation who earned an Academy Award nomination in 1970 for playing an archetypal tribal leader in Little Big Man, was cast in Beachcombers as a contemporary chief managing complex issues like territorial rights and the ecological impacts of industry. Charlene Aleck was hired four years into the show's run to play Sara, Jesse Jim's younger sister. Aleck, who is also of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, was one of dozens of young actors who used Beachcombers to launch successful careers in the visual and performing arts.
"We never had social media when we did the series," said co-star Jackson Davies in an interview with Coast Reporter. Davies joined the Beachcombers series three years after John, playing RCMP officer Constable John Constable. "Hell, we hardly had media. I don't think Pat realized what his impact was on a generation of kids. I'm not just speaking about Indigenous kids. There are kids all around the world who admired him. He probably didn't realize how important he was. For a lot of non-Indigenous people, it was the first time they saw someone Indigenous living in the community. He wasn't one of the 'bad guys' on the outside."
John's easy affability and solid acting chops made Jesse Jim the audience's trusted ally as he navigated the rivalry between hot-tempered Nick (Bruno Gerussi) and sardonic competitor Relic (Robert Clothier). Jesse's good humour came naturally.
"He had the greatest laugh ever, and it was my goal in life to get him to laugh, just to hear it," Davies wrote in an online post announcing news of John's death. "Somehow when [Pat John] laughed the world was OK again."
Beachcombers became syndicated and shown in over 50 countries. Early in the series, the pressure of John's sudden status as an internationally-regarded role model for Indigenous youth caused problems. In March 1974, he was briefly fired after leading police in a high-speed chase to Earl's Cove. Gerussi stood by his co-star, telling the Vancouver Province, "If Pat John goes, I go." John was reinstated, and the two remained lifelong friends until Gerussi's death in 1995.
"I never saw him get mad or pull an actor's tantrum," recalled Davies. "He accepted a lot of things. That's him. He was very quiet."
After the broadcast of the final Beachcombers episode — Sunset, which aired on December 12, 1990 — John began a new career: fishing and clam harvesting. "Things were very rough for a few years," remembered Beachcombers co-creator Marc Strange in the 2012 retrospective book Bruno and the Beach.
Apart from an appearance in the 2002 made-for-TV movie The New Beachcombers, John did not return to motion pictures.
"We talked most weeks," said Davies. "I’m so glad we always ended our talks with 'Love you, PJ,' 'Love you, Jackson.' We got closer through the years. The road hasn't always been smooth for Pat, but he never complained once. And at the end, there was an incredible peacefulness to him."