Anne Tait cast the actors for Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987) and returned to select the cast for the new series Road to Avonlea. Since the Montgomery stories revolved around the lives of the young King children and their estranged cousin, the casting of children with experience in key roles was critical. Tait had an amazing knack for finding children through her teaching of actors, school shows and contacts with agents.
Sarah Polley during test scenes for the
role of Sara Stanley, Summer 1989
The principle role of Sara Stanley would eventually be played by Sarah Polley. The youngest of five children, Sarah was born in Toronto, Ontario on January 8, 1979 to parents Michael and Diane Polley. Sara's parents were both actors and Diane Polley was a casting director for Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables mini-series.
Sarah's parents were not thrilled by their daughters acting ambitions. "My parents are both actors but were not at all enthusiastic about the idea of me doing it," Sarah recalled, "and I think I just bugged them enough that they let me do it. They were not stage parents. For me at that point, I thought it would be fun and I never thought it would be what I did when I grew up" (Matthews).
Sarah's mother, Diane Polley, was casting director for Sullivan's Anne of Green Gables mini-series (1985). She discovered Jonathan Crombie while he was singing in a school play. Polley and Anne Tait (the casting director for Road to Avonlea) auditioned Jonathan for the role of Gilbert Blythe.
Despite her parents' discouragement, Polley was determined to act and her headstrong nature was very similar to the role she would eventually portray on Road to Avonlea. She began her acting career at age 4 in the movie One Magic Christmas (1985), and went on to star in the television series Ramona (88-89) and the big budget film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).
In 1989, Sarah was attending grade five at the Claude Watson School for the Arts where she learned to dance and mime. She planned to take a break from acting that summer. It would be her last summer in her families North York home overlooking a sprawling golf course. She looked forward to having a dog when the family moved to the new home in Aurora, but in the meantime, she settled on a toad farm. "I'm a toad breeder, you could say. I get a male and a female and they have babies.” (Zekas, C.1)
During busy negotiations in 1989, Polley had the lead role in a new Annie movie titled Annie and Daddy Warbucks Go To Budapest. The film was only in discussion and would never see production.
In May 1989, Polley’s agents were working against her summer plans. Polley auditioned for the role of Cher’s daughter in ‘Mermaids (A role that went to Christina Ricci)’ and a role in ‘Small Sacrifices’ with Farrah Fawcett. The planned filming for Small Sacrifices in June 26 in Vancouver conflicted with filming for Road to Avonlea and it became apparent Polley's camp would have to decide between the two projects. After serious discussions with Sullivan, Sarah and her family accepted the role of Sara Stanley in the new series.
Another experienced young actor, Zachary Bennett, would play Sara Stanley's trouble causing yet hilarious cousin, Felix King. The second youngest of four children, Bennett was born February 17, 1980 in London, Ontario. Like Polley, Zachary is from an acting family and attended the Claude Watson School of the performing Arts.
Bennett was in commercials at age five and would later play in The Good Mother, starring Diane Keaton as well as appearing in TV Shows including The Muppets’ Christmas Special, Friday the 13th and The Twilight Zone. His roles in the Sullivan films ‘Looking for Miracles’ and ‘Lantern Hill’ (with Sarah Polley and his sister Mairon) led to the role of Felix King in Road to Avonlea.
"Zach Bennett is a natural on camera and another very talented young actor," Patricia Hamilton remarked. "I worked on a stage play with him, before we were both on the series together, in which I played his grandmother. He's such a nice kid, as in Gema Zamprogna. They aren't full of themselves and aren't just interested in the things you think teenagers would like." (ATC 28: 11).
Gema Zamprogna was born into a performing arts family on May 24, 1976 in Hamilton, Ontario. Her father, Lou Zaprogna is the director of performing arts at Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius. At first, Gema's mother, Pauline, had doubts about her daughter pursuing an acting career:
"I never thought it would go this far. I thought Gema might do something as a dancer. She used to love watching commercials. When she was 9, she said she wanted to do a commercial but we put her off because we were concerned what it would mean with time out of school. Then when she was 11 she persuaded us to do one. She auditioned for many commercials but she never did any. She was shy and reserved. I don't think she was the type for them." (Gema 95)
Gema Zamprogna in The Challengers
Lou Zamprogna found an agent and started taking her to auditions. She appeared in a couple Toronto filmed television roles, including My Secret Identity and Friday the 13th. She caught the attention of Anne Tait, but she almost missed an opportunity to audition for Road to Avonlea. "We almost missed her for Avonlea… I'd auditioned her for an earlier Sullivan film and her talent was like a clear white light shining through. But everyone said 'She's going to Winnipeg, just give up on her.'"
Gema was heading to Winnipeg to star in the CBC made-for-TV movie ‘The Challenge,’ later to be re-titled ‘The Challengers.’ Gema played the lead role as a 12 year old girl who impersonates a boy to join a boys-only club. Not one to give up, Tait tracked down Gema en route to the airport and managed to obtain a tape of her reading for Felicity (Avonlea’s Felicity, C.1).
There were plans for the Challengers to become a weekly series and scripts were written, but the plan never materialized (Danakas, F.6).
During the screenings for Road to Avonlea in June 1989, actress Tara Meyer read for Felicity King. At that time, Gema was shooting the final production number of ‘The Challengers,’ in Stonewall Quarry park, just northwest of Winnipeg. As rockstar Mackie/Mac Daniels, Gema was fooling all the kids as she pretended to be a boy on stage performing a rock song with her fellow Challengers to a crowd of kids.
The scheduled filming for Road to Avonlea was delayed one week, allowing Gema to accept the role as Felicity King. Tait observed that Felicity looked like Sarah Polley’s older sister Joanna and this would be ideal being that Gema and Sarah would be playing cousins.
Harmony Cramp playing 'Girl in Fire'
in 'January Man,' filmed early 1988
The actress Asia Vieira originally auditioned to play Cecily King, the youngest member of the King family, but the role would eventually be won by a relatively unknown actress named Harmony Cramp. "I started acting at the age of four by doing commercials and photo sessions until I was fortunate to get the job of playing Cecily" (AC, 5), she remembered.
Harmony had a brief role in the mystery thriller movie January Man when scenes were filmed in Toronto in early 1988. Harmony played a young girl saved from a burning building by policeman Nick Starkey, played by Kevin Kline. “He was really nice,” Harmony said. “He came to my trailer after the scene and gave me a stuffed animal (James, C.1).”
Roger Ebert had a less than favorable view of Kline's performance and the movie. "As for Kevin Kline -first seen rescuing a baby from a burning building - he seems to have based his performance directly on his stage experience in "The Pirates of Penzance," Ebert wrote. "Nothing fits. Every role seems to have been faxed in from a different movie, and the actors are on such various planes of emotional intensity that sometimes you can catch them, right there on the screen, looking at each other in bewilderment. (Ebert, 1989)"
Although the film was not successful, it gave Harmony experience leading into her role as Cecily on Road to Avonlea; and while her acting experience was not as extensive as her co-stars, Harmony portrayed a sweetness and innocence that was appropriate for the role of the mild peacekeeping King sibling.
The adults in the series would prove to be as equally talented. Cedric Smith plays the caring and kind father, Alec King. Cedric began his career performing as a folk singer in coffee houses in the late sixties and early seventies. He formed and played in the Stratford Ontario band 'Perth County Conspiracy (Does not Exist)' before becoming an actor. His performance as Reverend Allan in Anne of Green Gables would lead to his role as Uncle Alec in Road to Avonlea.
Lally Cadeau (Aunt Janet) Alec's wife Janet King, would be played by the exceptional stage performer Lally Cadeau. Similiar to Polley, Cadeau was determined to be an actress from an early age. "I was an actress right from the word go," she explained. "I remember that frisson of being on the stage. That tremendous bowel-gripping fear and then that absolutely thrilling excitement, which I've had ever since (Nash 302)."
In her youth, Cadeau would imitate motel clerks and gas station attendants during family trips to Florida and would entertain her family by dancing on the table. By the age of ten, she played Elizabeth in Elizabeth the Queen at the Hamilton Players Guild. Lally went on to win critical acclaim in film, radio and television; and performed in major venues in the Country, including Stratford. From 1980-87, she played a social worker on the CBC series ‘Hangin’ In.’
In 1987, she co-starred in the remake of The Women at the Royal Alex and won a Dora Award for Saturday, Sunday, Monday, at the Bluma Appel. She was surprised when she received the role of Aunt Janet. "I'd just had Bennett, my hair was quarter of an inch long and flaming red,” she remembered. “I was as big as a house. I had a toddler and a tiny baby, yet I got this job and I couldn't believe it. My jaw dropped… Aunt Janet was peony cheeked, her seams split when she laughed. I could get into that. (Zekas, 94, E.6).”
Many of the Avonlea cast appeared in various episodes of the Twilight Zone television series (1985-1989): Cedric Smith (Alec), Lally Cadeau (Janet), Jackie Burroughs (Hetty), Zachary Bennett (Felix), Rosemarry Dunsmore (Abigail), RH Thomson (Jasper), Frances Hyland (Louisa), Ron Payne (Mr. Tyler) and Colleen Dewhurst (Marilla).
The role of the charming and perky Olivia King would be played by the multi-talented Mag Ruffman. Mag's Montgomery acting experiences date back to an early childhood play.
"It was an all girl camp so somebody had to play Gilbert!" She recalled. "It was a smashing role! I got to wear overalls and a plaid shirt and kick the dirt under my feet. I was particularly fond of the overalls. They were all to more comfortable than the corsets I have to wear as Olivia." (ATC 16: 6)
Mag graduated from the University of Toronto and performed in the Limelight Dinner Theatre's production of Hello Dolly, appeared on Smith and Smith's Comedy Mill, and played Alice Lawson in Anne of Green Gables and it's sequel.
In Summer 1989, Mag was called by Sullivan Entertainment to audition for the role of Olivia King. Before the audition, Mag unknowingly got rid of everything she owned with the intent to move to California. (ATC 16: 6) Mag would later describe her audition with Sullivan and her general feeling that she did not get the role:
“I heard about the part from my agent. I was very nervous because I'd never done any straight acting, only comedy. I worked very hard on my lines and showed up with my rather short hair pulled into a pathetic bun. The audition was full of Aunt Hettys and no other Aunt Olivias, so I figured I was just early. I did my audition and Kevin seemed to be ignoring me so I figured I tanked. I moved to California. I am not making this up. I did. And when I got there I bought an answering machine and went out. The first message on my answering machine was from my agent. "Come back. You got the part in Road to Avonlea." (03/06)
After a few months, Mag returned to California and met Daniel Hunter at a Halloween party. The couple were married three weeks later at the "Heart of Love" chapel in Reno. In the next seven years, Mag would commute frequently between California and Canada.
The pivotal role of Olivia's older sister and Sara's Aunt, Hetty King, would be played by Jackie Burroughs. Burroughs began acting as a student in plays at the University of Toronto. After graduating in 1962, she accepted a role from her neighbor, director Rene Bonniere, in the television show Twelve and a Half Cents.
"I never really wanted to be an actor," she would later recall. "Being an actor is like being a little girl. You have to sit there and wait to be asked. So if nobody asked me, I could say, 'I don't care. I didn't want to be at this party anyway" (Nash 300).
Her early television experiences didn't improve her opinion of acting. In one hilarious studio performance, people shook the truck Jackie was sitting in while others ran by with trees and branches to give the impression that the vehicle was rambling down a country road.
Burroughs went on to become a premier actress of theatre and film, earning numerous awards throughout her versatile career. She performed opposite Richard Farnsworth in The Grey Fox (1982), appeared with future Avonlea alumni Colleen Dewhurst in The Dead Zone (1983), and wrote and acted in A Winter Tan (1987). Her role as Amelia Evans in Anne of Green Gables led to her starring role as Hetty King.
Although it seems unfathomable today that anyone other than Jackie Burroughs could play Hetty King, there were originally four actresses auditioning for the principle role. With the unstoppable tenacity of her character, Jackie prevailed at winning the role of the domineering King matriarch.
“I phoned every amazing actor I knew and asked them if they would be prepared to sign up for a series,” Kevin Sullivan remembered. “Fortunately every single one of them said yes. I had the pleasure of watching them bring their ensemble talents to the fore. The cast was more remarkable than I could ever had hoped for.” (September 15, 2005)
The sun was beating down on the set in Uxbridge on June 1989 when Sullivan began production of the new series. With the stellar cast set and the most expensive production in Canadian television history, the Journey was about to begin.