Widow of Corner Gas actor pays tribute to her husband on cartoon version of hit comedy
“You think there’s not a lot goin’ on/ But look closer baby, you’re so wrong.”
The lyrics to the Craig Northey/Jesse Valenzuela-penned theme from Corner Gas will have some extra meaning with the Monday evening broadcast of the “Rum Punch” episode of Corner Gas Animated on Monday evening on the Comedy Network.
The cartoon iteration of the beloved Canadian sitcom offers up a typically daft storyline in which pals Brent (Brent Butt) and Hank (Fred Ewanuick) are conned into participating in a cage fight by conniving cashier Wanda (Nancy Robertson). But in the background, café owner Lacey (Gabrielle Miller) is striving to raise funds for the widow of the deceased Wes Humboldt, the proprietor of Dog River’s hybrid liquor store/insurance agency. Wes, it transpires, died without himself buying a life insurance policy.
The episode has an added layer of meaning in that it airs three days prior to the three-year anniversary of the death of Winnipeg actor Mike O’Brien in 2015 at the age of 51. O’Brien, who died of cancer, played Humboldt on the original Corner Gas series.
More significantly, the role of Wes’s widow is voiced is voiced by O’Brien’s widow, Winnipeg journalist Robin Summerfield, who says she was approached to voice the character in early 2017.
“They totally sprung it on me,” says Summerfield, 47. “I was on holidays in New Zealand visiting my sister and I got this phone call out of the blue from David Storey, who is the executive producer (of Corner Gas Animated).
“He said: ‘We’ve written this episode and we have this character. She’s Wes’s widow. Can you read the script?’
“And I’m like: ‘Yes, I’d be honoured to read the script.’
“So I read the script and it was funny, of course, and I called David back and said, ‘How am I going to tell you to do it any better than you’re already doing it? I’m no scriptwriter, but it was funny and I loved it and it was a great homage to my husband and my husband’s character.
“And then he said: ‘How do you feel about voicing it?’”
“So it escalated in the next call and I’m like: Oh my God, yes! There’s no other answer than, ‘Yes.’”
Summerfield did an audition of sorts, reading the lines into her phone and sending the recording to the producers.
“You know, I’ve never done this kind of work before,” she says. “So I did the lines and I sent him the version and less than a week later, they said: ‘We’d really like you to voice this character for us’ And I said: ‘Absolutely. No question. I’m going to do it.’
“It was just a fun and fantastic opportunity and kind of a thrill for me to do this,” she says. “But the undercurrent is that this is about my husband and — I’m going to cry — the relationship he had with the people of Corner Gas.
“He was an important part of that production, and them asking me was 100 per cent about how much respect they had for him, and how much a part of that Corner Gas family and Corner Gas history was about him,” Summerfield says tearfully.
“Mike O’Brien was a truly beloved part of the Corner Gas family,” says Butt. “He was witty, pleasant, and just an all-around terrific guy.
“Beyond being loved, he was a valuable asset on a creative level because he was naturally very funny and could deliver a comedic line flawlessly. Losing him hurt, on a lot of levels.
“It seemed only natural and right we do something with Corner Gas Animatedto honour his contribution to the original series,” Butt says. “Having his wife Robin Summerfield participate in the episode, was a real blessing.”
“It’s about Mike,” Summerfield says, adding that the job had added value for her’s and O’Brien’s son Will, now seven years old.
“This is all part of his father’s history, and it’s a history I’m trying to keep alive for him,” she says. “It’s very special.
“And now I have some more credibility with my son,” Summerfield says. “My husband and I are both cartoon characters and there’s a lot of street cred there for a seven year old.”
The experience of voicing the character in an Exchange District sound studio in January 2017 proved to be an emotional one… at least after it was completed, she says.
“It was something I had never done before and I was very stressed out, and I wanted to do Mike proud, right?” she says. “I got to the studio and I’m in a booth and there’s a sound technician and I can hear David Story and Brent Butt in my headphones there in Vancouver remotely and it’s just the three of us.
“I did the lines and they gave me some notes and I was there for probably 45 minutes when all is said and done,” she says. “It was fun. And then as I left and walked out into the street in the Exchange, I just burst out crying.
“I don’t know if it was all the emotion and the release of just having done it,” she says.
Summerfield got to see an advance screener of the show last weekend in Victoria, B.C., O’Brien’s old hometown.
“It was funny. It was hard. But it’s such a cool thing to have for my son,” she says. “He was watching it with us, and he was quiet the entire time of the 22 minutes. He didn’t want to miss a word of it.”
Summerfield does not usually go by the name Robin Summerfield-O’Brien, but she says that’s how she will be named in the show’s end credits.
“That’s what I asked for anyway,” she says. “My husband used to bug me, saying: ‘You haven’t earned the O’Brien name.’
“But I have earned the O’Brien name… in my only screen credit.”