Cayle Vivian Chernin was born on Dec. 4, 1947, to Sol and Beryl Chernin, a dentist and homemaker in Glace Bay, N.S. When Cayle was six, the family picked up and moved to Stephenville, Nfld., “a bustling community that needed a dentist,” says Franky Chernin, Cayle’s younger sister (sisters Barbara and Nancy followed). Back then, “there was no public school system; there were Catholic and Protestant schools,” Franky recalls. “So we went to the Catholic school, and of course, we were Jewish.”
A bright, animated child, Cayle “was acting from the time she was born,” says Franky, who shared her bedroom. “We used to go visit my grandparents in Cape Breton, and we’d create shows and perform for them.” When Cayle was 12, they moved to Toronto, where she started acting classes. Sometimes, she’d skip school, “head downtown and watch movies,” says actor Dwight McFee, who later became her husband.
Cayle met Jayne Eastwood in her acting class, and the two became fast friends, sharing an apartment in Rosedale. “She was my first real girlfriend in show business,” Eastwood says. The two young actresses attended an open audition for Goin’ Down the Road, a movie about friends who travel from Nova Scotia to Toronto, looking for a better life. Both were cast—Eastwood as the love interest of one of the male characters, Cayle as her best friend. “We were so excited,” Eastwood says. “We were preparing for the film, doing odd jobs so we could stay alive.” Released in 1970, Goin’ Down the Road is considered a Canadian classic.
Cayle eventually moved to Montreal, then L.A., working on different projects before she returned to Toronto. “She was growing up, and realized she needed to get grounded again,” says Franky, who was teaching children from a housing development at the time. These kids had “written a play about their life,” Franky says. “I said to Cayle, ‘This is so wonderful. Can you do something with it?’ ” Cayle did: she made The Party’s Over (1983), a 20-minute video that won a Children’s Broadcast Institute Award.
Cayle met McFee in 1998, at a directing workshop in Toronto. They started seeing each other, and got married on Dec. 19, 1999, at a friend’s condo. “It was one of those wonderful cramped parties, with everybody up against the wall holding martinis,” McFee says. They lived in a “big, funky apartment” in the east end. “We did a lot of road trips, and Cayle knew the words to every Phil Ochs tune,” he says. “And she’d sing, and sing, and sing in the car—but she can’t sing. Well, you’d think that would be awful, but it was very sweet.”
Cayle continued to act, appearing in series like Little Mosque on the Prairie and Queer as Folk, and in theatre productions like Fear of Flying. She produced and wrote videos, too. But of all her projects, Goin’ Down the Road remained especially important to her. “We all want to be in a good movie, even if it’s a bit part,” McFee says.
A few years ago, Cayle started talking about doing a sequel, Down the Road Again. She worked hard to get the project off the ground. The feeling was, “everybody’s 40 years older, so this had better be good,” McFee says. In June, a few months before shooting was finally set to begin, Cayle was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She rejected chemotherapy or surgery, seeking out alternative treatments instead. “We kept everything very secretive,” McFee says. “It was absolutely important to her to finish this. It kept her going.”
The film shoot, which lasted a few weeks in October, was a reunion of sorts for Cayle and Eastwood, who’d fallen in and out of touch over the years. On set, “it was as if no time had passed,” Eastwood says. Even so, Cayle looked thin and drawn, and other members of the cast were worried about her health. “We didn’t know what was wrong with her,” Eastwood says, but even so, Cayle seemed full of energy, and turned in a “brilliant” performance. Down the Road Again is expected to be released later this year.
In December, McFee took Cayle to the palliative care ward. “I was extremely distressed, and here’s Cayle getting all dolled up,” he says. “She’s got a big Russian fur coat on. She gets a private room, and gets into bed, and you’d swear it was Bette Davis checking into the Astoria Hotel for a performance at the Carnegie.” Cayle Chernin died on Feb. 18. She was 63 years old.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.