I first met Gino Matteo in 1976 on the day I checked in for orientation at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
On that busy day, the campus centre known as the “Coop” was jammed with other disoriented rookies. I found my way to the “B”’s.
This hip dude behind the table who looked like (and, turns out was) your favourite professor asked my name.
“BRIO,” I said, sounding it out, Anglo style.
“Ah,” he answered. “Your name has an effervescent quality.”
The man was Gino Matteo, who passed away December 13 at 83.
Over the next four years I took three of his courses. He was an English professor and taught Shakespeare the way the Bard was supposed to be taught: with a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Matteo always wore a turtleneck and generally had a medallion on a chain around his neck. He looked like FM Radio sounded at the time, only smarter and less pretentious. It was the late ‘70s.
A visionary, he was also the founding director of the U of T’s Cinema Studies program. He lectured on Shakespeare on film but also taught a general cinema 101 course. I remember hauling off to the Uptown to see the new Travolta movie “Saturday Night Fever” and thinking, “this is on the curriculum?” but one thing Matteo taught was that the closed mind never learned anything.
Matteo worked a previous connection he had at TV Ontario and arranged for his “Shakespeare on Film” class to shoot a video in the smallish basement studio at TVO’s Yonge and Eglington headquarters. With his guidance and approval, we modeled our effort as a rip-off of Martin Mull’s lost TV classic Fernwood 2Nite, with a small-town acting troupe showing clips of their production of the Irish Play on monitors during a talk show.
The following year, Matteo cheerfully agreed to supervise me and my friend Pat Bullock through an “Independent Studies” (i.e. “made up”) course that earned us both a credit. The end product was making a short film. The nine-minute movie was “Varsity Blues,” made many years before the James Van der Beek feature.
Our short was a 16mm lark shot on campus about slacker students. Matteo is in the film, miscast as the stuffy professor, and took not one but two pies in his face for his trouble.
The damn thing won the CBC Telefest prize the following year, beating out a film by fellow U of T student Atom Egoyan. That injustice drove Egoyan to win at Cannes and other festivals for decades.
After I graduated, Matteo remembered I drew editorial cartoons while a student at The Varsity and asked me to render a caricature of Norman Jewison. Matteo brought Jewison and other esteemed directors, including a 90-ish but spry Frank Capra, to U of T for a lecture series. I did the drawing and was rewarded with an invitation to join the professor and the filmmaker up on the rooftop bar of the Park Plaza hotel, where I sat spellbound for two hours.
I kept in touch sporadically with Gino in the ensuing years. He snuck off to our family cottage at one point to work on an opera.
Thankfully, we re-connected in recent years. His lofty Toronto apartment, where we enjoyed a brandy or two, looked down directly at the St. Mikes campus. I found him diminished only in body but never in spirit.
As the pandemic postponed plans for a rooftop picnic, I savour our correspondence. He was still writing up, ever encouraging and so generous with thoughts and ideas – and funny.
His last email was in late November. He had just listened to a podcast I did with Graham Yost, son of the late TVO Saturday Night at the Movies host Elwy Yost. It triggered some memories, told with his usual economy of words.
“I met Graham. I don’t think he was impressed,” Matteo deadpanned.
“Elwy and I laughed, gossiped, and for Magic Shadows [another TVO series Elwy had hosted], he was wonderful.
It seems to me as I get older, I’m getting younger. Elwy and I met at TVO. We had burgers together, in the last century. We fought bureaucrats, lost and won.
In Coburg, we were celebrating a brilliant fat lady. [silent film star] Marie Dressler. Elwy, ever the courtier, worked the gathering and made us laugh.
The big film of the day was ‘A Beautiful Mind,’” he continued. Did he see the film with Elwy, or just equate it with his friend? Either way, Matteo’s last message was that Yost, “did a graceful nod and hugged my wife and me.”
The professor signed off with one last lesson.
“Does not get better.”
Condolences to his family, friends and students. Link to Toronto Star obit here.