From jokester to jailbird

Published On Sun May 13 2007

He started out as a gifted improv comic at Toronto's Second City. From there, Tony Rosato took his zany writing and performing style to the small screen, winning fame on SCTV and later on Saturday Night Live.

His off-the-wall characters ranged from fictional TV chef Marcello Sebastiano to Lou Costello, Captain Kangaroo and Yasser Arafat. Industry buzz pegged him as the next John Belushi.

Rosato went on to perform in a variety of TV shows and movies. In 1989 he was nominated for the best-supporting-actor Gemini for his role as police informant Whitey in Night Heat.

Then suddenly, two years ago, Rosato disappeared.

Since then, the actor has been behind bars, with no trial, at the maximum-security Quinte Detention Centre in Napanee, 30 kilometres west of Kingston, on charges of criminally harassing his wife during their marriage. It's alleged that his "reckless" behaviour led his spouse, Leah, with whom he has a now-2-year-old daughter, to be afraid for her own safety or others'.

According to his Toronto lawyer, Daniel Brodsky, Rosato was arrested after repeatedly complaining to police that, in a scenario reminiscent of the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the actor's wife and their infant daughter had gone missing, having been replaced by imposters.

The Italian-born, Toronto-based actor, now 53, has had a bail hearing and a preliminary inquiry. Both of them are subject to publication bans.

Arraignment documents show Rosato was denied bail almost three months after his arrest, after undergoing a mental fitness assessment.

He has never had a bail review, and his trial (by judge alone) isn't scheduled until Nov. 13.

Rosato steadfastly maintains that he is sane, and innocent. "I'm not pleading guilty I'm fighting injustice" has been his mantra in phone calls with show business friends.

"The situation is unbelievable," says Brodsky, who notes his client doesn't have a criminal record and has never threatened to hurt anyone. "It's shocking."

Rosato's situation raises troubling questions. Why must he wait so long for a trial? And if he is suffering from mental illness, why isn't he in a hospital room instead of a jail cell?

"On the date of his trial Tony Rosato will have spent more time in custody on a harassment charge than any other convicted prisoner in Canada has ever spent on the same charges," says Brodsky, who took on Rosato's case in March. "On average, someone convicted of criminal harassment spends one day in jail and two years on probation."

On the first day of Rosato's trial, Brodsky a founding member of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted plans to apply to have the case dismissed because of unreasonable delay and abuse of process in failing to get Rosato into a hospital.

Brodsky explains that the Crown's expert prison psychiatrist, Dr. Duncan Scott, has told him and the Crown "that Tony Rosato is certifiable." Scott's diagnosis, says Brodsky, is a mental illness called Capgras syndrome.

Named for its discoverer, French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, the syndrome is characterized by the delusion that a person or people have been replaced by doubles or impostors. The rare condition is most commonly associated with schizophrenia, but according to Dr. Graham Glancy, a forensic psychiatrist with Metro West Detention Centre and Maplehurst Correctional Complex, it can also be caused by metabolic diseases, delirium, brain injury or drugs such as cocaine.

Kingston assistant Crown attorney Priscilla Christie has declined to talk about Rosato and referred questions to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

It's a "complex" case, says ministry spokesperson Brendan Crawley. Rosato, he continues, is viewed by the Crown as "an allegedly dangerous person with mental health issues who has been charged with a crime."

But if the Crown sees Rosato as mentally ill, then why has he been languishing in jail for two years instead of being moved to a hospital? "People who the Crown believes have mental disorders deserve much better," says Brodsky, a director of the Mental Health Legal Committee who has fought the criminalization of the mentally ill.

But Crawley says "the Criminal Code provides for a limited number of circumstances in which the court can order an accused person transferred from custody to a psychiatric facility."

And, he continues, the Crown has taken "every available step to ensure the fair treatment and placement of the accused, including taking steps to facilitate the transfer of the accused to a psychiatric hospital if possible."

However, lawyer Anita Szigeti, former chair of the Mental Health Legal Committee, contends that the Crown could instead have hospitalized him under civil legislation. "Criminal lawyers and Crowns in the traditional system are often unaware of the varied mechanisms under the Mental Health Act that can be employed for the hospitalization of individuals with mental health problems ... including people in jail," says Szigeti, co-author of A Guide to Consent and Capacity Law in Ontario, a book focusing on mental health and the law.

Meanwhile, Crawley says the trial has been delayed "to accommodate Rosato's change of counsel." In fact, Rosato did go through six lawyers he fired some and others quit before hiring Brodsky. Crawley also observes that none of Rosato's lawyers has requested a bail review, so that their client might wait for trial as a free man.

Once he receives all the required documentation, Brodsky intends to apply for a bail review for Rosato. If his client is released on bail, says Brodsky, "he will walk out the front door of the jail into the waiting arms of hospital psychiatric staff, where he'll be detained until trial."

Also puzzling to some in the legal profession is why Rosato's case is being heard not in provincial court, where virtually all harassment cases are heard, but in Superior Court, where only the most serious cases go. "It takes six to eight months longer, not including the trial," says Brodsky, "and it costs at least three times more."

"I don't think I've ever known a criminal harassment case to be tried in Superior Court," says Felicity Hawthorn, an assistant Crown attorney in Lindsay, Ont., and one of Rosato's former lawyers who represented him at his preliminary inquiry last year and has since moved to the Crown's office. "It's very odd ... " Rosato's friends in show business are appalled at the actor's situation. "It's a travesty," says Andrew Alexander, the Chicago-based owner and CEO of Second City and producer of SCTV, who hired Rosato for stage and TV back in the late 1970s. "It's quite extraordinary that in the system he is just falling through the cracks ... Where he is now legally is obviously terrible."

Even Rosato's estranged wife, who says she was and is afraid of him, told the Star she's "shocked that it (Rosato's case) has taken this long ... I want him to get mental help ... in a psychiatric hospital. "


Rosato's legal woes began after his wife left him on Jan. 17, 2005, fleeing their Broadview Ave. apartment with their daughter, who was born the previous September, and eventually returning to her hometown of Kingston.

"She left him a note," says Tony's devoted mother, 77-year-old Maria Rosato. "Tony phoned me crying and sobbing. He thought maybe she'd been kidnapped."

But Leah Rosato told the Star that she had fled their home out of fear. "I thought he was dangerous that's why I left him," she says softly.

A couple of weeks after she left, on Feb. 3, 2005, Leah was granted an emergency motion for sole custody of their baby.

An only child, Tony had immigrated to Canada from Naples with his parents when he was 4 (his father subsequently returned to Italy for medical reasons). First, the family lived in Halifax, then Ottawa, and finally in Toronto, where he completed Grade 13 at Oakwood Collegiate and later studied sciences at the Scarborough campus of University of Toronto. (As a young man he also worked part-time at the Star as a classified ad taker.)

At one point, recalls his mother, her son aspired to become a chiropractor. But he dropped out of university before graduating, having caught the acting bug after a night out at Second City.

He'd later perform onstage there, and on television with SCTV and Saturday Night Live. After Rosato's SNL stint (1981-82), he divided his time between Toronto and Los Angeles, until settling here four years ago.

He met his wife to be, Leah Murray, who is 22 years his junior, in a Danforth Ave. coffee shop when she was visiting from Kingston. Leah, now 31, told the Star in an interview that she fell "deeply in love with him."

After a whirlwind, three-month courtship straddling Toronto and the eastern Ontario city, they got married at Toronto City Hall on New Year's Eve, 2003. Friends say they found their witnesses outside, at the public skating rink. According to the actor's widowed mother, Leah wanted to get into acting, and her son was on board to try and make that happen in L.A.

After the marriage, the couple kept their separate residences in Toronto and Kingston. According to friend Adrian Truss, an actor (the troupe Illustrated Men) and writer, Tony was short of cash and was living with his mother. The couple spent weekends together. Leah was studying Catholicism at her husband's request.

Just before their baby's birth, in September 2004, Leah moved into a Broadview Ave. apartment with Tony. The actor's friends say he behaved strangely once he and Leah were living together. Tony wouldn't allow anyone to come to their apartment. He made Leah give out a post-office-box address. Family and friends were told not to call; he would call them.

Tony told friends he was connected to higher energies and had "information to save the planet," says his long-time friend Derek McGrath, who plays Rev. Magee in Little Mosque on the Prairie. Rosato believes he is "the guardian of light," adds McGrath, who worked with Rosato at Second City and has supported the beleaguered actor through his legal travails, attending most of his court appearances with Tony's cousin Lena DeCaria, a Mississauga banker.

A letter Rosato wrote from jail on June 5, 2005, a month after his arrest, gives his version of what happened after the departure of Leah and the baby. It documents what he perceived as evidence that he was the victim of a "fraudulent hoax" that his wife and daughter had been replaced by doubles.

The CD wedding photos Leah left behind, Rosato wrote, proved the woman in the pictures was not his real wife but a "twin." His real wife had obviously been replaced by a duplicate who was "dressed identically" to his wife.

Rosato wrote that he went to Toronto and then Kingston police to tell them that his wife had been switched with an imposter. Kingston Det. Const. Jeff Smith told him to stay away from Leah.

Rosato's letter indicated that he visited Kingston police again after supervised visits with his baby in March and April 2005. The first visit led him to complain in the letter that his daughter was "clearly suffering from emotional and physical abuse," while during the second, he protested, he was presented with the wrong baby. As evidence, he brought police a photo of a "wife look alike" and of the baby from the second visit.

The letter also indicates that, in desperation to find his wife, Rosato went on Citytv's Speaker's Corner and consulted with Toronto "spiritual channeler" David Watson. Over the years, say Rosato's friends, he frequently sought out spiritual and native healers.

Contacted by the Star, Watson recalls that in spring 2005, Rosato came to him for help. Watson says he found Rosato's "energies" during this consultation "far too disruptive," and refused to work with him again.

Rosato's letter details a series of phone calls with Det. Const. Smith, who asked him to go to Kingston "to discuss the case." Arriving at the police station there, he was arrested and charged with public mischief and harassment, "supposedly for dragging the police force into looking for my wife." Brodsky says those charges were eventually dropped, and instead Rosato was charged with criminally harassing his wife.

Once in jail, Rosato phoned his mother and asked her to go to his apartment to feed his two cats, Feather and Krishna, she told the Star. She has kept them with her since her son's arrest.

A person with mental illness who gets arrested is often caught in a Catch-22. "If you're mentally ill in jail you're likely to spend on average three times as long on remand and in some cases obviously it can go on longer and longer," says prison psychiatrist Glancy.

"You have to have assessments to see if you're fit to stand trial. People don't know where to put you afterwards. Mental hospitals won't readily take you ... so you get stuck in the system."

Making things worse, says Glancy, is the fact that accused persons who suffer from mental illness are "often difficult clients for lawyers, so they fire the lawyers. They represent themselves, and the whole thing gets to be a mess."

He says jail is no place for someone with Capgras who gets in trouble with the law but isn't violent. Such a person "should certainly be moved along to a mental hospital."

Glancy, who has treated patients with Capgras syndrome, says that "most cases would not be violent, but some would," depending on individual risk factors. Drug abuse, he says, would increase the "potential violence."

Rosato at one time admitted to being into hard drugs, says his friend Truss. But Rosato told him he'd managed to kick the habit after leaving SNL, adds Truss, who met Rosato more than 20 years ago when the two were doing comedy auditions around the city.

Rosato's friends and colleagues in the entertainment industry want to know why he's been in jail so long, and why he isn't in a hospital close to Toronto, where he'd be close to his family and friends.

"Can't Canada do something for this troubled man," wonders screenwriter/actor Tim Kazurinsky, who was on Saturday Night Live with Rosato, and who co-wrote the movie About Last Night. "Down here (in the U.S) people think, `Canada: socialized medicine they really care.' I just thought that the Canadian system would be more understanding, particularly to one of Canada's own who was a wonderful actor, wonderful performer who did Canada proud."

He remembers Rosato as an enthusiastic performer and a loyal friend. Rosato once refused to do a sketch on Saturday Night Live that slammed the Blues Brothers (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), the same night that Belushi was to host, Kazurinsky recalls. "He was a very giving and sharing performer and person ... a moveable feast of a man."

Comedian Andrea Martin, who worked with Rosato at Second City and on SCTV (where her characters included station manager Edith Prickley), found him "charming and funny and kind and full of comedic energy," she wrote to the Star in an email from L.A.

"It sickens me that Tony's been lost in the judicial system ... "

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, Rosato was a hot property, says Second City's Andrew Alexander. "He had a lot of early success. It happened pretty rapidly for him ... Tony had a real presence about him.

"There was a lot of chatter about him becoming the new John Belushi."

In 1981 Rosato was picked up by Saturday Night Live, but he was fired after two seasons, at a time when the show was going through turmoil. Comedian Mary Gross told the Star that she protested Rosato's firing to management, because she found Rosato "sweet, very sensitive, very talented." She says she still uses a SNL clip of their parody of Mary Tyler Moore, with her as Mary Richards opposite Rosato's Lou Grant, when interviewing for new jobs.

Rosato went on to appear in numerous TV productions for seven years, including two Canadian series: Night Heat, where he played a police informer for five years, and Diamonds, where he had a two-year gig as a detective.

Reached in his New York office, Sonny Grosso, executive producer of both series, said he considered Rosato "a genius." Rosato was one of two people he would allow to change the dialogue in a script. "Tony was just marvellous ... He always made it better ... He took a scene and made it real ... His facial attitudes, his body movements, he made you laugh.

"He was in the top echelons of actors in Canada."

Rosato's close friends say his personality started changing in the '90s while he was living in Los Angeles. That's about the time Milton, Ont.-based screenwriter/actor Jeffrey Knight (he played Dr. Sandor Winkler in Dan Aykroyd's Psi Factor), a long-time friend, saw "the seeds of Tony's unravelling."

Shortly after Rosato moved to back to Toronto four years ago, he phoned Knight in L.A. and begged him to find some crystals he'd left behind in his former Studio City apartment. Rosato explained he needed the obelisk-shaped crystals "to build a spiritual computer ... based on the theory of quantum physics," which could be a weapon for the CIA, he told Knight.

"There must have been 50 of them, easily weighing 100 pounds," says Knight, who sent them to Canada.

While Rosato was still living in the United States, he suddenly became convinced his close friend, life coach Kit Wilkins, was "poisoning his mind," Wilkins said from L.A. So Rosato told him he had made 13 phone calls to the FBI, the IRS and the CIA. "He said if I didn't start getting out of his mind he'd turn me over to the authorities."

At other times, recalls Wilkins, Rosato would "tell me, crying and sobbing, that he met with the devil and the devil was whispering horrible things to him and that Christ had appeared and talked to him."

At one point, Wilkins and another friend showed up at Rosato's apartment to try to get him on a plane to Canada, where they thought "medical service would be available." But Rosato believed it was a plot "to do him in" and wouldn't go with them.

He left the next day on his own, says Wilkins.

Grosso noticed a change in Rosato's behaviour when the actor started phoning him after he appeared in the TV movie You Belong to Me (out in 2002).

"It was not Tony any more," he says. "Something else had a grip on him ... People were following him ... they kidnapped his kid ... mystical nonsense."

About three years ago, while doing some promotions for an SCTV DVD, Alexander, too, "noticed something a little different" about Rosato.

But Rosato had work right up until he was jailed, on an animated series called Get Ed. The producer even held the part for him for two months, says Rosato's agent, Larry Goldhar of The Characters Talent Agency. Both Goldhar and Fred Levy, Rosato's accountant, have established Rosato hot lines in their offices so he can phone from jail whenever he wants.

Although McGrath, Knight and Truss, Rosato's closest friends, see Rosato as troubled, they also regard him as highly talented and a man of principle. Rosato always had "this thing about how society has a responsibility to look after its clowns," Knight says. He was troubled by deaths of actors John Candy and John Belushi and felt they weren't looked after.

In the letter from his cell, Rosato wrote, "Please, I beg of you, look into this before I become like Jessica Lange, in Frances," referring to the film made about actress Frances Farmer, who was placed in a psychiatric institution after assaulting her hairdresser.

His friends tell him not to give up hope, and say his ordeal would make a great screenplay. In fact, Rosato has told Brodsky: "I'm already working on it. It's a docudrama. But I have to tone it down. No one will believe it."