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Toronto Star

Boy to Man, Man to Hero, Hero to Legend
- Vinay Menon

A beige van is parked at the edge of St. John's Harbour.

Inside, two young friends glance at the rippling water, discussing an audacious plan to raise money for cancer research. It's April 12, 1980; Terry Fox and Doug Alward are 21 years old.

This is the first scene in Terry (CTV, tomorrow, 7 p.m.), an elegant, stirring film about a great icon in Canadian history. (CTV will air a companion documentary, Running on a Dream: The Legacy of Terry Fox, tonight at 7 p.m.)

Terry Fox was just 18 when he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. His right leg was amputated, 15 centimetres above the knee.

Three years later, on that cool April morning, Fox dipped his artificial leg in the Atlantic and vowed to do the seemingly impossible: he would run across Canada, 42 kilometres a day, a daily marathon - A Marathon of Hope.

It remains an inspirational journey, one that comes along once in a lifetime, if that. Fox propelled his tired body across endless expanses of meandering asphalt, his gritty resolve and rhythmic gait - one pronounced step, two short hops - forever scorched into the collective consciousness.

Even now, 25 years later, it's impossible to look at those grainy images of Fox running through wind and rain and sleet and sun without being moved by his selfless determination.

Shawn Ashmore, just six months old when the Marathon of Hope started, knew this would be a monumental project, like no other, when he accepted the title role.

"I've never been a part of something where I just needed to know that it was going to be okay and be right," he says. "This is a part that I didn't want to mess up."

We're inside the Four Seasons, sitting in a suite on the 25th floor, which somehow seems appropriate given this anniversary year. Garbed in jeans, striped jersey and white running shoes, Ashmore says he tried to see beyond the legend. He tried to get inside the heart and mind of Terry Fox.

"I didn't approach it like I had to play somebody who was heroic," he says. "I think the really amazing thing about Terry - and why people connected with him - was that he was a really normal guy. He was a regular young guy who happened to be more driven than most people can ever imagine."

Before Fox's run ended outside Thunder Bay on Sept. 1, 1980 - by then cancer had spread to his lungs - he had covered 5,373 km in 143 days. What started on the east coast, with almost no fanfare, had exploded into a phenomenon.

But history has a way of erasing the small, whimsical details from acts of greatness. And as the film shows, there was more to the Marathon of Hope than just the running. There would be memorable encounters with anonymous supporters; quiet dinners in small towns; sleepless nights in ramshackle motels. Laughs and tears, joy and grief, transcendental lightness and crushing darkness.

"They had food fights, water fights, they joked around," says Ashmore. "These aren't things you necessarily think of when you think of Terry Fox."

So we watch Alward (Ryan McDonald) - one of the great unsung heroes in this tale - and Terry's younger brother Darrell (Noah Reid) drive, stopping regularly to give the runner water and orange slices. They collected donations, organized schedules, protected Fox from the steamrolling public interest that crept closer with every passing hour.

Their youthful camaraderie and preternatural mettle captivated a nation. And, along the way, the Marathon of Hope would become a road trip of discovery.

Despite the underlying, sombre material, Terry - directed by Don McBrearty, written by Dennis Foon and produced by Shaftesbury Films - is at times a simple buddy film, a poignant exploration of human relationships forged in trying circumstances.

To prepare for the role, Ashmore watched countless hours of news and documentary footage. He studied Fox's journals, written during the run. He worked out with a personal trainer, gaining more than 15 pounds.

The special effects, including computer graphics used to create the illusion of an artificial leg, are extraordinary and, most important, seamless.

"I'm so happy with the job that they did," Ashmore says. "I know we're successful because it doesn't stand out. Most of the time special effects and CGI are used it's for something you are supposed to be wowed by. But this was supposed to be subtle. You shouldn't think about it."

The film was shot this summer in Toronto, Hamilton, North Bay, Thunder Bay and Newfoundland. It was, says Ashmore, a glorious experience. Throughout the shoot, bystanders would watch with rapt attention, entranced by the unfolding spectacle.

Memories were unleashed.

"Everybody has a story about Terry Fox," says Ashmore. "People would come up to me and talk about Terry Fox as if I was Terry Fox. I mean, they knew I was Shawn. But they would tell stories and get so excited, as if I was him. There was just so much passion about this."

Terry Fox went from boy to man, man to hero, hero to legend, all before he was 23. His goal - to raise $1 for every Canadian - was realized in February, 1981. Today, more than $360 million has been raised in his name and the annual Terry Fox Run is in 50 countries.

Who could have predicted any of this?

"The most amazing thing that I realized is nobody supported him in the beginning," says Ashmore. "There were weeks when he wouldn't see anybody. He was just running down the road with his buddy.

"But he never gave up."

The Toronto Star