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
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and their infant daughter had gone missing, having been
replaced by imposters.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
"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
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
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
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
"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. "
osato'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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
osato'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
"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
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