In the Canadian wilderness, RCMP Sergeant Robert Fraser discovers the carcass of a caribou encased in ice. As he investigates, he hears a rifle being cocked and he says “You’re going to shoot a Mountie? They’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth!” But his warning goes unheeded, and he is shot dead.
Meanwhile, in the Yukon territory, Sergeant Fraser’s son, Constable Benton Fraser, has just brought in a criminal when he receives word of his father’s death. Accompanied by his wolfdog, Diefenbaker, Constable Fraser visits the site of his father’s death, and begins an investigation that leads him to Chicago.
While attempting to solve his father’s murder, he inadvertently stumbles upon a scheme by several corrupt members of the RCMP that results in Fraser becoming ostracized and forced to be permanently stationed in Chicago.
In this unlikely fish out of water story Benton Fraser and his trusty dog move to the Windy City where he and Raymond Vecchio – a tough, streetwise cop – kindle a legendary partnership.
This simple premise would make Due South a huge television hit, and one of the most iconic Canadian shows of the 1990s.
Yet actual Mounties didn’t have much love for Constable Benton Fraser at first and actor Paul Gross had to adjust to the fame that came with donning the red serge.
For Gross, and everyone involved, those early troubles were well worth what was to come.
I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!
If I asked you who you thought was the most famous Mountie ever portrayed in film and TV, depending on your age there are several contenders.
There is the cartoony Dudley Do Right, the hapless Constable John Constable on The Beachcombers and more recently the lovable Sgt. Davis on Corner Gas.
But the most famous Mountie of all though, at least for those growing up in the 90s, is Constable Benton Fraser, the son of a legendary RCMP officer, who finds himself working as a liaison officer for the Chicago Police Department.
When Paul Gross took on the role in Due South, it made him famous across Canada and internationally as legions of fans watched him don the red serge each week and solve crimes on the mean streets of Chicago.
For most, Paul Gross was the epitome of the stereotypical Mountie of the stories of old. Polite to a fault, highly skilled and an officer who always caught the criminal.
The show came at the right time too…
Through the 1980s, Canadian-made television shows were at a minimum. Don’t get me wrong, shows were being made in Canada, but few shows had Canada as a clear setting. Apart from SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, Degrassi and The Beachcombers, Canada was not well represented on the small screen. Canadian content focused on the Great White North didn’t last and was often replaced by popular American shows like Cheers.
As the 1990s dawned, there was a change in the air and satirical shows such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Royal Canadian Air Farce, began to appear and become popular. In 1990 came the critically acclaimed Road to Avonlea. It was set in Prince Edward Island and tackled a Canadian story.
That same year The Red Green Show, which was set in a northern Ontario lodge, first appeared on our screens and stayed there for the next 16 years. Then in 1992, North of 60, arrived on our screens…set in a fictional Northwest Territories community, it focused on Indigenous lives and issues, and I’ll be covering it in a future episode of Canadian History Ehx because the show is especially noteworthy. This was the scene when Due South arrived on our screens a year later in 1993.
The genesis of the show actually owes a bit of a debt to a very popular movie from the 1980s, Crocodile Dundee.
Starring Paul Hogan as an Australian man struggling to navigate the brave new world of New York City. It was a fish out of water story that lent itself to comedic gold and was a massive hit. Robert Lantos, the chairman of Alliance Communications Corp., was born in Hungary but immigrated to Canada in 1963. He had a meeting with CBS president Jeff Sagansky where they hatched the idea for a television movie similar to Crocodile Dundee.
He wanted a stereotypical Canadian working with the Chicago Police in some manner.
CBS president Jeff Sagansky then met with Paul Haggis and told him to make a series about a Mountie, or a trapper, or someone who comes from the north to the big city.
Haggis was born in London, Ontario and inspired by Alfred Hitchcock he left Canada to become a filmmaker himself.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he made a name for himself as a writer on shows The Love Boat, One Day at A Time, Diff’rent Strokes, thirtysomething and LA Law.
After the meeting Sagansky Haggis said, quote “I thought it was the worst idea I’d ever heard but the more I thought about it, the more I saw the comic potential in such a situation, and I began to see that I could twist it around a bit and have a lot of fun with the characters.” end quote
Stereotypically Mounties are thought of as prim and proper law enforcement officers, who play by the rules and always catch the suspect.
It was an image born out of classic movies such as Renfrew of the Royal Mounted in 1937 and North West Mounted Police in 1940.
These movies made the Canadian Mountie into a symbol of physical strength, beauty, celibacy, chivalry, and gentlemanly behaviour.
The Mounties in these films were white, always of European descent, brave, honorable, and kind.
They were seen as a beacon of what was considered right, and they always prevailed.
Meanwhile, in gritty TV shows such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue the streets were mean, and the heroes lived in a grey area of the law.
So, when coming up with the show Haggis wanted a world where the stereotypical Canadian Mountie would meet the stereotypical American big city detective.
Haggis said, quote “What I wanted to put in the show was the Mountie that all Americans believe is all of Canada, and the cop that all Canadians believe is all America, then have fun with everyone.”
With that in mind, Haggis began the hardest part of the job, casting and it’s a process that took months, but in the end the perfect actors got the roles.
While living in Malibu, where he was hoping to get his career off the ground Paul Gross received the script for Due South. He was born in Calgary. His mother was a writer and art historian mother, and his father a tank commander and colonel.
After living in Virginia as a teen, he returned to Canada to study acting at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Throughout the 1980s, he gained a reputation as one of Canada’s top theatre actors, appearing in Shakespeare’s as You Like It, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
But by no means was Gross a stranger to television or film, he played Jake Kincaid for 14 episodes on the award-winning Canadian miniseries, Chasing Rainbows. He went on to play Steven Hines in two episodes of the Canadian legal drama Street Legal.
He was a working actor and had bit parts in a few movies leading up to receiving the script for Due South in 1993.
In an interview three years later, he said quote “At the time I just wasn’t interested in doing a series. I didn’t want to get locked into something for a long period of time.” end quote
So, it took weeks for him to even read the script and when he did, he described it as one of the funniest things he had ever read.
Now he just had to get the part. Haggis and his team had been searching for months to find the right person to play Constable Benton Fraser.
Haggis said, “when they brought up Paul Gross as a candidate he said, quote “Early on someone had brought Paul Gross’ name up to me and I asked, ‘who the hell is he?’ They sent me a tape of a drama Paul had done where he played a character during the War of 1812 or something. He was sitting astride a horse, and I said, ‘He looks terrible, why do I want this guy?’ end quote
Despite his reservations, Haggis agreed to meet Gross.
And when Paul Gross walked in the room, Haggis knew he had his actor.
He said it was all thanks to the combination of Gross’s honest face which offset his perverse sense of humour.
It was a deadly combination, and one that would have viewers swooning for years to come.
Those who knew Paul Gross found it amusing that he was playing such a prim and proper Mountie. And it showed. During production, Gross enjoyed smoking, drinking, and gambling while also being professional.
One friend told Macleans magazine that Gross chartered a plane and flew to Atlantic City for a weekend where he played craps for 12 hours and lost $2,000, then went back the next morning and won it all back.
But before that happened Constable Fraser need Ray Vecchio, the tough Chicago cop.
And once again, the process to find the right person took months.
That is until David Marciano came in to read. Marciano grew up in Newark, New Jersey where he was often getting into trouble.
When he was 17, he was involved in a serious car crash after a night of partying. This event caused a major shift in his life, and he decided to sort his life out. He eventually focused on acting, and studied at the Drama Studio in London, England.
In 1985, he moved to California to study acting at Berkeley and soon began to get small parts in Wiseguy, Lethal Weapon 2 and Civil Wars before he walking to the casting room to read for the part of Ray Vecchio in Due South
And then…. the first thing he said in his audition was that he couldn’t play the character.
“Good writing. Funny. But the character doesn’t jibe.”
Haggis said that’s when he knew he had found his Ray and asked Marciano to take some time with the material and come back
Two days later, Marciano returned and said,
“Now I know I can’t play this guy.”
Haggis, disagreed, he was taken with the way Marciano said he couldn’t play the character, he believed he had found his Ray Vecchio
In the end, Haggis was able to convince Marciano to join the show after the second meeting, but it was still not smooth sailing for Marciano and his attempt to find the character. With the main actors cast, it was time to get to work on Due South.
Due South was originally intended to be a standalone movie and shooting began in the summer of 1993. Filming was mostly done in Toronto, Ontario, which was used as a stand-in for Chicago. The television movie begins with the murder Constable Robert Fraser, legend in the RCMP. Played by Canadian acting legend Gordon Pinsent, Constable Robert Fraser could track a ghost across sheer ice.
Miles away in the Yukon we find his son RCMP member, insert name here, played by Paul Gross. He travels with his deaf, wolf-like dog named Diefenbaker, to the scene of the crime and his investigation into the murder leads him to Chicago in search for his father’s killer. This set up the premise of the eventual show.
But first, Due South, the movie, hit the screens on April 26, 1994, on CTV in Canada and CBS in the United States. The television movie garnered higher than expected ratings leading to the series pickup on both networks.
That’s how, Due South became the first Canadian-made series to have a prime-time slot on a major US network.
The TV show premiered on Sept. 22, 1994.
The show was a hit, but the actors were still struggling with their characters.
Marciano disliked Ray Vecchio and he said quote “I called my acting teacher after the fourth episode and I said, ‘I hate him’. She said, ‘You can’t hate him.’ I said, “I hate him, and I don’t want to play him anymore.’ She said, ‘You’re in big trouble.’” end quote
What turned things around for Marciano was when he saw how loyal Vecchio was to his friends.
Meanwhile Paul Gross felt he had ruined scenes with legendary Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen, who played Sgt. Duncan Frobisher and Nielsen said quote “Well, maybe it’s not the best scene that you’ve done. It seemed pretty good to me. You’ve got to remember that no matter what you do, that is it. You are the character. Nobody else is. They’re watching you. You can do anything you want, and it’s still the character.”
With those words Paul Gross relaxed into the role and found his place as Benton Fraser.
As for Nielsen, the comedic actor went on to appear in several episodes.
In the show, he played the best friend of Fraser’s dad Robert and in a meta joke about Leslie Nielsen the character was described as bearing an uncanny resemblance to a famous Canadian comedian. Gordon Pinsent would return to the show Benton’s dad as well, appearing as a ghost to his son, giving him advice in multiple episodes throughout the show’s run.
One of the most popular parts of the show was Fraser’s deaf dog, Diefenbaker. Who was always found by his side.
While he was loved by viewers, the dog was less loved by the crew.
Haggis had given the dog-handling contract to his father, but the dog was unskilled on set and gained the nickname, OT, for overtime.
A new Diefenbaker was cast in later seasons because he faster and cheaper that the original.
By the way, Diefenbaker was named after John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963. And he was one of the many references to Canadian history and politics mentioned on the show.
Another example was the villain Toe Blake, named in honour of the legendary Montreal Canadiens player and coach. He won two Stanley Cups as a player and eight as coach for Montreal.
And this was part of the charm of the show, sure there were stereotypes, but Due South didn’t hide its Canadianism and addressed important topics of the time including the disputed ownership of Inuit artifacts and tackled Quebec separatism and bilingualism. This Canadianism was thanks to Robert Lantos, who encouraged the actors not to play down their Canadian accents and pushed the writers to include the references to Canada, even if Americans wouldn’t get them.
And his approach proved to be the right one
Due South was the highest-rated new television show on CBS during the winter, tying for 58th in the Nielsen ratings with Lois and Clark, the New Adventures of Superman.
For those in the United Kingdom, they would see the first episode xx months later on May 9, 1995. In that country, it was met with critical acclaim and also brought in huge ratings, with eight million people watching the premiere.
But in the United States, the show was up against some very strong competition in its Thursday night timeslot. It was up against NBC’s Must-See TV juggernaut that included Mad About You and Seinfeld.
Despite the respectable ratings on CBS, the network cancelled it after the 24-episode first season.
A major reason for it was that Sagansky, a supporter of the show, had left his post as president of CBS. With the loss of Sagansky, the show saw its schedule shuffled around in that first season, and episodes aired out of order.
Although it got cancelled in the US, Due South was doing really well with Canadian audiences… but it wasn’t without criticism
As I mentioned, part of the show’s charm was its Canadianism but that came with stereotypes in particular of the RCMP and that didn’t sit well.
Show creator, Paul Haggis said, quote “The RCMP threatened to toss me in jail unless I removed a long list of items, they found offensive to their image.”
The RCMP eventually changed their tune when they saw it was inspiring young men to join the force and eventually, they even provided a technical advisor to help out on Due South.
But it wasn’t just the Mounties, Haggis also said teachers had students send him letters criticizing him for making Canadians seem unintelligent, something he didn’t realize he was doing.
Then there was the concern in how the two main cities, Chicago and Toronto, were portrayed on the show.
Toronto was identified on screen, as a nice, courteous and clean place and Chicago was dirty, rude and violent.
Gross would say,
“I think it is a great piece of deception. We put the view that all Canadians are essentially honourable and truthful and honest and capable and heroic and trustworthy. Which isn’t true, but it lets us sneak up on people.”
At the time Macleans described the show as “While busting degenerate crack heads and petty thieves, the stalwart Mountie speaks so correctly that he rarely uses contractions, let alone cuss words. It seems like an unusual premise for a hit US series, consider his even more unlikely sidekick, a deaf, lip-reading wolf named Diefenbaker.” end quote
and although they questioned the believability of Due South, they also fell in love with Paul Gross’ charming performance as Constable Fraser and wrote
“He has created a complex character who is heroic, campy, sensitive and utterly uncynical.”
And that might’ve be the key to the show’s success… because although the lost CBS ratings in Canada and the United Kingdom saved it.
In fact, the production company raised enough money from CTV, Telefilm Canada, and broadcasters in Britain and Germany to have a second 13-episode season which ran from Sept 1995 to the spring of 1996. Then, after several fall shows failed on CBS, the network once again picked up Due South show and ordered a further five episodes to take the second season up to eighteen episodes.
With the Americans back in the mix, so came their suggestions for the show. Paul Gross said,
“There’s always a price that one pays for doing business with the United States. They would like it to be bigger in terms of action and scope, but it won’t change much.”
Due South didn’t fit into a specific genre and was seen as neither a sitcom nor a police drama. It just didn’t fit the existing TV formula. Paul Gross said,
“CBS had no idea where to slot it or how to sell it.”
The show wasn’t cheap either, costing $1.5 million per episode, while employing over 200 people.
Which probably explains why CBS cancelled the show once again as soon as the second season ended.
That forced Due South to go on an extended hiatus, and that meant fans had no idea when or if the show was going to return. During that time fans showed their love for the show. And that meant…. conventions Organized by Due South fans, the conventions started almost as soon as the show premiered.
The most famous of these conventions was RCW 139 which was named after a licence plate that was seen on screen throughout the series. RCW 139 was held from 1996 to 1999, and it attracted hundreds of fans each year for 10 countries.
David Marciano, Paul Gross, Gordon Pinsent and other actors attended these conventions to meet with fans of the show.
Thankfully, due to the high ratings in Canada and the fan love, the third season debuted on CTV in 1997.
Even though the show returned, it was not the same show as before.
David Marciano left the show during the year-long hiatus. As I mentioned earlier, r Marciano never fully gelled with the Ray Vecchio character.
He had signed on thinking he was joining a buddy cop show and didn’t like that he was playing sidekick in a Mountie show.
When the show returned, he was offered a contract with a 40 per cent pay cut, which he did not accept.
So how did producers write Ray Veccio’s exit?
Well, Vecchio was sent on an undercover assignment to Las Vegas because of resemblance to a Mob lieutenant named Armando “the Bookman” Langoustin who had died in a car crash. Vecchio replaced him in the crime family as part of the FBI operation. Detective Stanley Kowalski, played by Callum Rennie, is brought into the Chicago PD to act as Vecchio within the department.
Unfortunately, Fraser was on vacation at the time and returned to find Kowalski at Vecchio’s desk pretending to be Vecchio. If you’re confused, don’t worry, so was I and so were many viewers tuning in.
Marciano would return to portray Vecchio in a handful of episodes in the last two seasons, including the finale in which he gets shot and retires from the force, moves to Florida and then marries… Kowalski’s ex-wife.
Yeah… that’s some messy writing… but for Callum Rennie as Stanley Kowalski the opportunity of being on a hit show took some getting used to. This was his first international success. Rennie was born in Sunderland, England, but grew up in Edmonton. He attended Strathcona High School, and befriended Bruce McCulloch. You might recognize that name…McCulloch is perhaps best known for his work as a member of the comedy troupe The Kids in the Ha
Meanwhile Rennie struggled. He lived a rough life, struggled with alcohol and has says he can’t account for several years of his life.
In fact, four years before his role in Due South, he got into a bar fight in Vancouver and a shard of glass caught him in the face.
He nearly lost an eye and was left with a trademark scar on his face.
At that point, he stopped drinking.
Casting him on the show was a gamble for producers and for the actor.
Rennie didn’t like the idea of the weekly grind of Due South, stating he was more suited for flashing quickly on roles and then moving on.
His co-star, Paul Gross had his own reservations about whether or not Rennie could handle the endurance of the show or could take direction. The actor had expanded his role on set to include duties behind the camera as well.
In the end, the two actors went to a bar, where Gross had a beer and Rennie had a soda. There, they hashed out their worries and Rennie got the role at least for one season. Rennie only signed a one-year contract.
The change in casting didn’t hurt the show, which continued to be the most popular homegrown TV drama in Canada, averaging 1.5 million viewers per episode.
By this point, it was broadcast in 60 countries and was a top ten hit in Germany and Britain.
As I mentioned Paul Gross expanded his role on set, he went from being an actor, to directing and by the third season he was an executive producer and the head writer on Due South.
He was earning between $2 million and $3 million and at the time, he was the highest-paid Canadian television performer. After the third season finished, a fourth season was quickly ordered, but it would be the last. Rennie, despite signing a one-year contract, agreed to return the series aired its last episode on March 14, 1999.
In total it only lasted for four seasons, but its impact on Canadian culture was felt for decades to come. Throughout its run, Due South was met with critical acclaim. It received 53 Gemini nominations, The Geminis were the equivalent to the Emmys, they are now called the Canadian Screen Awards.
Due South won 15 Geminis including Best Dramatic TV Series, Best Actor for Paul Gross in 1995 and 1996, and Paul Haggis won Best Writing.
Due South was also an international hit as it became one of the few non-British shows to have a primetime weeknight slot on BBC One.
And it launched the careers of Paul Gross and Paul Haggis among others. Paul Gross was a bonafide Canadian star who went on to perform on Slings & Arrows and Republic of Doyle.
He also wrote and directed the movies Men with Brooms, and Passchendaele, in which he also starred.
Passchendaele is based on Gross’ grandfather his experience as a WW1 veteran. The film opened the Toronto Film Festival to rave reviews.
In 2013, Gross was presented with the Order of Canada. David Marciano continues to act and has appeared in recurring roles in critically acclaimed shows such as Bosch, Homeland and The Shield.
Callum Rennie has worked consistently since Due South, appearing in regular roles on Battlestar Galactica and Californication. His most recent role is on The Umbrella Academy where he appeared as Lester Pocket for six episodes.
Paul Haggis, has enjoyed a great deal of success starting in 2004 when he was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Million Dollar Baby That same year he received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to four other Academy Award nominations for the movie Crash. Haggis received two Academy Awards for the film: Best Picture (as its producer), and Best Writing for his work on the screenplay. He would also go on to co-write two James Bond movies – Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
In total Haggis has won two Academy Awards, two Emmys and seven Gemini Awards and countless nominations. Most recently, he has been making news for the wrong reasons… first for his break from the Church of Scientology. Then for allegations of sexual assault. In a civil trial he was accused of assault a female publicist in 2013 and required him to pay $7.5 million in damages. Haggis denied the allegations.
That is the story of Due South but stay tuned to hear a story about the curse that was almost placed on the show.
In the pilot episode, Constable Robert Fraser comes across suspicious marks in the snow. As he chips away ice, he finds a dead caribou encased within the ice.
That was not a fake caribou, but a real one killed specifically to use in the show. Local Inuit had killed the animal and informed producers after they filmed the scene that the caribou wasn’t being used for its true purpose. It needed a burial and a ceremony, or the show itself could be cursed.
Production didn’t take them seriously and the shoot moved to Toronto. That’s where, things took a strange turn. First a plane used in the production crashed
Then while filming on location at the world famous El Mocambo a special effects explosion nearly destroyed the Toronto club. By now producers were spooked and they heeded the advice they had previously ignored and returned to where they had left the caribou in the ice and gave it a proper burial.
True or not, the curse must have been lifted because we are still talking about this unique show nearly 30 years later.
Information from Macleans, Los Angeles Times, Due South Compendium, Wikipedia, Due South and the Canadian Image, History of Canadian Broadcasting
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