This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 2, 2000. Partner content is not updated.
A thin figure in unpressed khakis and a leather jacket waits near the clubhouse door at Hastings Park, the venerable Vancouver horse track. He sits on a green bench in the September sun, head bent over the racing form. The track is quiet on a midweek morning, but not inactive. Inside, a score of horseplayers hover between the betting windows and TV screens covering the action at Belmont and Woodbine. Out in the sun, the thin guy lights a Camel. Breathing out, Nicholas Campbell reflects on the parallels between the backstretch and his day job. "The actors I admire," he says, "all have an understanding of what disappointment is about."
The star of Da Vinci's Inquest, which returns to CBC on Oct. 4, knows about disappointment. So does his character in the series: coroner Dominic Da Vinci. But the 48-year-old actor is celebrating these days. And if his on-screen alter ego isn't exactly popping champagne corks, he does seem to be mellowing a bit as the series enters its third season a Canadian hit, with the audience occasionally surpassing one million. Praised by critics, the show is seen in more than 40 countries. Last year, Da Vinci won a Gemini Award for best dramatic series. Last week, it collected 10 more Gemini nominations - more than any other show - including one for best dramatic series. Campbell and fellow cast members Donnelly Rhodes and Ian Tracey were also nominated, for best actor in a dramatic series.
Campbell's layered portrayal of the impassioned, flawed Da Vinci is largely responsible for the show's success. But Campbell says the credit should go to series creator Chris Haddock, who conceived the part with the actor in mind. "I never thought I'd see this in Canada," Campbell confides. "There's a high level of production, a high level of intelligence and people are watching at home. It's every actor's dream."
Season three brings some changes to Da Vinci. Sarah-Jane Redmond joins the cast as Sgt. Sheila Kurtz, who takes over the homicide unit after her predecessor's suicide. And Haddock says he and the show's other writers have "tried to add an additional story into each episode." But Da Vinci will remain rooted in his beloved Vancouver. Haddock treats the port city, with its private fortunes, global crime and public market in human degradation, almost as an additional player in his talented ensemble cast. And Da Vinci's fictional world continues to draw inspiration from the real city's bedrooms and back alleys. A vicious assault on a squeegee youth only a block from where the production was shooting during its first season returns this fall as a story line.
Dominic Da Vinci, meanwhile, has learned a thing or two through the episodes - rare for a character in series television. "I don't think he would have survived in this job had he been consistently the way he was in the first year," Campbell says. "He was drinking and saying he wasn't. He was handling people really rough." In episodes now being shot, Da Vinci's drinking is more controlled. "We're not dramatizing it, which is much more interesting for me," the actor adds. "I can bring it into play without having to state it." Overall, he says, "there is a maturity to him there wasn't. Maybe a patience."
Friends see some of the same new confidence in Campbell's life. And they credit much of it to the unusual combination of professional satisfaction and stable employment he has found on Da Vinci. Despite more than 40 starring movie and TV credits over a quarter of a century, Campbell has often struggled for respect in his industry. Early in his career, what he calls "pretty-boy" good looks undercut the quality of his acting in films like The Amateur and The Omen. By the late 1980s, Campbell was starring in Diamonds (a Canadian-made Moonlighting knockoff), appearing in Hollywood productions like The Insiders (a mini-series about the Kennedys) and working regularly for horror-master David Cronenberg. In the past decade, Campbell has stepped behind the camera to direct two films that reflect his own interests. Stepping Razor - Red X, a documentary about murdered reggae artist Peter Tosh, which Campbell also wrote, and Boozecan, a feature steeped in after-hours Toronto, both found some critical acclaim. But neither proved boffo at the box office. Campbell now has a development deal with CBC for a film set in the horse world.
Even as he accumulated credits, Campbell was making another kind of name for himself - as a die-hard partyer with an explosive temper. Gwynyth Walsh, who plays pathologist (and ex-wife) Patricia Da Vinci on the CBC series, appeared with Campbell on a Diamonds episode. "There's no doubt he was burning the candle at both ends back then," she says.
Campbell insists the more outrageous rumors about his hard living are exaggerated. Never much of a drinker, he says any encounters he may have had during his party days with illicit substances were kept strictly to after working hours. "I've never scared myself," he says. In any case, those days are mostly gone now. He no longer even owns a race horse - his most expensive habit - after investing in about 30 animals over the years. "Never really had any that worked out," he shrugs. "But had a lot of fun. An Oscar couldn't come close to winning a $3,200 claimer at Fort Erie."
The actor who distils both Da Vinci's frailty and his nobility - what one critic called his "wobbly charm and panicky conviction" - is a more complicated character than he first appears. That street-scarred, cigarette-infused diction betrays little evidence he ever studied grammar in the punctilious precincts of Upper Canada College. The shopworn horseplayer is a long way from the pin-striped barrister he once seemed destined to become. "I think he is one of those people in life who has reinvented himself," observes Walsh. "He's got his demons, and one can see that. But he's also got a lightness about him."
Born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, Campbell headed to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., after graduating from UCC in 1970. Intending to eventually study law, he began an undergraduate degree in political science. But after tasting theatre arts - initially for what he expected to be a "bird-course" credit - he switched to English and drama. Then, Campbell travelled to London to study at the Drama Studio and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The decision to become an actor shocked his blue-blood grandmother. "She thought there was something wrong with me," he remembers. "I was on TV in my underwear."
The guy on-screen with him in the TV drama Come Back Little Sheba - also in underwear - was Laurence Olivier. The English actor became a strong influence on the young Canadian. Back in Toronto in the late '70s, Campbell suffered through an actor's apprenticeship, picking up odd jobs to pay the rent - including, for a time, a 600-door paper route.
As Campbell's career began to pick up speed in the early '80s, his first marriage - to English actress Louisa Martin - unravelled. Relations with other women have often been stormy, fuelling the rumour mill. "Everyone believes a woman with a negative story," Campbell says, but goes on to admit: "I've created a few of those." His second marriage, to Canadian Reimi Kobayashi, also came apart, but not before the couple had a son, Cole, in 1983. A third alliance, to American fashion designer Harmeet Ahluwalia, looked for a time as though it might stick. Campbell moved to Los Angeles, working steadily and helping his wife launch a store on Hollywood's trendy Melrose Avenue. The couple have two sons, Jassa and Clayne.
By the mid-'90s, Campbell was souring on California and marriage both. "I didn't really like the situation there anymore," he says. "The desperation around the television business." In 1996, he came home to Toronto. Throughout all the moves, the marriages and the morning calls to the set, one thing has been a constant: Campbell's naked passion for his craft. It is that quality - not personal contrariness - say friends, that lies beneath his reputation for on-set blowups. Haddock, who earned his spurs as a screenwriter on Diamonds, recalls how "Nick used to sneak into the writing offices at every opportunity, to try to get early drafts of scripts. If he thought it was stinking, he'd let you know about it."
He's also been known to rewrite his lines on the fly. Filming New Waterford Girl with then-18-year-old acting sensation Liane Balaban last year, Campbell wandered off the script so often that director Allan Moyle tried to restrain him. Balaban recalls the film-maker admonishing his star and former L.A. roommate: "Nick, some of the lines in the script are good, too." Campbell admits he is "exacting" about his business. "I'm not going to look at this in 10 years and say, 'I wish I'd backed the props guy off a little bit,' " he says. "And if you're going to shoot right now, and you don't listen to me when I say it nice, well, it's going to come out not so nice." Among other actors, Campbell's nature inspires respect. Says Balaban: "It helps when Nicholas is a little bit cantankerous." More than once on the New Waterford set, Campbell forced the last-minute repair of a glaring shortcoming in a scene. "Nobody else liked it either," Balaban recalls, "but Nick was the only one who had the courage to speak up."
There has been less of that on Da Vinci. Writers for the show say Campbell usually stays "on script." He returns credit for that to Haddock and company. "This show is so good," Campbell says, "I can back off a lot of things I used to torture myself over." But he has also worked in recent years to contain his temper, once so short he wondered if he might be an "anger-holic."
Those closest to him talk more about Campbell's unassuming generosity and talent than his temper. "He's not materialistic at all," reveals Ahluwalia, from whom the actor is separated but not divorced. "If his gold watch fell off, he wouldn't look for it." Says Rhodes, who plays veteran homicide cop Leo Shannon on the show (his 13th series): "He compliments the day players who come in, goes over, thanks them."
Campbell's acting is so smooth, his colleagues say it verges on the invisible. "It's knocked me off guard a couple of times," says Ian Tracey (detective Mick Leary), whose own 25-year career in front of the camera began at 11. "I thought, 'Are we out of the scene? No, we're in it even deeper.' " Adds Walsh: "I love working with him. He's generally playing two or three levels at once." As well as artistic joy, Da Vinci has brought Campbell a new stability, which is helping heal strained relations with his family. All three of his sons spent the summer with him in Vancouver, frequently joining their father on set. On days off, the four sometimes pulled together a soccer game with Tracey and Rhodes - also single fathers - and their sons. Reflects Campbell: "Without this show, I don't know if I would have had such access to my own family."
Friends, too, have noticed a change. "I think this role has jelled things for him," offers Rhodes. "Not only as an actor, but as a person. He's grown tremendously." Even his most recent ex concedes the evolution. Ahluwalia assesses Campbell in a staccato rush: "Very intelligent ...great dad . . . wild ...messy." But lately, she agrees, "he's becoming more sensible."
As sensible as a horseplayer ever gets. Leaning back on the green-painted wood in the pale sun, Campbell expands on his theme: movies are like horses; what you win on the first race disappears on the next. There is that embracing, ephemeral sense of "family" that develops around a film or television crew. "It's the same on the backstretch." A temporary family, fully aware it is doomed to disperse at the end of the run, the end of the season. "There's an addiction to the sadness of it," the actor rasps. "Kind of like the junkie falling in love with the fit, instead of the fix." For a moment, the actor is the coroner is the man, intimately acquainted with disappointment, but savouring the winner's circle while it lasts.
Maclean's October 2, 2000