Playback Canadian Film & TV Hall of Fame: Nicholas Campbell

From Playback magazine: Campbell, whose lengthy career includes the iconic role of Dominic Da Vinci, enters the Hall of Fame as one of Canada's most authentic on-screen talents.
Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

“Nick was always the gifted one of his generation. He went off to England to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts); he worked with Sir Lawrence Olivier – he was always exceptional.”

Veteran director Sturla Gunnarsson is talking about Nicholas Campbell, the acclaimed actor best known for his role as Dominic Da Vinci, first the crusading coroner and then the Mayor on the CBC series Da Vinci’s Inquest and Da Vinci’s City Hall. The series, which both starred the charismatic actor as the street savvy, pragmatic and effortlessly cool Da Vinci, ran from 1998 to 2006, a remarkable run for CBC in recent years.

During its reign as the CBC’s preeminent drama, Da Vinci garnered over 40 wins, including five Geminis for best drama, and 65 nominations from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, the Directors Guild of Canada, the Writers Guild of Canada and B.C.’s Leos. Campbell not only won a best actor Gemini for the role in 2001 but was also nominated as a director for the DGC “team drama award” in 2003.

Chris Haddock placed the series squarely in the streets of Vancouver, where crime and corruption were rife. Campbell’s Da Vinci was the focal point of the ensemble show, which captured the lives of Vancouver’s diverse urban population. He needed a special actor to command the series and Campbell was it.

“Nick had the life experiences and the mug to be captivating as Da Vinci,” says Haddock. Though Da Vinci’s work was civic in nature, it was important to not make him an establishment figure. Haddock knew Campbell “was a rebellious guy; he had very little tolerance for phonies” making him – a tough but honest performer – a perfect fit.

Da Vinci, however, arrived in 1998, when Campbell was already at the mid-point of a career that spanned two countries and a long list of credits. His road to Da Vinci started in the 1970s, when he was studying pre-law at Queen’s University. He had to take an elective course and decided on theatre. “Drama, that makes sense. Girls, no essays—this’ll be good,” recalls the refreshingly honest Campbell. Discovering he was good at it, he decided he should pursue acting as a career. Queen’s provided him with a mentor, Fred Euringer, a playwright, director and actor who taught drama at the university.

“Fred had been at Stratford and with the Canadian Players,” says Campbell. “He had the most profound effect on me in terms of actually pursuing what I was going to do. I had already made the decision to go to England and study acting, but I never really found anybody else, teacher or actor better for me than Fred. Even Olivier.”

Campbell spent five years in England, studying “speech and movement, which only the National Theatre School taught in Canada,” learning from Olivier and other British thespians and touring on stage in dramatic productions. By 1976, he was appearing in British TV – the series Bless This House – and film, the Richard Donner production of The Omen. The next year, he was cast in two hits, Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far and the Roger Moore-era James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me as well as in the BBC production of Come Back, Little Sheba, which starred Olivier.

Returning to Canada, he immediately started landing parts on TV and in films, often as a second lead. He was nominated for best supporting actor at the Genies two years in a row, for The Amateur in 1981 and Killing ‘em Softly in ’82. By that point, he had started acting in David Cronenberg’s films, where he made an impact in Fast Company (1979), The Brood (1979), The Dead Zone (1983) and, a few years later, in Naked Lunch (1991).

Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

Campbell remembers getting to know Cronenberg: “He and I became friendly on Fast Company, which was a drag-racing movie shot in Edmonton. We were isolated where we were staying out there, so our only company was the other actors, and I made friends with David and his wife. He was just such a great guy, and he was so unusual compared to anyone else that I had ever met. David is fantastic with actors; he really listens to questions and seems to always give the right answers.”

Throughout the 1980s, Campbell worked steadily on low-budget features and television in both Canada and the U.S. He was deservedly nominated for a Gemini for his role as Bobby Kennedy in the TV series Hoover vs. the Kennedys in 1987 and captured the leading role as the slightly quirky investigator Mike Devitt in the series Diamonds the same year.

Campbell met Haddock, then only a scriptwriter, on the show but it was hardly kismet. “We didn’t make very much of a connection at all,” remembers Campbell. By this time, Campbell had developed a reputation as a hard-nosed guy, who enjoyed a drink and going to racetracks. “They told me, ‘You’re gonna love this new writer – he’s got a scar, goes to the racetrack; he knows all about the track’ which I loved – I was always pushing Sonny (Grosso) to put more track stuff in there.” Campbell didn’t like the script and stormed into the writers’ room and “I pulled the pin holding the script together and let it float to the floor.” Haddock didn’t take it personally. “I knew from then on that he was a passionate man, who cared about his work,” he recalls.

After Diamonds went off the air in 1989, Campbell continued to work at a rapid pace. Notably, he played a recurring character in Street Legal, made guest appearances on Due South and F/X: The Series and had key roles in the film Shadow of the Wolf and the TV-movie Butterbox Babies.

In the early 90s, Campbell branched out as a director with the doc Stepping Razor Red-X and the drama Boozecan. The doc, about the life and death of legendary reggae musician Peter Tosh, is remarkable. “It was pretty cool,” admits Campbell. “Of all the things I’ve done in my career, it’s probably the highlight.” From the time he lived in North London in the ’70s, Campbell had hung out with Jamaicans and through Wayne Jobson, who knew Bob Marley and the rest of The Wailers, he was able to craft an insider’s look at the reggae and Rastafarian scene.

Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

Image credit: CBC Still Photo Collection

“Directing Boozecan made him aware of the entire process of what a director deals with and what an actor does,” says Gunnarsson. “It was almost a rebirth. He had been a bad boy, everybody knew that, but having directed his own film made him come back to acting with a greater appreciation of the process.”

Soon after Campbell played key roles in Gunnarsson’s TV-movies Mother Trucker (for which he was Genie-nominated) and The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Chris Haddock contacted him. “I had Nick in mind to play Dominic da Vinci as soon as the CBC showed interest in the pitch I gave them,” says Haddock. “I had scanned the Canadian actors available at the time but it was only Nick who had all the qualities I needed for the Da Vinci. I wanted a Renaissance character – hence the name – a guy with history who has a sense of the street. It’s a very rare trait for any actor. A guy who walks and talks in a natural way and can deliver vernacular that comes from experience and not just some writer’s dialogue.

“So I landed on Nick early. They asked me to see other actors. But I just stuck with Nick. When I heard TV people say, ‘maybe you should consider another actor, I said, ‘maybe you should consider another show.’”

Gunnarsson, who also directed Campbell in episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest says, “the important thing about Nick, the thing that makes him unique and different from everybody else, is how completely accessible he is as an actor. No matter how big or how small the scene, he never ever phones it in – he always comes in searching for the truth of the scene. That’s what makes him a great actor.”

Campbell and Haddock developed a relationship of trust that lasted for years. While rehearsing a scene, Campbell would often play the scene in completely opposite directions over two takes. “That used to upset people,” says Campbell but, “Chris right away identified that I was just looking for the meaning. Most of the time, I wouldn’t ad lib when the scene was being shot.”

“We wanted to produce something that was indelible,” says Haddock. That they succeeded is beyond dispute. Campbell has gone on with his prolific career – since Da Vinci, he has had recurring roles in Republic of Doyle and Haven and won a Gemini for The Englishman’s Boy. Campbell has, in fact, amassed almost 150 acting credits over nearly 40 years but there’s no doubt that Dominic Da Vinci is his best role.

When asked whether Nick Campbell should be in the Playback Hall of Fame, Chris Haddock chuckled while replying, “He should be given two spots!”