Stewart looks back at life on the Squad

For a cop drama so obsessed with death and dying, it’s a wonder Cold Squad survived for 98 episodes. Seven seasons for a homegrown Canadian drama – when most are killed off after one or two seasons – is like a gangster dying in bed with rosary beads in his hands. It just rarely happens.

That Cold Squad remained a hot show for so long is testament to the crowd-pulling strength of its lead actor, Julie Stewart, aka Ali McCormick, the ambitious female sergeant who heads up a team of Vancouver cops solving old, unsolved murder cases pulled from ‘cold files.’

Stewart doesn’t dwell long on her personal and professional contribution to the series, however.

‘At the risk of sounding arrogant, I must have had something to do with it,’ she sighs.

Just as quickly, Stewart points to other key people and factors that explain the series’ longevity, including a confluence of ‘happy accidents.’

‘There must have been a good balance between character and the action taking place. There was something about the kinds of stories being told,’ she suggests.

Another explanation offered is the fact that Stewart played a female lead in a crime series, a rarity anywhere. Her inspirations included Helen Mirren in the U.K. series Prime Suspect, and Angie Dickinson as Sgt. ‘Pepper’ Anderson in the 1970s TV series Police Woman.

‘People remember [Dickinson]. She was the star, the cop, the tough one. There hasn’t been enough of that,’ Stewart insists.

Discussing her own star turn on Canadian TV, Stewart sounds at times like the cop-at-the-autopsy she played in the forensic crime series.

She began the series in 1998 as ‘a young, wrinkle-free 30-year-old with elasticity in my skin.’ Now, approaching her 40s, Stewart must confront every actor’s worst nightmare: the impact of aging on work.

‘With the microscope from the camera, and being in front of mirrors all the time as people put clothes on you, or makeup, there’s a kind of scrutiny that’s hard to ignore,’ she says.

The show’s run is all the more astonishing given that the cast and crew of Cold Squad regarded each of their seasons as quite possibly their last.

‘Whenever we finished a season, I never knew whether we would go again,’ Stewart recalls. ‘And every year that it did continue, it got a little harder to convince myself that it might not go. The series was becoming a bit of a habit by then,’ she adds.

The Canadian drama had a near-death experience two years ago, after writers had Ali McCormick quitting her job in the finale to the sixth season.

‘People died, people cried, we tore down the set. We said goodbye. And I came back to Toronto and said I needed to focus on being just another Canadian actor looking for work,’ she recounts.

But before rigor mortis could set in, CTV took another look at the audience numbers and agreed to a seventh season.

Then came yet another bizarre plot twist.

‘Having got the seventh season, we all felt safe in assuming CTV would air the show last year. Then we go to the CTV fall launch and realize the network had bought the U.S. Cold Case series,’ she recalls.

CTV chose to air Cold Case, which shared the Canadian series’ female lead-driven forensic crime formula, in its fall 2003 season, and delayed broadcasting the seventh season of Cold Squad until its current fall 2004 campaign.

As always, a hot Canadian series became a hot potato for CTV programmers, bouncing around the network schedule. The final season of Cold Squad launched on Friday nights, then shifted to CTV’s CrimeTime Saturday slot, running alternate weeks with U.S. dramas CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami and Cold Case.

A decade ago, Stewart, then a struggling actor, might have pursed her lips on the matter of how major Canadian networks schedule and promote expensive homegrown dramas. But with the cardiac monitor for expensive Canadian dramas flatlining, Stewart’s lips have loosened.

‘There were many times during the run of our show that it looked like there was a willingness to sabotage the success of the show,’ she says grimly.

As for life after Cold Squad, Kingston, ON-raised Stewart and her husband are having a house built in Toronto. She helmed three episodes of Cold Squad, and would like to do more directing, and acted in a stage play at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre last spring.

And, amazingly, she’s never acted in a feature film. ‘I would love to do some movies. But I wonder if my head is too small. I don’t know how I would look on the big screen,’ she says, ever-obsessing.

After long playing a martyr on Cold Squad, is Stewart ready to change her image by playing a villain?

‘I would love to experiment with playing something much darker, something that challenged me to deal with my own anger, or even a total bitch,’ she admits.

But Stewart balks at playing a murderer or a psychopath like those Ali McCormick pursued on Cold Squad.

‘I’ve had two or three dreams lately of murdering someone. Playing a psychopath, or someone crazy? I don’t know whether I have a penchant for that,’ she muses.

Now there’s a police hunt you can be certain Stewart’s fans would love to see.