THE BACK PAGES

Nicholas Campbell explains how he threw it all away

The great actor is broke, in trouble with the taxman—and needs a job

Brian D. Johnson March 10 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Nicholas Campbell explains how he threw it all away

The great actor is broke, in trouble with the taxman—and needs a job

Brian D. Johnson March 10 2008

Nicholas Campbell explains how he threw it all away

The great actor is broke, in trouble with the taxman—and needs a job

THE BACK PAGES

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

tv

You can barely recognize him. In The Englishman's Boy, a CBC miniseries airing Sunday, Nicholas Campbell-once the lean, mean coroner from Da

Vinci's lnquest-plays a derelict cowboy named Shorty, a paranoid recluse with a paunch and a grizzled beard. He has haunted eyes and a temper that lies coiled like a rattlesnake, as an early Hollywood screenwriter tries to dredge up his nightmarish memories of mas sacring Indians fri the 1870s. Adapted by Guy Vanderhaeghe from his own novel, The Eng lishman's Boy is the story of a ravaged man with awild past who doesn't trust Hollywood with the truth. That could also describe the story of Nicholas Campbell.

Before CSI came along, as the hard-boiled Da Vinci, Campbell created one of the most authentic anti-heroes ever to unzip a body bag in prime time. Now, with his electrifying performance in The Englishman’s Boy, he cements his status as the finest character actor in Canadian television. But this is a country where you can be at the top of your game and on the brink of ruin. At 55, Campbell is broke, unemployed, massively in debt to the Canada Revenue Agency, and wondering where his next job is going to come from. He says he has only himself to blame. For all his adult life, he ignored his taxes and frittered away time and money at the racetrack. Now he’s starting to feel uncomfortably like Shorty. “My life has turned into him in a way. The similarities are striking way too hard these days—the feelings of shame that governed his life. And I’m kind of an anachronism, in terms of the way we do drama now.”

Work has been sporadic for Campbell since he shot The Englishman’s Boy with director John N. Smith two summers back. The miniseries was commissioned by a previous regime at the CBC. The network’s new bosses let it

sit on the shelf and seem loath to promote classy period drama under a retooled mandate that favours soaps about desperate hockey wives. Now, rather than “get stuck playing people’s dads” on shows wired to youth and beauty, Campbell wonders if the stage might be the best place to find steady work. Meanwhile, he’s watching Da Vinci take off in U.S. syndication, snapped up by some 400 stations. It’s also about to come out on DVD. But he won’t see a dime from either.

The actor starred in Da Vinci’s Inquest for seven seasons, followed by one season with Da Vinci’s City Hall, which the CBC cancelled in 2006. He figures his salary ranged from $16,000 to $30,000 an episode. “I thought it was a paycheque that was never going to end,” he says. “I was on a successful show. But I was totally irresponsible in my financial dealings. I was living a fool’s paradise.”

Campbell swears he never gambled large amounts at the track. But between jobs he would spend the whole day there, handicapping 70 or 80 races around the world, and the dollars added up. He also bought horses, owning more than 60 in partnerships over the years. “When I started to get negative energy from the tax people,” he says, “I was on the hook with the horses and had to pay my end until they could replace my investment.

I thought I’d eventually be able to catch up. It didn’t work out that way.” Campbell, who lives with his girlfriend in a small furnished apartment in Toronto’s Yorkville, doesn’t own a house or a car. He hasn’t had a credit card since 1991. “I’ve got a couple of suits from Da Vinci, and that’s about it.”

His personal life is almost as messy as his finances. He’s burned through three marriages and fathered three children, now aged 14,18 and 25. After marrying, divorcing, then remarrying his third wife, they separated in 1993. The two younger kids stayed with her in California—one of the perks of doing Da Vinci in Vancouver is he got to see them more often. He vowed he wouldn’t get involved with another woman, a rule he finally broke after 15 years. It’s not going smoothly, but again he blames himself: “To move in with me, you gotta be out of your mind.”

It’s Family Day, Ontario’s new winter holiday. Campbell sits at a corner table in Jet Fuel, a funky Toronto coffee bar that draws writers, musicians and hard-core cyclists. Nick is a regular. He’s always liked being a regular somewhere, and for years it was Soupy’s, a tavern frequented by players armed with rap sheets, not resumés. “It was the most amazing collection of characters,” he says. “And they accepted me. I’d be sitting with a bunch of guys telling jail stories, and I’m the only one who hasn’t got one.”

On the contrary, he was a déclassé private

schoolboy. The son of a Russian mother who escaped a Nazi concentration camp and a Canadian of Scots descent, Campbell was born in Toronto, raised in Montreal and sent to Upper Canada College at 13. That’s where he got hooked on horses, in Grade 11. His best friend’s dad took them to the track by taxi every weekend. “It was so much fun,” he recalls. “I liked that you had a team made up of two species, and if you were smart enough to get it right, you could profit from it.”

Aiming for law school, Campbell stumbled into acting after picking a first-year drama option at Queen’s University. After graduating, he spent five years in London, acting and studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He also acquired a less formal education, working mornings at a newsstand that sold hash and speed under the counter and nights tending bar at a pub and betting shop.

They were crazy times. In 1977 he had a small part in The Spy Who Loved Me. Dodging explosions among three submarines on

the world’s biggest sound stage, he would hide behind pillars, trying to stay off camera because he was up for a big role with Sir Laurence Olivier—if he got it (he did), he’d have

paycheque that was never going to I was living a fool’s

to wriggle out of the Bond film. After work, he’d go straight from the set to a pub where he’d chat up budding reggae stars Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, who rehearsed nearby, and buy pot from their crew. James Bond, Marley, Olivier—quite a day in the life.

But after working with the likes of David Cronenberg and Russell Crowe, Campbell still expresses as much respect for his demimonde of crooks and rounders, characters who informed guys like Da Vinci and Shorty. He even speaks fondly of the Mafia types he met while shooting a rap musical, Knights of the City (1986), with Sammy Davis Jr. Executive producer Michael Franzese was later jailed as a mobster. “I used to call him Michael Corleone because they yanked him out of school and launched him into the Family,” says Campbell. “We got on like a house on fire. He thought I was like James Cagney.”

Before moving back to Canada in the mid’90s, Campbell lived in Los Angeles for over a decade. He got steady work in TV, but hated the scripts so much he became notorious for improvising, and losing his temper. “All the guys I worked with were so afraid to make anybody mad,” he says. “I didn’t care if I was there or not.” Campbell seems to thrive on risk. He had a gun thrust in his face in Kingston, Jamaica, while directing a bold documentary about the murder of singer Peter Tosh (Stepping Razor: RedX). He racked up $150,000 of credit card debt on the film— his final use of plastic. Two years later he poured his after-hours expertise into directing Boozecan, a nervy Canadian drama.

He may have carved out a reputation as a Canadian Nick Nolte, but Campbell says his self-destructive image is exaggerated: “It’s because of the people I hang with, and the fact that I can stay up for all night for years at a time.” In fact, on the set he’s known to be a consummate professional. People assume he’s a drinker. “But I’ve never liked alcohol,” he says. “I’ve been dedicated to drugs since I was a kid, but I hardly smoke pot anymore. Psychedelics are great, but you grow out of them. I’m sure heroin is great though I’ve never tried it. I tried painkillers. Coke is so unprofound it’s hard to think of dedicating your life to it. But the big-

gest addiction out there isn’t drugs; it’s fast, easy money.”

It’s the one substance he could never handle, although he still defends his addiction to the racetrack—even if he hasn’t visited one for over a year. “I’ve been in rehab in every possible way, mostly financial,” he says. “If I make one little slip, it will be like putting a gun in my mouth.” But the track, he insists, was never about the money, just the thrill of the game. “I still bet the same level I bet when I was at Upper Canada. If I bet $20 on a horse, I don’t enjoy the race anymore. I’m sweating it all the way down the stretch. There’s a notion actors share, that you’ve only got a certain amount of luck. I’m not about to give up my luck to win a poker game or a race.”

An appetite for the edge is what makes Campbell such a compelling actor. Smith, who gave him his choice of roles in The Englishman’s Boy, says, “Nick brings everything to the character he’s playing. He’s a guy who’s going to leap off into the dark and go swimming around and find those deep places. With Guy Vanderhaeghe, you’re going into the heart of darkness and I knew he could inhabit the heart of the story.” Campbell also showed meticulous devotion to detail. His character never gets on a horse, but he spent two unpaid weeks with the other actors at cowboy camplearning to ride and shadowing Michael Eisner, who plays Shorty as a young man.

Ironically, Campbell admits he’s afraid of being around horses or riding them. Yet he misses watching them. He’s also spent years trying to develop a movie about legendary Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte. And these days, he even wonders if he might find a second career at the track. “I’d like to be the czar of their broadcasts out ofWoodbine,” he says. “It would be something I could devote my life to. I’d like to do some on-air stuff too—I’m begging the CBC to add me to the broadcast team for the Queen’s Plate.”

For a guy who’s down on his luck, Campbell doesn’t act like it. He has a buoyant disposition. “I’ve been a lucky bastard,” he says. “I roll along and have a happy life. And I have great relationships with my kids.” He may worry about finding his next meal ticket, or about shedding the paunch he gained to play Shorty. (“I used to be religious about keeping trim. I had Da Vinci down as a high-metabolism guy who thought eating was a waste of time.”) But he’s philosophical about the future. “Every actor’s nightmare is that you end up alone in the bedsit,” he says. “Olivier died broke. You worry you’ll never work again. But that’s what drives you forward.” For now, Nick Campbell is just doing his best to stay in the game, a dark horse on the backstretch who’s been known to come from behind. M