Some men are good-looking, but according to the women on the set of CBS' "Due South," Paul Gross is "genetically perfect." And as the slanting afternoon sun catches the teeth of America's favorite Canadian Mountie, setting them aglow like a string of pearls, it's hard to disagree.
Gross is not only pretty, but seems at first to share that fetching naivete Americans associate with Canadians. "It's peculiar," he says his character, Constable Benton Fraser, who patrols Chicago armed only with his scarlet costume, genetically perfect smile and tundra wolf, "to think that 25 to 30 million people are watching this red suit running around chasing criminals. Those are bigger numbers than I've ever heard of." Almost bigger, in fact, than the population of Canada.
But Gross' air of innocence is illusory. For many years he fought his way up as a TV and film actor: "Chasing Rainbows" for CBC, Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" for the BBC and PBS. And when he's not acting, he's the award-winning author of such plays as "Dead of Winter" and the wittily titled "The Deer and the Antelope Play."
As the star of "Due South," which was created by Emmy-winning writer Paul Haggis, Gross is galloping toward fame on a very peculiar horse. It's the tale of a Mountie who teams up with a burned-out Chicago cop (David Marciano) to find his father's killer.
"I think it works through false nostalgia," says Gross, stretching out in a trailer that features a bust of Elvis and an austere diet of biscuits and Canadian spring water. "I mean, we know that nobody like Benton Fraser ever really existed. It plays on the cliche of Canadians being noncombative while Americans are noisy and disorganized."
Haggis, producer-writer of "thirtysomething" and a frequent contributor to the "Tracey Ullman Show," says that "Due South" couldn't have worked without an actor like Gross who can play a Mountie in the tradition of Nelson Eddy and then slip easily into the absurdity of the cartoon character Dudley Do-Right. "What got me about Paul is his innocence together with his comic abilities," Haggis observes.
The actor-playwright was born in Canada, and after 17 years in Los Angeles longed to do a spoof of the illusions that the two countries have about each other. "I have herds of sacred cows on both sides of the border," he notes.
One winter day in the picturesque Canary Restaurant near Toronto's waterfront, Haggis watches Gross play a wonky scene where he has supper with the ghost of his own father. Sample dialogue: "Try some of this, Dad." "I'm not sure I can, son ..."
As he scarfs down chocolate bars and jujubes from a tray held by a hovering attendant, Haggis shakes his head in wonderment. "I'm glad we found Paul to play this. The lines I give him, things like, 'Yes, yes, trust in the law.' But somehow he can say them and make you believe it."
Gross saunters over during a scene break. "Here's how it works," he says, launching into what seems to be an ongoing kibitz between himself and Haggis. "Paul does a sketch and I'm the one who puts the punch in. Otherwise, it'd be as dead as a flounder!"
"Hey," cries Haggis, "don't forget I wrote the flounder!"
The most Canadian thing about Gross is his reticence to talk about his personal life. He was born in Calgary, Alberta, to an army officer who raised him on a dozen different bases. With coaxing he will admit that he is married to Martha Burns, a classical actress who is a star player in the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. On his day off, he makes the hundred-mile trip to be with her. "This weekend, though, she's coming here," he says with evident pleasure.
Gross admits that, "to be honest, my first reaction when my agent showed me "Due South" was, this is retarded. " Mounties, red coats, sled dogs--to Canadians, it reeks of kitsch.
Gross soon came to love "the weird spin" that Haggis puts on the stereotypes. "His writing is extremely clever. He has a certifiable clinically sick view of the world."
And he appreciates the underlying kindness of the show. "It's set in the present, but TV these days is so cynical that my character feels anachronistic. This show has a generous heart."
Not everybody Due North agrees. But when Canadians complain that the show caricatures them, "I tell them, 'Good Lord, it's a fantasy! It's not meant to be the whole country.' And besides," he adds, getting into the spin himself, "just think how it gets the Americans to let their defenses down. We'll clobber them in the next free trade negotiations."
"Due South" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.