Due South: Canada Invades Chicago

by Erik Arneson

April 26, 1994 to May 11, 1998

  • Paul Gross as Constable Benton Fraser
  • David Marciano as Det. Ray Vecchio
  • Callum Keith Rennie as Det. Stanley Raymond Kowalski
  • Beau Starr as Lt. Harding Welsh
  • Camilla Scott as Inspector Margaret Thatcher
  • Gordon Pinsent as Sgt. Robert Fraser
  • Lincoln/Draco as Diefenbaker

An unfailingly polite Mountie, a cynical Chicago cop and an allegedly deaf wolf — not the likeliest of crime-fighting partnerships, especially when you add the Mountie’s dead father to the mix. But it worked for “Due South,” and it succeeded to such an extent that fans rallied around the show when it was cancelled after two seasons, prompting the producers to resurrect it without help from an American network.

In the U.S., “Due South” debuted on CBS, marking the first time a Mountie had a regular spot on an American network’s prime-time schedule since 1955’s “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” The show also was the first Canadian-produced series to win a prime-time spot on an American network.

However, the untimely exodus of a key CBS executive meant that “Due South” lacked a strong advocate at the network, virtually ensuring that the quirky program wouldn’t last long. CBS cut it once, brought it back for several months and then dropped it a second and final time; the last cancellation took place a few weeks after CBS sent a release to critics which indicated that it was “exceptionally proud of ‘Due South'” and noted improving ratings.

The opposites-attract relationship between Constable Benton Fraser and Detective Ray Vecchio had won over enough fans, however, that Toronto-based Alliance Communications found a way to finance a third season. With help from CTV (a Canadian television network), the BBC and Germany’s Pro Sieben Media AG, “Due South” became the little show that could for another 26 episodes, bringing the total to 66 episodes plus the two-hour pilot movie.

Alliance originally planned to air the new episodes in Canada and the many other countries that had come to enjoy the show’s irreverent pokes at American life, and not sell them to the American market. But the president of PolyGram Television happened to be a “Due South” fan. He negotiated a U.S. syndication deal, securing spots in 49 of the 50 largest markets and covering 87 percent of the country. Most remarkably, he did so despite starting more than four months after most syndicated programs already had deals inked with local stations.

In addition to the interplay between Fraser and Vecchio, later between Fraser and Detective Stanley Raymond Kowalski, “Due South” inspired strong viewer loyalty for several reasons. Music, mainly from Canadian artists like Sarah McLachlan and Crash Test Dummies, was used effectively, and there were numerous in-jokes that only Canadians and dedicated fans could fully appreciate.

The creative (albeit sometimes implausible) plots added to the charm. In one episode, Diefenbaker, Fraser’s half-wolf, half-dog companion, chased after a car thief. With the animal’s scent serving as his only aid, Fraser tracked Diefenbaker through the streets of Chicago and located the stolen car. Another case called for Fraser to toboggan down an escalator.

Fortunately, the show’s writers never took themselves too seriously. Fraser once got himself committed to a psychiatric hospital (to solve a crime, of course) simply by telling the truth — that he was a Mountie in Chicago being assisted by a lip-reading wolf. Another investigation required Fraser to learn how to steal; it took quite a bit of work from two detectives to pull that off. And when Fraser joined the cops for a few hands of poker, they were baffled by his instinctive honesty.

There were plenty of serious moments on “Due South,” however. Fraser initially came to Chicago on the trail of his father’s killer. At one point, he had the murderer in custody and chose to save the man’s life when renegade federal agents tried to end his life. Vecchio’s true love, Irene Zuko, was killed during a shootout between the detective and a mob boss.

After the second season, David Marciano (Vecchio) left the show and was replaced by Callum Keith Rennie (Kowalski). The new “Ray” wore blue jeans instead of Armani suits, but his take on life was similar to that of the man he replaced. Both actors served as enjoyable foils to Gross’ straight-laced Fraser; the strong cast is one reason that “Due South” won a number of Gemini Awards, including Best Drama, in Canada.

The support crew included Diefenbaker, who ignored Fraser’s commands so often that the Mountie believed his wolf was deaf and often played an important role on the show. The ghost of Fraser’s dead father appeared regularly, in full dress uniform, to give his son advice and support. Sgt. Buck Frobisher, a friend of Fraser’s father, appeared in three episodes, played by Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen (known for his work in films like “The Naked Gun”).

Fraser’s love life on the show centered around two characters, most notably Inspector Margaret Thatcher, his superior at the Canadian consulate in Chicago. Thatcher, whom Vecchio referred to as “The Dragon Lady,” fired Fraser before falling in love with him. Since it would have been inappropriate given their work relationship, the two never acted on their mutual feelings.

Fraser also had strong feelings for Victoria Metcalf, an accomplice to a bank robbery that Fraser helped solve. After being released from prison, Metcalf tracked Fraser to Chicago in order to seek revenge. He still harbored feelings for her, but it’s safe to say they were unrequited. She framed Fraser and Vecchio for murder, shot Diefenbaker and caused Fraser to be shot before escaping Chicago.

Vecchio’s sister, Francesca, made many flagrant attempts to win Fraser’s romantic attention, but her overtures were never returned. Among Vecchio’s co-workers in the Chicago P.D. were detectives Jack Huey, Louis Gardino and Thomas E. Dewey (Huey, Louis and Dewey), as well as his commanding officer, Lt. Harding Welsh. Welsh periodically voiced his disapproval of Fraser’s influence on Chicago police business, although he did have a grudging respect for the Mountie’s skills.

It is worth noting that Vecchio held special feelings for his car, a 1971 Buick Riviera. Actually, three 1971 Buick Rivieras; alas, all three were blown up in the name of police work.

Although its run on network television ended prematurely, “Due South” made at least one important contribution to the field of television mysteries. In an era where gritty, reality-based shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order” dominate the ratings, it proved that a show with an unabashedly good-natured lead character can still draw an audience. Besides, there’s no good reason to go 40 years without a Mountie in prime time.


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