NORTH BAY, Ont. – The life of an actor isn’t always glamorous. Take Billy Campbell, for example. The lanky Virginian sits in a rundown mess hall on a remote and abandoned helicopter airfield. It’s late spring, cold, and raining hard. To kill time between shooting scenes on the CTV series “Cardinal,” he kills mosquitoes.
Campbell wouldn’t have it any other way.
The show’s six-episode second season, set in fictional “Algonquin Bay” but shot in North Bay and Sudbury, Ont., begins Thursday night.
Generous tax credits and other incentives have lured “Cardinal” and other productions to towns all over the provinces’ “near north” region. That’s fine with Campbell, who has lived and worked across Canada and owns property in British Columbia.
“I feel spiritually Canadian, maybe because I’ve been coming here since I was a young one,” says Campbell, who used to summer with his family in Ontario’s Muskoka-area cottage country.
The 58-year-old plays Det. John Cardinal on the series, a hit on CTV as well as stateside on Hulu; a third season has already been ordered.
Quebecer Karine Vanasse stars opposite Campbell as police partner Lisa Delorme. The new season finds the two investigating a strange case: a young woman (Alex Paxton-Beesley) has survived a gunshot wound to the head but her injuries may be linked to a series of grisly, ritualistic murders.
“Cardinal” is based on a series of six bestselling crime novels by Canadian author Giles Blunt. Campbell has read them all.
He didn’t always want to be an actor. “I wanted to draw comic books,” he says.
He attended a school of comic book art in New Jersey. A visit to a friend at an acting school in Chicago, however, opened his eyes to other possibilities. For one thing, he says, there were more interesting women in the acting class. Campbell followed one of them to Hollywood and the rest, as they say, is history.
In fairly short order he landed a part on “Dynasty” and starred in the sci-fi adventure flick “The Rocketeer.” He claims, however, that his career was almost over before it began. His first acting gig was in a long-forgotten TV movie called, appropriately enough, “First Steps.”
Campbell got on set and froze. “
“(It) came the time to shoot and I was a block of wood,” he recalls.
The director swore loudly, turned his back and “stomped away from the camera.” Campbell still remembers the name of the compassionate assistant director who caught up with him later and assured him there’d be better days ahead.
There were, including Campbell’s three-season run opposite Sela Ward in the acclaimed ABC drama “Once and Again.” By the time that series ended in 2002, however, Campbell felt lost in Hollywood.
“I guess you could say I had a mid-life crisis. I really felt like I wasn’t living my life at all.”
Driven by a longing to experience the sea after reading the “Master and Commander” novels, Campbell set out for Norway. Over the next four years he sailed around the world twice, part of that time on a tall ship out of Lunenburg, N.S. The ship resembles the famous Blue Nose schooner depicted on the Canadian dime. Campbell proudly shows off a photo of the craft on his cellphone.
“The last season I was on board, I met my now wife,” says Campbell. She’s from Norway; the couple and their young child split their time between Copenhagen and her family’s farm in the south of Norway.
Campbell did discover what it was like to be at sea, but mostly, he says, “I discovered things about myself. Oddly, once I started doing that, work became so much more satisfying.”
That work has included starring roles on “The Killing” and “Helix” but, despite the mosquitoes, he feels most at home on the set of “Cardinal.”
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.