True De­tec­tive From jour­ney­man ac­tor to trend­ing au­di­ence favourite, Yan­nick Bis­son, the man be­hind Mur­doch, gets into char­ac­ter

Mys­tery solved! The man be­hind Mur­doch, Yan­nick Bis­son, re­veals his path from jour­ney­man ac­tor and young fa­ther to trend­ing au­di­ence favourite. Here, he gets into char­ac­ter as some of tele­vi­sion’s most beloved de­tec­tives, in­clud­ing him­self Cre­ative Di­rect

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IMAG­INE A CLEAN-CUT po­lice de­tec­tive who gives chase while wear­ing a bowler hat, im­pec­ca­bly tai­lored tweed three-piece and, when he ar­rests the cul­prit, speaks the Queen’s English. In this case, the Queen in ques­tion is not El­iz­a­beth but Vic­to­ria – or it was in 1895, the year the Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies first be­gan solv­ing the crimes of gaslit Toronto.

As the time pe­riod it cov­ers has pro­gressed in real time, the se­ries has be­come one of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful dra­mas and, a decade later, it has a fa­nat­i­cal fol­low­ing and is broad­cast in 110 coun­tries. Some of that suc­cess is due to the ami­able Yan­nick Bis­son, who has played the Toronto Con­stab­u­lary’s dap­per, earnest and un­fail­ingly po­lite Wil­liam Mur­doch in more than 150 episodes. The pop­u­lar­ity of Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies is a tes­ta­ment to how deftly the show plays with the lex­i­con of crime and de­tec­tion, bor­row­ing from a va­ri­ety of for­mu­las, gen­res and in­car­na­tions and from one un­likely source.

There’s no rum­pled rain­coat or sig­na­ture mus­cle car, but look past the starched high col­lars, vin­tage uni­forms and steam­punk el­e­ments of its pe­riod trap­pings and Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies also comes from a long tra­di­tion of hit tele­vi­sion de­tec-

tive se­ries, un­likely as it may seem, a fu­sion of Golden Age homage and the TV de­tec­tive for­mula per­fected in the 1970s.

These fondly re­mem­bered clas­sic shows all have sev­eral things in com­mon be­sides crime. Chiefly, they are a group ef­fort. A win­ning for­mula al­ways in­cludes a win­some sup­port­ing cast: Thomas Mag­num is noth­ing with­out the stern foil of Hig­gins and wing­men Rick and T.C.; Ko­jak and his precinct; Mickey Spil­lane’s Mike Ham­mer had Velda and Cap­tain Cham­bers.

Agatha Christie’s fas­tid­i­ous knowit-all Her­cule Poirot had his foils in cyn­i­cal In­spec­tor Japp and guile­less Cap­tain Hast­ings; Mur­doch has iras­ci­ble In­spec­tor Brack­en­reid and naive Con­sta­ble Crab­tree. He also has a fe­male equal, with the ad­di­tion of Hélène Joy’s pathol­o­gist Dr. Ju­lia Og­den, who be­gan the se­ries as the city med­i­cal ex­am­iner down in the morgue and, in so do­ing, brought in as­pects of the med­i­cal mys­tery dra­mas like Quincy, M.E., that sate the more re­cent thirst for foren­sic in­for­ma­tion pow­er­ing TV fran­chises, like a turn-ofthe-cen­tury CSI. Over the sea­sons, Mur­doch and Og­den’s in­tel­lec­tual re­la­tion­ship evolved into a ro­man­tic one and, af­ter some will-they-or­won’t-they, they’re now mar­ried.

The best de­tec­tive shows of the 1970s took the show on the road, so to speak, and of­ten shot on lo­ca­tion – not just be­cause they had wanted to show­case the cool cars. Like Mur­doch’s Toronto, their beat is a place, and on screen it be­comes an im­por­tant char­ac­ter – take Jack Lord, the orig­i­nal Steve McGar­rett on clas­sic Hawaii Five-0, ca­reen­ing around in a travel brochure ver­sion of the is­lands. For Columbo, it was the flip­side of the af­flu­ent en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try – ad­ja­cent Bev­erly Hills denizens that made the iconic how­catchem a love let­ter to the for­got­ten cor­ners of Los An­ge­les.

Mur­doch’s can­vas rev­els in the speci­ficity and mines the mi­lieu of what, now in the 11th sea­son, is Ed­war­dian Toronto. Au­then­tic lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, sci­en­tific ad­vances, po­lit­i­cal mo­ments and land­mark events dur­ing a time of great so­cial change are bal­anced with artis­tic li­cence and oc­ca­sional stunt cast­ing and cameos (in one mem­o­rable episode, a mous­ta­chioed Wil­liam Shat­ner played Mark Twain).

There’s a lit­tle of ev­ery­thing, and I mean that lit­er­ally.

From episode to episode, the form is elas­tic and un­pre­dictable. Any given Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies might be one of a dizzy­ing va­ri­ety of styles in the reper­toire of red her­rings and mis­di­rec­tion. One week fits a typ­i­cal po­lice pro­ce­dural from puzzle mys­ter­ies and court­room dra­mas to locked-door mys­ter­ies and draw­ing room pro­nounce­ments. The show takes jus­tice se­ri­ously and, thanks to its cos­tumes, looks but­tonedup, but it has the same play­ful, free­wheel­ing spirit of the 1970s in that doesn’t take it­self too se­ri­ously. So while Sta­tion­house No. 4 isn’t ex­actly Bar­ney Miller, it does have its light­hearted mo­ments: a time travel to the fu­ture à la Quan­tum Leap that al­lows Mur­doch a goofy fish-out-of-wa­ter sce­nario, or a gen­er­a­tion-span­ning cross­over episode with an­other pop­u­lar de­tec- tive show like Repub­lic of Doyle, to an out-and-out West­ern pas­tiche of an ex­pe­di­tion to the Klondike.

By the cliff-hanger end of the last sea­son, the in­ven­tive cosy had taken an un­ex­pect­edly noirish turn. In the hard­boiled tra­di­tion of Ray­mond Chan­dler, Dashiell Ham­mett and the Amer­i­can anti-hero, Mur­doch is alone and on the run, a vic­tim of in­sti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion while framed for mur­der and try­ing to save a dame. In his own way, Mur­doch’s as much of an out­sider as hard­boiled gumshoes Sam Spade or Philip Mar­lowe – a staunch Ro­man Catholic raised Down East who now nav­i­gates the largely Protes­tant city of Toronto. But the epony­mous in­ves­ti­ga­tor has a strict moral code as starchy as his col­lar.

Add an un­der­stand­ing of ba­sic hu­man na­ture, and age-old mo­tives – greed, lust, re­venge – and you’ve got a run that has out­lasted all but the peren­nial re­boots of Marple, Poirot and Holmes. But give Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies time – the 20th cen­tury is still young. —Nathalie Atkin­son

With Sea­son 11 of Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies now air­ing on CBC, Yan­nick Bis­son and the team be­hind the se­ries tell all By Mike Criso­lago

WHAT ARE THESE GUYS, CRAZY?” The thought crossed Bis­son’s mind a decade ago when con­sid­er­ing the tit­u­lar role in Mur­doch Mys­ter­ies. “There was no pe­riod show what­so­ever in 2007, not one, and here we are bas­ing this show in Toronto in 1895. This is sui­cide.”

In fact, 10 years on, Mur­doch is, un­like the show’s un­for­tu­nate vic­tims, alive and flour­ish­ing. Stats show the se­ries is beloved in Bel­gium, fa­mous in France and es­teemed in Iran, while at home it’s a na­tional trea­sure, thanks to Cana­dian his­tory-based sto­ry­lines, hu­mour

and high-pro­file cameos, in­clud­ing then prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper, who called it “my favourite pro­gram.” That’s right, the Prime Min­is­ter. Mur­doch’s ap­peal goes all the way to the top.

And at the fore­front of it all is Yan­nick Bis­son, 48, a.k.a. Det. Wil­liam Mur­doch. And like Mur­doch, Bis­son boasts a time­less aura that not only bridges cen­turies but also gen­er­a­tions. For­get the TV nu­dity and vi­o­lence that’s in vogue to­day – when I watch Mur­doch with my mother, 65, it’s be­cause, as with de­tec­tive shows of decades past, she wants to en­gross her­self in the cre­ativ­ity and hu­mour of the story and take note of the clues as the up­stand­ing de­tec­tive works to crack the case. We’re here for the mys­ter­ies.

That’s why I paid a visit to Bis­son’s thor­oughly mod­ern Toronto home – for the mys­tery. What bet­ter way to un­der­stand Canada’s most cel­e­brated de­tec­tive than to watch an episode of his show with him? We turn on the 2013 zom­bie-themed “Mur­doch of the Liv­ing Dead,” which he also di­rected, and Bis­son re­peat­edly ges­tures to the screen to talk cam­era an­gles, spe­cial ef­fects, his cast and writ­ers and one par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive shot of the moon­lit hori­zon that he de­scribes as “su­per tasty.”

His en­thu­si­asm for Mur­doch is ev­i­dent, but I won­der, how did he get here? Christina Jen­nings [chair­man and CEO of Shaftes­bury Films, which pro­duces Mur­doch]: Cast­ing your lead is ev­ery­thing. So when we came to who was go­ing to be Mur­doch in the se­ries, I was look­ing for this man who was em­i­nently re­lat­able, felt like an av­er­age per­son. Not a su­per­hu­man, an av­er­age good per­son. Peter Mitchell [the showrun­ner]: Yan­nick in real life is more gre­gar­i­ous, more fun-lov­ing than Mur­doch. But Yan­nick the ac­tor has been able to cre­ate a char­ac­ter of ex­treme de­cency and hon­our. Tony Wong: [tele­vi­sion critic, The Toronto Star] He is the ev­ery­man who’s tak­ing you through this crazy jour­ney of turn-of-the-cen­tury Toronto, and he plays it straight, but there is be­liev­abil­ity in that. I think view­ers have re­sponded … If you look at the shelf life of the av­er­age se­ries, huge rat­ings at the be­gin­ning and then it just starts to trail off and Mur­doch just seems to be get­ting stronger, and that’s un­usual. I think maybe it’s a hunger for fam­ily fare be­cause there are a mil­lion vi­o­lent shows on tele­vi­sion. Maybe this is the an­ti­dote. Yan­nick Bis­son: Mur­doch’s kind of all of us re­ally. He’s our col­lec­tive best selves on our best day. I wish I were as cool as him, as sen­si­tive or as smart or as in­sight­ful.

Sen­si­tive and in­sight­ful, sure, but Bis­son also knows how to charm the cam­era. He walks into a down­town Toronto stu­dio for our cover shoot and, with typ­i­cal Cana­dian hu­mil­ity, ex­plains that he’s never done this type of fash­ion shoot be­fore. But he’s the con­sum­mate per­former and def­i­nitely in his com­fort zone as he nails shot af­ter shot chan­nel­ing iconic tele­vi­sion de­tec­tives in­clud­ing Columbo, chomp­ing on a prop ci­gar as he walks around the set, “Eh, let me think here …”

Yan­nick Bis­son: When I was build­ing my char­ac­ter I def­i­nitely took Columbo into ac­count. And Poirot and a bit of James Bond and a bit of Bar­ney Miller, too. And I’ve said this a mil­lion times… I built the char­ac­ter with ex­actly those in mind.

And it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that to un­cover the core of his in­ner Mur­doch, one needs to ven­ture back to Bis­son’s for­ma­tive years. It was Mon­treal in the 1970s, and a woman re­turned home to find her young son ly­ing in a pool of blood on the floor. Yan­nick Bis­son: I used to stage mur­der scenes for my mom to come home to. I could never fool her. She would just laugh so much she’d start cry­ing and would drive me crazy. Me dead, with blood ev­ery­where, and she never bought it.

It turns out Yan­nick makes a bet­ter cop than a ca­daver. Yan­nick Bis­son: [Play­ing] a hero, I’m com­fort­able with that in the sense that as a kid that’s what I imag­ined my­self do­ing … My dad and I [watched] James Bond movies. Dad liked movies. I would sit with him and watch A Fist­ful of Dol­lars, Ser­gio Leone sort of spaghetti West­erns, some sci-fi. I re­mem­ber he used to cover my eyes in cer­tain parts. Some­body got a knife in the fore­head one time, and I man­aged to get his hand away just in time to see that.

The el­der Bis­son, a bridge builder, up­rooted the fam­ily from their na­tive Mon­treal and moved from city to city across Amer­ica for work. Bis­son set­tled in Toronto with his dad in his early teens and de­cided that if he couldn’t travel the world and bust bad guys in a tux in real life, he’d play those sorts of char­ac­ters on screen. He sold his dirt bike to pay for youth act­ing classes and landed a few com­mer­cial roles be­fore mak­ing his film de­but at

age 15 in the 1984 TV movie Hockey Night, op­po­site Rick Mo­ra­nis and Me­gan Fol­lows. In the 11th grade, Yan­nick dropped out of school and pur­sued act­ing full-time.

En­ter his lead­ing lady – a beau­ti­ful blond ac­tress and dancer named Shantelle dol­ing out desserts at a lo­cal ice cream shop. Shantelle had a boyfriend at the time, so the two drifted in and out of each other’s lives un­til, at age 18, they came face to face dur­ing a Pepsi au­di­tion. Yan­nick Bis­son: Shantelle comes down [af­ter the au­di­tion], and I gave her my num­ber, and she said, ‘Okay, let’s go out Fri­day.’ Shantelle Bis­son: We’ve been to­gether pretty much ever since … within four months of dat­ing, we were preg­nant with our first daugh­ter.

They mar­ried at 21 and within a mat­ter of years had three lit­tle girls run­ning around the house. Suc­cess, though, didn’t come as quickly as fa­ther­hood and mar­riage, so he made ends meet by de­liv­er­ing pizza, among other jobs. By the mid-’90s he had man­aged to land lead­ing roles in the 1995 TV movie Young at Heart, ap­pear­ing in a scene with Frank Si­na­tra in his fi­nal role; along­side real-life pal Rick Spring­field in the surf­ing de­tec­tive se­ries High Tide; and as fed­eral agent Jack Hud­son on the mid-2000s Can-Am cop show Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. Yan­nick Bis­son: Fam­ily mo­ti­vated me to work – to do other things to sup­ple­ment my in­come, to de­velop my­self as a per­son in other ways. But also when I did have work, to be ex­tremely grate­ful for it and to work hard and to also choose care­fully. Hav­ing a mar­riage and chil­dren, you weigh those choices dif­fer­ently … From the out­side, it could look like I’ve gone from show to show to show to show my en­tire ca­reer be­cause I’ve done a lot of them, but the truth is I’ve def­i­nitely been hun­gry in be­tween ev­ery sin­gle one. I’ve had to adapt and do other work and do other things be­tween ev­ery show that I’ve done.

The most sig­nif­i­cant strug­gle, how­ever, oc­curred at home, be­hind closed doors. Shantelle Bis­son: Not­many peo­ple know this, but we were sep­a­rated at the 16- or 17-year mark of our mar­riage. We had close to a one-year sep­a­ra­tion where we weren’t liv­ing to­gether even. I think that be­cause we’d had so much thrown at us and there’d been so many peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches for din­ner when we had noth­ing that it started to be a very dif­fer­ent an­i­mal, the re­la­tion­ship. I think we both had to take a step back and say “Okay, who are we go­ing for­ward and do we fit with each other any­more?” It was hard on him and me, but it was re­ally hard on the girls, and it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing to be able to have that time to do that and to get the good for­tune to come back to­gether and know now that you re­ally are pick­ing each other. We’re not just to­gether be­cause we got preg­nant four months in. We’re re­ally ac­tively choos­ing one an­other.

Not long af­ter their rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, Bis­son landed Mur­doch, and its en­su­ing suc­cess has given him more op­por­tu­ni­ties. Other than di­rect­ing mul­ti­ple episodes of Mur­doch (“I’m prob­a­bly a bet­ter di­rec­tor than I am an ac­tor.”), he has starred as a singing chil­dren’s show host on The Ad­ven­tures of Nap­kin Man! (“It scared the hell out of me, but it’s a new thing I can do now”) and is a con­tent cre­ator, work­ing to bring au­thor Michael Januska’s Pro­hi­bi­tion-era book se­ries Bor­der City Blues to the screen as ei­ther a minis­eries or film tril­ogy. Christina Jen­nings: [Yan­nick] will be one of those ex­tra­or­di­nary, grace­ful ac­tors as he ages. He’s got a Jimmy Ste­wart qual­ity to him. There is some­thing about him that just is fun­da­men­tally good. He is so re­lat­able. If he wants to, [he] will be go­ing right into his 80s – just rein­vent­ing and chang­ing it up.

Al­ready many of Bis­son’s most im­por­tant roles play out away from the cam­eras. To start, he and Shantelle sit on the ad­vi­sory board of the Artists for Peace and Jus­tice (APJ), a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that tack­les poverty and so­cial jus­tice is­sues founded by Os­car-win­ning Cana­dian screen­writer and di­rec­tor Paul Hag­gis. They trav­elled to Haiti with the APJ ear­lier this year to visit the Cité Soleil com­mu­nity, one of the most dis­tressed in the west­ern hemi­sphere. It’s chil­dren from there who make up the stu­dent body of the APJ Academy, that the Bis­sons help fund. While en­coun­ters with both ab­ject poverty and the abililty to live through it of those they met there left a last­ing im­pres­sion, it was the tour of the school that stopped them in their tracks. Yan­nick Bis­son: We walked to the very end, the last row of build­ings, and it was the grad­u­ate area, and the very last class­room had our names on it, and we were just com­pletely floored. We had no idea. And it was sort of a strange mo­ment for me be­cause I never got to fin­ish school, and

here our names are on grad­u­at­ing class doors. So I got a lit­tle teary, I can’t lie. And just be­ing able to help other peo­ple to reach that goal, it means so much to me.

And in Oc­to­ber, Bis­son trades his Hom­burg hat for a tuxedo to play fa­ther of the bride when his el­dest daugh­ter, Bri­anna, gets hitched. Yan­nick Bis­son: It’s mak­ing for some strange mixed feel­ings. There are the high times, the en­gage­ment and find­ing the dress and the emo­tion that came with that … But then there’s a con­fronta­tion with your­self, of your age, the pas­sage of your time with your large mark­ers and I would be ly­ing if I said I’m not go­ing through a lot right now, phys­i­cally, emotionally, men­tally and not just be­cause of the wed­ding, but just the place that I’m at in life … We got an al­most empty nest, and you feel things. So I’m sort of try­ing to keep my­self in check and stay fo­cused on the things that I’m grate­ful for, and then I’ll be there on the day to give her away. Left to pon­der the fu­ture, Bis­son is still search­ing for clues as to what the next act holds for him and Shantelle.

Last Fe­bru­ary, he re­ceived the Award of Ex­cel­lence from ACTRA (Al­liance of Cana­dian Cinema, Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio Artists) Awards, in recog­ni­tion of “an ex­cep­tional body of work and a com­mit­ment to ad­vo­cacy on be­half of all per­form­ers.”

It’s a fit­ting book­mark for the first half of his act­ing ca­reer, but it also raises the ques­tion of how much longer his ten­ure as the Toronto Con­stab­u­lary’s favourite crime fighter will last. Yan­nick Bis­son: At this point I don’t know. It’s a ques­tion I get asked a lot. I’d be happy to do it for as long as peo­ple watch it. I want to ven­ture out and do other things, ab­so­lutely, but I also have had the time to do that. So I’m cer­tainly in no bad place … This is a once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity. I’d be kid­ding my­self to think oth­er­wise.

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