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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TELEVISION : When a Mountie's as Thick as a Brick

September 26, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Lawyers for accused murderer O.J. Simpson are relentlessly attacking the credibility of the Los Angeles Police Department, using the courtroom to lobby the presiding judge and using television to take their case to the public.

Yet there's a much more renowned police force whose reputation is being impugned via television, a world-famous agency that can trace its law-enforcement roots to 1873, an organization whose heroic fight against crime in the Northwest Territories is legendary.

The Mounties.

Scores of movies have been made that romanticize and glamorize the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the interest of box office. Now, as the fall season unfolds, comes a different perspective: the doofus approach.

Can a Mountie really be this, uh, thick?

Being produced by a Canadian company doesn't assure authenticity for the new CBS drama series "Due South" and its Mountie hero, any more than being U.S.-bred guarantees accuracy for, say, the CBS series "Walker, Texas Ranger."

Called a "comedy adventure" by CBS, "Due South" fills its 8 p.m. Thursday hour with the triumphs and follies of stiff-jawed, ultra-square, deadpan Constable Benton Fraser, who joins a local cop in battling lawlessness in the Midwest Territories. That would be present-day Chicago, where he is assigned to stand outside and guard the Canadian consulate, remaining rigid and refusing to speak, as if under a command of silence.

Played by Canadian Paul Gross, this brick of a palooka conforms to the Mounties' "Dudley Do-right" caricature, minus a couple dozen IQ points. He is so polite that he keeps giving up his place in a taxi queue after arriving at O'Hare Airport, ultimately choosing to walk to downtown Chicago, luggage in hand, rather than take up cab space.

Call it gritty realism.

Whatever it is, "it's definitely embarrassing," a real Mountie said by phone from Vancouver. The Mountie, requesting anonymity, said that he and a local police officer "howled" with laughter while watching "Due South."

How dumb does he think Fraser is? "Very dumb," he replied.

The "Due South" constable has been roaming the city in his red jacket and campaign hat, something his real-life counterparts would never do, especially in another country, according to the Vancouver Mountie. "He'd wear plainclothes in Chicago. We only wear the red coats for ceremonial occasions or for funerals."

*

Alliance Communications Corp., the same company that produces "Due South," now has another Mountie series running in Canada that, by some accounts, is reasonably accurate. But the Vancouver constable recalls an earlier Canadian television series that had a prominent Mountie character more reminiscent of Fraser. "He was pretty dumb too," he said.

More circumspect about "Due South" is Gilles Moreau, a corporal with Mountie media relations in Ottawa, who said by phone that he became a technical adviser for the series after some of his colleagues criticized the two-hour pilot when it aired in Canada last spring. The Mounties were not consulted about that pilot, he said.

Although calling the series a "fairy tale," he credits it at least with incorporating such Mountie "values" as "respect for human rights and the fact that we serve the people."

Moreau acknowledged that "Due South" does not accurately depict today's Mounties, however, and that the show's running bit about Constable Fraser standing mute outside the consulate is, well, "more like the guards outside Buckingham Palace." But he added: "We have to remember, this is television."

Back in Southern California, "Due South" has an avid viewer in Charles Skinner, who was executive producer of "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," the old CBS series (1955-58) and radio spinoff about a stalwart Mountie who battled scoundrels in the snowy Yukon Territory of the gold-rushing 1880s. Just as Constable Fraser hangs out in Chicago with his wolf (which looks like a dog), Preston's constant companions were his dog, Yukon King, and his black horse, Rex. There the similarity ends.

Preston, played by an actor named Richard Simmons, "went out in the name of the queen and did things to bad guys," Skinner said. Preston's most famous words--"On, King! On, you huskies!"--resonate across the decades. "But this guy (Fraser) looked like Superman or something the way he was running across rooftops the other night," Skinner said.

The difference is that Superman knew when to take off his costume.

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