True Detective: Meet Yannick Bisson, the Man Behind ‘Murdoch Mysteries’

With season 11 of Murdoch Mysteries now airing on CBC, Yannick Bisson and the team behind the series tell all.

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: Not many 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.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2017 issue with the headline, “True Detective,” p. 38-43.