A couple of characters

Who needs Brangelina? Here in Canada, we’ve got Oscaremma. The most popular couple on Canadian screens today, Oscar and Emma Leroy have everything that any other pair of tabloid-worthy celebrity hotties has – and more.

There are rumours of affairs:
Oscar: I didn’t know whether to tell you this or not, but someone in town has a crush on me.
Emma: A crush … on you? You couldn’t get a dog to lick you if you were covered in gravy.

There’s vengeance:
Emma: You’ve got to stop with this revenge.
Oscar: This is not about revenge. This is about getting even!

There are mysterious medical issues:
Emma: You’re going to the doctor.
Oscar: Over my dead body!
Emma: That’d speed things up.

There are exaggerations and denials:
Oscar: I have never overstated a single thing in the history of the planet!

And, of course, there’s true love:
Emma: I’m going out to get plant food, Oscar. Do you need anything?
Oscar: What are you getting plant food for?
Emma: Because my tomatoes are patetic and wrinkly. And when things are pathetic and wrinkly, they need food. Eat your sandwich.

The curmudgeonly Oscar and his long-suffering wife, Emma, are the favourite couple in the smash hit Corner Gas, the number 1 comedy series in the country. The homegrown sitcom, which began its fourth season in late September, is a broadcasting phenomenon. Canadians watch Corner Gas more than they watch any other comedy series, including all American sitcoms. The show has even beaten out its powerful competition, Hockey Night in Canada. Aired weekly on CTV and The Comedy Network, Corner Gas consistently gets over a million viewers, with last spring’s finale reaching almost two million and the 2005 Christmas episode nearing an astonishing three million.

So popular is the show that notable Canadians have been falling over themselves offering to do cameo appearances. Paul Martin became the first sitting prime minister to appear willingly in a sitcom, and this season Stephen Harper will become the second. Most who want to be in the show are turned down, but others who’ve made the cut include singers Jann Arden and Colin James, news anchor Lloyd Robertson, comedian Colin Mochrie and Canada’s consul general to New York City Pamela Wallin. One recent request came from none other than former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, who will appear in an episode this season.

The Gemini-winning series revolves around small-town life in the fictitious prairie community of Dog River, which is said to be “Forty kilometres from nowhere and way beyond normal.” The show was nominated for an International Emmy, DVDs of past seasons are a hit from Norway to New Zealand and in May, the series was sold to a U.S. distributor – which is all the more remarkable, considering that Corner Gas is set firmly and unapologetically in Saskatchewan, a province many non-Canadians can scarcely pronounce.

But, just as you didn’t need to be from Manhattan to find Seinfeld funny, you don’t have to know Saskatchewan to find Corner Gas funny. In fact, the most enthusiastic market for the show is Toronto. Still, the Saskatchewan connection is strong. The series is shot there. Almost all the surnames of Dog River residents – Brent Leroy, Hank Yarbo, Lacey Burrows, Davis Quinton – are actually names of towns in Saskatchewan. The series creator, writer and star, Brent Butt, hails from Tisdale, Sask. And his lovably crusty parents, Oscar and Emma, are played by two people born and raised in Saskatchewan who also happen to be two of Canada’s finest dramatic actors: Eric Peterson and Janet Wright.

When casting the show, Butt wasn’t looking for dramatic actors. “I had comedic actors in mind,” he says. “But none of those people who were in my head got the part. I was looking for people who could become these characters, and it all came down to really solid actors. Eric and Janet are so professional – they just breeze in, they know their lines and they do their stuff.”

It’s been a surprisingly delightful homecoming for Peterson and Wright who, before Corner Gas, were known for far different roles. Peterson is renowned for playing crusading lawyer Leon Robinovitch in the long-running series Street Legal and Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas in the Trudeau miniseries. Wright, a veteran of stage and screen, gained international fame as Mark Wahlberg’s mother in the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm with George Clooney. Peterson and Wright have performed with almost every major theatre company in Canada and have 80 years of acting experience between the two of them, along with a slew of Gemini and Genie awards.

Happily, Corner Gas has served to reunite these two, who first met 40 years ago while working on the play Come Blow Your Horn in Saskatoon. Seeing them today, holding hands and cuddled up together on the couch in Peterson’s trailer outside the Regina sound stage, you can easily visualize them as the adolescents they once were, with fierce but fleeting crushes on each other. Now, each in a long marriage to other people, they’re best friends on the Corner Gas set. “I think you’re cute,” she tells him. “I think you’re hot,” he responds.

Peterson and Wright are actually much younger than the characters they portray. He’s 60; she’s 61. But they’re a generation older than their fellow cast members, in a business that reveres youth. As Peterson bemoans having turned 60 on October 2, Wright jumps in with, “Seriously, you know what you have, Eric? You have a beautiful walk, a really sexy walk.”

“I do?” Peterson is clearly delighted. “I thought I had a lumbering old walk like my dad.”

“No. I just love the way you walk.”

“Now I’m going to be all self-conscious,” Peterson says. “I’ll be wondering, are you looking at my bum?” They both hoot with laughter.

Peterson has long lived in Toronto, Wright in Vancouver. But over the past four decades, their work kept bringing them together, either socially or professionally. They once played the leads in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Vancouver. Today, recalling his role as King Oberon, Peterson instantly jumps into character, booming, “‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!’” to which Wright rolls her eyes and replies with exaggerated Emma-like patience, “Oh, God.” But she adds, “Eric and I kind of are like husband and wife. We can be annoyed with each other but because we know each other so well, it doesn’t even matter. We like each other. Our dynamic as friends is very similar to our dynamic as Oscar and Emma.”

For example, she says that while Peterson is usually good-natured, he does have his cranky moments. “Eric can get pretty grumpy – not like Oscar, but he can get in a certain frame of mind – but I don’t care,” she says. “I never take it personally.”

Peterson says, “It’s great to have somebody that you know well enough that you can be yourself with in this business. For me, it’s just wonderful. I can be myself with Janet, warts and all.”

Wright adds, “And from my point of view, it’s really great to have him because I seem to be always going through something, and sometimes I fall apart …”

And with good reason. In January 2004, Wright’s 23-year-old daughter, Rachel Davis, was gunned down while acting as peacemaker at a street fight in Vancouver. Wright didn’t attend the trial of the 25-year-old accused – “I don’t want to see his face” – although her husband, Bruce Davis, steeled himself to go. In July, the jury returned a conviction of first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence. While the cast and crew of Corner Gas have all been extremely supportive of Wright, Peterson’s friendship has been particularly meaningful. She says, “Because we’re the same age and we know each other so well, we can go up to each other and say stuff that would curl the hair of anybody else.” Stuff like what? “Like, ‘I’d like to kill myself.’ You’re not necessarily going to feel that way in two minutes, but you can say it and you can laugh about it.” Peterson squeezes her hand as she continues, “We can’t say horrific stuff like that to the young ones – we don’t want to take their hope away.” And the two of them are off again in gales of hilarity, which suggests that the most self-destructive act these two might ever commit would be to kill themselves laughing.

Growing up in the small town of Indian Head, Sask., Eric Peterson had no ambition to become an actor because he wasn’t aware that it was a career choice. His father was an entomologist, his mother a nurse. Peterson enjoyed mimicking people to make family and friends laugh, but it wasn’t until he enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon that he became aware of the existence of a theatre department. Since there was a perennial shortage of males, a female friend asked Peterson to audition for an upcoming play. In the absence of any competition, he got the part. Peterson says, “After the performance, one of the professors from the department came up to me and said, ‘Have you ever considered taking an acting class as an elective?’ If he hadn’t said that, I might have ended up as a history teacher.”

Peterson’s acting class the following year was the only course he enjoyed and excelled in, almost failing everything else. Convinced that the route to a successful acting career was to leave Canada, he dropped out of university after two years and moved to London. Reality hit hard; without professional acting experience, the only work Peterson could find was stage carpentry, stage management and a few bit parts.

Returning to Canada, Peterson worked for a year doing children’s theatre in Alberta, then decided he needed some serious acting training. He successfully auditioned for a master’s program in theatre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he met playwright John Gray. Together, they wrote and staged Billy Bishop Goes to War, a play about a First World War flying ace who struggles to reconcile his joy of flight with his horror of war. In the one-man production, Peterson played Billy Bishop and 15 other roles, including a young woman, an old dame and King George V, to wide acclaim. In 1980, the hugely successful production went to Los Angeles, then Broadway, then London’s West End.

“Part of me was saying, ‘This is the beginning! I’m going to be discovered!’” Peterson says. “But the other part of me realized that by being out of Canada, out of the society that was giving me my creative imagination, I was being robbed. My creative engine was rooted here in Canada, and being away from that was no longer attractive to me.” He came home.

Meanwhile, Janet Wright was busy doing theatre across Canada. Born in Saskatoon, she grew up listening to recordings of Broadway musicals, learning all the lyrics and acting them out with her three siblings. Their mother, an English war bride who never quite took to Canada, trained all the children in enunciation and expression. Blessed with perfect pitch, Wright had a lovely soprano voice, made lower, huskier and even more appealing when she reached adolescence and discovered smoking.

Seeking a wider stage, at 20 Wright headed for Vancouver. She was cast in the first role she auditioned for – the upstairs neighbour in The Odd Couple. She learned quickly that she had a knack for upstaging fellow actors and she jumped naturally to her second role – Lady Macbeth.

Roles came easily to the turquoise-eyed beauty with the commanding stage presence. Wright appeared in, and later directed, several productions in Stratford, Ont., including starring in 1991 in the play Les Belles-soeurs with her sisters, Susan and Anne. In December of that year, Wright left Susan and their visiting parents in Stratford to do a play in Winnipeg. One Sunday morning, she received horrific news in a pre-dawn phone call. “There’s been a fire,” she was told. “Your mother and father and sister are dead.” The electrical fire had killed all three before any could escape.

“I didn’t deal with it well,” Wright recalls. “I kind of just carried on. But I started deteriorating in ways I didn’t even know. I was really thin before they died, for example. Walking, swimming – I was in really good shape. Then I just got heavier and heavier. You sort of become a walking head.” When her daughter Rachel was killed a decade later, Wright says she had to struggle against the feeling that she had been cast in some ancient dramatic tragedy. “For a while, I was going to change my last name to something Greek,” she cracks. It was only her black sense of humour, which she shares with her husband and her two children that carried her through.

Some time after Rachel died, Wright decided she had to do something positive for herself. “I was way too fat, and I was so out of shape I couldn’t get up off a couch without first going down on my knees. I couldn’t even go downstairs and, you know, as an actor that’s embarrassing. I was starting to be treated as crippled. And in a way I was – that’s probably how I expressed how devastated I was about Rachel.” She cut way down on white flour and white sugar and in the past two years has lost 55 pounds. “I was size 24. Now I can wear blue jeans in a 14 stretch.”

Publicly, Wright refers to the three younger female cast members on the show as “the size zero girls.” But Nancy Robertson, who plays Dog River’s resident genius, Wanda (and who became Brent Butt’s real-life wife last November), says that privately Wright calls the young women “my little whores.” But Robertson adds, “Out of context, that sounds terrible. But it’s meant with all the love in the world. Janet and Eric are both so nurturing. One of the nicest things is when you finish doing a scene with them and you get a nod of approval from Eric or Janet. It’s a really meaningful pat on the back.”

Corner Gas is essentially a summer job for Peterson and Wright, as the shooting schedule runs from May to September. Wright rents a house in Regina, where she can garden. She lives the rest of the year in a condo in Vancouver with her husband, a musician, composer and limo driver. During the season, Peterson rents a condo in Regina, while his wife, Annie Kidder, sister of actor Margot Kidder and head of the Ontario activist organization People for Education, visits as often as she can. This summer, their elder daughter, Molly, 19, a theatre arts major, had a summer job on the Corner Gas crew. Peterson spends downtime at his old family cottage in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. On their days off, Peterson, Wright and the rest of the cast participate in fundraisers for a host of charitable causes including Regina’s Globe Theatre, Canadian Cancer Society, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Easter Seals, National Aboriginal Day and, more recently, the Rachel Davis Foundation (www.racheldavis.ca), in honour of Wright’s daughter, to recognize outstanding acts of courage or kindness by young Canadians.

Corner Gas has two main shooting locations. Most interior scenes – Oscar and Emma’s house, the police station, the Ruby Café – are taped in the sound stage in the heart of Regina. Outdoor scenes, as well as the Corner Gas store, are shot on location in the tiny prairie community of Rouleau (pronounced RO-lo), a 45-minute drive from Regina. With a population of only 434, Rouleau sees more traffic now in a day than it used to see in a year. Tourists from all over the world make a detour to visit “Dog River.” This past summer’s bus tours to the site from Regina and Moose Jaw were all booked up by May.

When he saw the first script, Eric Peterson had no idea that Corner Gas would be such a success. All he knew was he had to play Oscar. “After the initial audition, I said, ‘You gotta cast me in this. I am this guy! I’m from there. And you’ll be making a huge mistake if you don’t cast me.’ I’d never said that before in an audition.” He loved the idea of playing Oscar the grouch because, as he says, “It’s great to be old and cranky and get paid for it. Most people just get to be old and cranky.” More than that, Peterson was struck by the hip, urbane writing in this show that’s ostensibly about nothing. “But it’s about the poetry and beauty of nothing, and it’s written with a tremendous amount of skill. Brent Butt and the other writers – they’re all experienced stand-up comics. These guys really know whether a joke works or doesn’t.”

Janet Wright agrees. “Brent’s a genius. Brent eats, sleeps and breathes Corner Gas. It’s his baby. He writes, produces, stars, and he’s even directed episodes. It could be awful to work with somebody so incredibly hands-on, but Brent’s got the most even nature you’ve ever seen.”

When casting the show, Butt wasn’t even aware that Peterson and Wright were fellow Saskatchewanians. But it’s turned out to be a happy advantage, both on and off the set. For instance, inside the show’s newspaper, the Dog River Howler, Peterson tucks a real copy of the Indian Head-Wolseley News from his hometown. Butt says, “Eric knows the families and stuff. In between takes, he’ll read it out loud in a calming and pleasing voice: ‘Mrs. Wilson bought a dozen eggs the other day ….’ I could listen to that all day. It’s one of my favourite things in the world.”

Butt aims for an air of verisimilitude on the series, to the point where the food served at the Ruby diner is real, cooked on the set and enthusiastically consumed by the cast and crew.

Butt says, “Janet and I have a running thing, wherein if there’s a scene where she and I are going to be talking, I try and write it as a lunch scene so that we can have macaroni and wieners. That’s our guilty pleasure. She doesn’t allow herself certain carb-based foods in her real life, and I’m always trying to watch my weight. But within character, it’s okay. So now I write ‘macaroni and wieners’ right into the script.”

The warm family feeling is evident among the entire cast, but Peterson and Wright share a special connection. As the new season unfolds, perhaps we can expect the relationship between Oscar and Emma to grow ever steamier.

Oscar: A guy my age goes to the doctor and everyone’s gonna assume he’s going to get one of those little blue pills. Everyone in town will be talking about how I can’t…
Brent: Dad!
Emma: What’s he talking about?
Brent: Viagra.
Emma: Oh, for Pete’s sake... [To Oscar] Well, if you’re going there anyway, you may as well ask.

What could be more romantic than that?

Catch Corner Gas Monday nights on CTV and Saturday nights on The Comedy Network. Check your local listings for times in your area. www.cornergas.com