‘Olivia, how many times have I told you to wear underwear in court?”
This, C. David Johnson says, slipping briefly back into a character he hasn’t played in almost two decades, was the line he most enjoyed delivering as the reckless, motorcycling lawyer Chuck Tchobanian during eight seasons on CBC’s Street Legal.
It was during the 1994 series finale, he recalls, and Chuck was in a courthouse men’s changing room, once more about to get it on with Olivia, his estranged wife and fellow lawyer, played so memorably by Cynthia Dale.
Olivia, it seems, had recovered from being charged with murder after helping a friend dying of AIDS commit suicide. Leon Robinovitch – the left-leaning partner in their firm, played by Eric Peterson – had first tried to get her off the hook by claiming the law against assisted suicide violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (ripped from the headlines, still).
So how is it that Street Legal turned 25 years old this year with so little (read: no) fanfare? At a time when Canadian television is at a crossroads, we seem to be on the verge of forgetting what former executive producer Brenda Greenberg, who led a revamp of the show after its first two, more earnest, issue-based seasons, calls “Canada’s first water-cooler series.”
Making its debut in January, 1987, Street Legal evolved into the True North’s answer to L.A. Law, as well as other eighties prime-time soaps. At its height in 1992, the series pulled in 1.6 million viewers an episode in Canada. It went on to air in more than 25 countries, though it never really caught on in the U.S.
Until 2009, Street Legal could be found in reruns on Bravo! But for reasons unknown, CBC still hasn’t released it on DVD. In the absence of a reunion special, we caught up with six of the show’s stars.
Brief:Leon was the bleeding-heart liberal of the firm, whose representative clients included radical environmentalists, a lesbian fighting for her late partner’s pension and child soldiers seeking asylum in Canada. By the fifth season, he decided to run for mayor of Toronto – the city that was, as much as any of the lawyers, a main character on the show.
Case notes: Lightning struck twice for Peterson, and he has since experienced Canadian television success a second time over with Corner Gas. But he’s still approached on the street as Leon, particularly by new Canadians, who, he suspects, remember the character’s passionate involvement in immigration cases. “Television’s like Styrofoam,” he says, “it never goes away.”
Now: The stage veteran is now in rehearsals for Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, opening at Soulpepper Theatre Company on July 14.
C. David Johnson
Charles (Chuck) Tchobanian
Brief: Chuck was always getting caught up in the seamier side of the law and get-rich-quick schemes. In Season 5, it came as no surprise that he was arrested for murder; even his on-and-off flame, Olivia, thought he did it at first.
Case notes: Johnson fondly remembers the eighties fashions, from shoulder pads to big hair to a boxy Hugo Boss suit that “made me look like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.” But his favourite part was the hot-and-heavy romance between Chuck and Olivia, even though it was less sexy to shoot than to watch. “You have to do it 27 different times and from 10 different angles – there’s nothing exciting about it at all.”
Now: After a stint on Broadway in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Johnson is back at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, playing Cynthia Dale’s love interest in 42nd Street and Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance.
Brief: Putting the vamp in revamp, smart and sassy Olivia joined the firm as the third season went to air in October, 1988. It didn’t take long for Chuck to conveniently divorce his wife, Lisa (who?), and for the series’ sexiest, soapiest hook to begin. (Typical episode summary from the period: “Sparks fly between Chuck and Olivia.”)
Case notes: At first, sex and the CBC were an unusual fit – as Dale discovered the first time Olivia lay down on Chuck’s desk to talk to him. “Shooting stopped, because they had to approve that – make sure it wasn’t too racy,” she recalls.
Now: After a number of seasons away, Dale is back at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as aging musical theatre star Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street – or, as they’re calling it backstage, 42nd Street Legal.
Carrington (Carrie) Barr
Brief: Carrie was the third original partner at Barr, Robinovitch and Tchobanian, though she didn’t make it to the end of the series alive. She eventually found love in a second marriage with prosecutor Dillon Beck, but then was cruelly mowed down by a drunk-driving judge an episode after their wedding.
Case notes: The fact that Street Legal turned the cast into celebrities and plots into water-cooler talk always surprised Smits. Taking a flight the day after her character was killed off, she was quizzed on the tragedy while passing through security and then by a flight attendant, who had nearly skipped work because she was so distraught. “People actually say to me, ‘Oh, my daughter became a lawyer because of you,’” she says.
Now: Last seen onstage opposite Peterson in a German play, The Test, Smits just finished shooting a Web series written by CSI creator Anthony E Zuiker.
Brief: Beck entered the Street Legal universe in 1991 as the show’s first major non-white character. He eventually married Carrie, then, after recovering from her death, joined the firm and began to flirt with the office secretary, Mercedes.
Case notes: Dillon’s romance with Carrie may not have ended well, but its matter-of-fact depiction of a black man and white woman in love was groundbreaking at the time. “In North America, it was the first interracial relationship on television in an ongoing series,” Sherwood says. “I was quite proud to be a part of that history.”
Now: Titanic: The Untold Story, a play written and directed by Sherwood that tells the story of the only black person to sail on the ill-fated ship, tours to Montreal’s Segal Centre in July.
Brief: Diamond joined the show in 1991 as an antagonist working for ruthless rival R.J. Williams (whose initials, reversed, were J.R. – a Dallas in-joke). He then switched teams and joined BRT as a junior lawyer, getting together with Laura (Maria Del Mar), the new female lawyer who coincidentally joined the firm after Smits left the series.
Case notes: Schultz – who went on to star in the medical drama Side Effects, which bumped Street Legal off the CBC in 1994 – has leveraged his Canadian celebrity to help establish Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, where he has been artistic director since 1998. “I know that being on Street Legal had a lot to do with the early success of Soulpepper,” he says.
Now: Schultz is directing at Soulpepper this summer. His production of The Crucible opens July 25, then his acclaimed production of Death of a Salesman returns in September.