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Nicholas Campbell is spitting mad. The lead actor on CBC's Da Vinci's Inquest strides past a boarded-up storefront on a derelict corner of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, sputtering and shaking his fist at a fictional city councillor as the camera crew captures the action.

In a huddle on the edge of the sidewalk, Larry "Da Vinci" Campbell looks on. The one-time RCMP drug-squad officer and former chief coroner of British Columbia is the real-life prototype for the crusading central character of Canada's popular dramatic TV series, which dominated the Gemini Awards earlier this week. Now running for mayor of Vancouver in the Nov. 16 civic elections, Campbell is also an occasional scriptwriter and advisor to the show.

"Here's a classic example of how Da Vinci is not like me," says Campbell, going on to explain that when he lived the role, he never chased city councillors down the street. "Well, at least they never filmed me when I was doing it," he jokes.

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Maybe not. But now that the campaign has picked up steam and turned into the most hotly contested race Vancouver has seen in a decade, "Mayor Da Vinci" (as his buttons proclaim) has the long-ruling establishment Non-Partisan Association running scared.

The latest Ipsos-Reid poll shows that 56 per cent of decided voters in Vancouver would vote for Larry Campbell, the candidate for the Coalition of Progressive Electors. (Only 29 per cent said they would vot for veteran NPA Councillor Jennifer Clarke, while 14 per cent back candidate Valerie MacLean.) Whatever the outcome, Campbell's candidacy has certainly forced the oft-neglected issues of drugs, crime and the decay of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside onto the front pages.

These are the same mean streets Dominic Da Vinci has blustered through for five seasons -- and a large part of the reason the realistic drama has become such a critically acclaimed success around the globe. Earlier this week, Campbell told reporters that if he wins, he plans to open Vancouver's first safe-injection site within 30 days of taking office. Is it only coincidence that Episode One of Da Vinci's Inquest this season referred to safe-injection sites within the first 30 minutes?

Probably not. But now that the underdog candidate actually looks like he might have a good chance of winning, Campbell is eager to put some distance between himself and the character.

"I want to make it very clear here," says Campbell, as he sits down at lunch to discuss the relationship between his own life and the TV show. "Da Vinci is not Larry Campbell. This is Chris Haddock's take on things."

Haddock, the creator of the series, pulls a cigar out of his leather jacket and throws his hands up in mock innocence. "I feel like I'm being framed here," he says.

Da Vinci might not be Campbell, but when Nicholas Campbell walks in and slaps the mayoral candidate on the back, you can certainly detect a strong influence.

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Larry Campbell, 52, is only four years older than the actor and could easily pass for his older brother. Larry's build is beefier and his hair more solidly silver, but they have the same blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and wire glasses. Even the tattered old briefcase the actor lugs around on set once belonged to Campbell.

"It was a ratty piece of garbage," Campbell explains, as they all burst out laughing.

"I had to have it," says the actor.

Campbell didn't mind. "They bought me a shiny new leather one to replace it."

There are distinct differences, of course. Unlike the divorced character, Campbell is still married to a forensic pathologist. Nor has he ever experienced Da Vinci's problematic taste for Scotch.

"Both Campbell and Da Vinci are plain-talking men, the kind of people who aren't afraid to speak their mind," explains Haddock. "That's the part of the character I wanted to capture. The difference is that Da Vinci gives people a piece of his mind, without thinking of the consequences."

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The same might be said for the actor. "Oh, Jesus Christ, you've got the queer vote," says Nicholas, laughing loudly as he picks a copy of Xtra West off the table. The current issue of Vancouver's gay and lesbian newspaper has endorsed Campbell's campaign with a cover photo.

"That's good, man," says Haddock. "That's a big part of the vote."

"Either that, or he's gonna get swarmed," cracks Nicholas.

"Gimme that," says Larry Campbell, grabbing the paper out of his friend's hand, as he flips to the article and reads the writers' plug out loud: "Easiest voting choice I've ever faced. He's a former cop, the real-life model for Da Vinci's Inquest and a man with a true vision of leadership for Vancouver. He'll tackle the toughest problems, involve neighbourhoods directly, play hardball to get genuine community policing . . ."

"And he's got a big dick," Nicholas interjects. "How did that get in there?"

"It doesn't say that," Campbell scolds, continuing on. "Smart man with a big heart and he knows how city hall really works."

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As his political advisor starts sweating at the other end of the table, Campbell lowers his head and says: "And we can't use that word."

"What?" Nicholas asks. "Heart?"

"I'm trying to stay out of trouble here, okay," says Campbell.

Campbell's handler chokes back a nervous cough. "As I was saying," Haddock interrupts. "Larry is more astute than Da Vinci, but that's not good for television." Take a fast twirl around the TV dial these days and you'll find coroners, cops, forensic pathologists, and all manner of corpses on any given channel. But six years ago, when the folks at CBC-TV called Haddock and asked him if he had a show he wanted to develop, the public's grim fascination with death and medical morbidity wasn't so obvious.

"I had been looking for a show that had a unique new twist on a popular genre," explains Haddock. "Larry invited me to speak at a forensics-science seminar because I had worked with him on a pilot that I'd written for ABC that had a medical examiner as a minor character."

It suddenly occurred to Haddock that a show about a coroner could deftly incorporate elements from the three most popular prime-time genres -- the legal, the medical and the police procedural. "That's when I called Larry back up and said 'I need some real insight about what's going on.' "

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Campbell was skeptical, to say the least. "I said who's going to be interested in the life of a coroner?"

His main concern, Campbell explains, was that he didn't want to be involved with a show that might embarrass the coroner's service. But then Nicholas came on board, and as the series began to take shape, Campbell realized he was being offered a rare opportunity to help take the oft-misunderstood coroner's job out from the shadows between the police department and the medical profession and show the public how it really does function as an investigative advocate for the dead.

"So I went to the [provincial]government and said, 'Look, we have a choice to be part of this or not. And by the way, it's a $13-million investment in the economy.' "

With such shows as Cold Squad, Homicide, Crossing Jordan, Six Feet Under, CSI: Crime Scene Investigations trailing dead bodies all over prime time, it makes you wonder why corpses, crime and the people who investigate them are so popular.

"The universal appeal of death has always been there," offers Haddock. "It's that other side you can't ever see that people want to experience. But they feel more comfortable going on that dark exploration with someone who isn't intimidated by it. Someone who experiences it on a day-to-day basis."

Out of that slew of crime shows and dead bodies, Da Vinci's Inquest rises year after year as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed series in the genre, transcending the streets of Vancouver to become one of Canada's most popular TV exports ever. The series is now shown is some 45 countries around the world, including Turkey, Poland, Argentina and Denmark.

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In addition to skillful writing, acting and direction, Haddock believes it's the naturalism of the show and its attention to detail that provides the appeal.

"Vancouver is a central character in the show. That's where we've succeeded. The more specific you get, in dealing with things on location, the more universal and genuine it becomes."

If the homeless squatters and tent-city protest outside Vancouver's contested Woodward's building look familiar to the folks watching the national news in Charlottetown, that's probably because Da Vinci's Inquest has been shooting around that location for five years. Likewise, Vancouver's missing women -- whose remains are allegedly being recovered from Robert Pickton's pig farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C. -- have been a recurring theme in the show since the beginning.

But in its ruthlessly unsentimental portrait of Vancouver, the show digs even deeper, eschewing melodrama to focus a sharp eye on the most mundane details of procedure. And that's where Campbell has helped.

"The more you can experience the real deal and talk to people who have actually been there, the more grounded you're going to be," says Haddock.

During the early stages of development, Haddock would often go to Campbell with general questions about inquests, how a coroner follows a case and which issues should be delegated to the police.

But when shooting began, Campbell would often wade in to correct the nitty-gritty details. "There were a lot of discussions about gloves," he recalls. "The actors would touch their faces with their gloves on and I'd say 'No, you can't do that.' Or bunny suits, you know the white suits they wear. The actors would go into the apartment and then leave and I'd say 'No, no. It's a secure site. You can't be going in and out.' "

Some actors routinely research their roles with relish. Not Nicholas Campbell: "It only gets my knickers in a twist because I'm aware of what I'm doing wrong . . ."

With this show, however, he says the personal insight he gained by riding along to crime scenes with Campbell was invaluable.

"I had to do some major pushing," the actor recalls. "He wasn't in favour of me going on the ride-alongs at all. I did a few, but if it was a major crime, I wasn't allowed to go. Larry's concern was always for the victims and their families. He'd say 'How would you feel if this was your family and there was an actor hanging around at the scene of the crime?' That told me more about the character than anything else."

When he did get to tag along, it didn't take long for Nicholas to figure out where the coroner stands in the crime-scene hierarchy. "He owns the body. It was a real revelation to me, just seeing the authority Larry carried.

Inevitably, there have been some creative differences along the way. "Larry's always complaining about why the character has to be so angry all the time," says Haddock. "As a technical advisor, Larry helps keep the show real, but we're only scratching reality." So how has the show influenced Campbell?

Well, he retired as chief provincial coroner two years ago. But it wasn't because of the demons or personal conflicts Da Vinci experiences on the job, or because of his pay cheque from CBC. "The house isn't paid off yet and I still work part-time," he says.

Of course, Campbell's TV connection has been great publicity for the campaign of "Mayor Da Vinci," in much the same way that Da Vinci's Inquest has helped raise awareness about the seedier side of Vancouver and its disenfranchised people. "I have to admit, there's a certain cachet to be able to bask in the glow of one Canada's most successful shows," Campbell says.

An obvious question remains: If Campbell wins, will Da Vinci run for mayor?

"It's funny you should ask," says Haddock. "Nick and I were talking about that last year. We said if we ever run out of story ideas, we could have Da Vinci run for mayor. And then lo and behold."

The table of straight faces erupts into hysterics. "Yeah, and then after that, we'd turn him into a farmer and send him to a small town in Saskatchewan where he could make a really big difference," Haddock jokes.

"Da Vinci the wheat farmer," toots Nicholas.

"Seriously though," says Haddock. "Think of the potential. This show could go on forever."

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