Winnipeg’s Cariou takes pride in Manitoba Theatre Centre roots

Stage, screen vet heaps praise on 'best regional theatre in North America'

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NEW YORK -- The journalists in a Brooklyn TV complex introduce themselves -- from Paris, Rio, Tel Aviv. But upon hearing that one writer is from Montreal, Len Cariou brightens. "Ah!" he says, pointing to himself. "Winnipeg."

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/12/2010 (4264 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

NEW YORK — The journalists in a Brooklyn TV complex introduce themselves — from Paris, Rio, Tel Aviv. But upon hearing that one writer is from Montreal, Len Cariou brightens. “Ah!” he says, pointing to himself. “Winnipeg.”

And a sense of place will be prominent as we settle around a table to discuss the Canadian stage/screen veteran’s latest home on the CBS series Blue Bloods. It’s a long way from Portage and Main.

“I’m a New Yorker,” Cariou says definitively. He’s lived in and around the city for 40 years, settling in West New York, which is actually in New Jersey and ironically enough grants a view of Manhattan available to no one actually living in it. “The Hudson River is right at my feet. The 79th street Boat Basin, the traffic on the river, sun setting on the city — you never tire of it.”

Manitoba Theatre Centre Len Cariou and Joan Karasevich in Visit to a Small World, on the Manitoba Theatre Centre Mainstage in 1960-61.

The City of New York is sewn into the DNA of Blue Bloods, a tri-generational cop drama starring Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg. Cariou is “immensely enjoying” his role as Henry Reagan, retired cop and gruff family patriarch.

Blue Bloods attempts a synthesis of the cop procedural and the family drama. Half the action takes place between the office of police commissioner Frank Reagan (Selleck) and the Major Crimes Room where son Danny (Wahlberg) runs roughshod over the rule book.

The other half occurs around the Reagan family table, where Henry presides over a sacrosanct ritual Sunday dinner. Here Danny and his sister, assistant D.A. Erin (Bridget Moynihan), loudly debate morality and expediency versus the law while Henry passes the turkey, eggs them on and offers old-school wisdom.

“People can relate to sitting around a dinner table on a Sunday and putting stuff out there: I have an opinion, you have an opinion, you have an opinion. Instead of one side, there are five sides.”

While Cariou says viewers have responded to the family side, he’d like to see more action beyond the easy chair. “We’re finding our way to see exactly how (Henry) is going to fit into the day-to-day business of Blue Bloods. They wanna get me involved more. That was the first question I had for the writers — when am I gonna get out of the house?”

Then again, the house was what sold him on the role. “What really convinced me was that they offered it to me and they were gonna shoot it here” in New York. “I really like the way they’re shooting the city,” he says. “I think it’s unlike any New York cop shows that they’ve had.

“It’s so unlike Law & Order was. It has a different tone and colour,” he says. Blue Bloods is “warts and all. You can’t do that unless you’re here — no matter how good your set builders are. I don’t think you can show New York City unless you show New York City. Don’t try to do it on a backlot or try and use Toronto, as they did forever.”

Cariou’s career has included TV roles in Murder She Wrote, Law & Order, The Outer Limits and Damages, and film roles in About Schmidt and Secret Window, among others. But in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, Cariou’s place was on stage. He was a star on Broadway, eventually being nominated for three Tonys — and won one for his performance in the title role of the celebrated Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

His early theatre successes were in Winnipeg. Cariou was with the Manitoba Theatre Centre from its inception in 1958 — “I was a founding member, 50 years ago. From day one” — and he speaks of it with a fierce pride. “Oh yeah. Best regional theatre in North America.”

It was also the first of its kind in Canada. “(Winnipeg) is less than a million people and they have close to 20,000 season subscribers for an 800-seat theatre. Do the math. That’s extraordinary.

“I’m mightily proud of that, of Manitoba and Winnipeg, because they’ve always been behind the theatre since day one. And they’ve just stayed tremendously loyal to the place.”

The MTC has had its ups and downs since Cariou trod its boards in The Threepenny Opera in 1958 — some will recall debating the merits of Keanu Reeves’ Hamlet — but recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and did so with the security provided by a $10 million endowment, $5 million of which was raised by a campaign for which Cariou was honourary chairman.

Although he’s widely recognized for his work, Cariou thinks of himself as a working actor rather than a star. At 71, he’s been in the business long enough to see many changes, including those imposed on network TV drama by the rise of cable.

“The competition has gotten really fierce, so I think they’re having to deal with the quality that’s bringing (and) they’ve had to get a little looser with their restrictions on the major networks.” The maturity of young people has doubled, he says, from what it was just a decade ago and they hear all the language the censors are trying to keep off the air in the schoolyard.

“Obviously, they’re not gonna be using the f-word (on CBS), but you can be a little tougher.”

— Postmedia News

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