Cynthia Dale: Back on the street

By Bill Brioux

Twenty-five years after last playing Olivia Novak, Cynthia Dale is back on the Street.

The Toronto-born actress is thrilled to be front and centre on the reboot of Street Legal, premiering March 4 on CBC and CBC Gem.

”I feel like the luckiest girl in Canada,” she says.

The frothy law drama about a team of brash, young, storefront lawyers was a Friday night obsession in Canada from 1987 to 1994. The series was CBC’s answer to the era of steamy prime time soaps. This was back when the likes of Joan Collins and Victoria Principal were swaddled in big hair and shoulder pads on American network hits such as Dynasty and Dallas. (In fact, Dallas followed Street Legal Friday nights on CBC.) Back before Twitter and Facebook, these shows were viral sensations – around the watercooler.

Street Legal, however, was not an instant hit. The series focused at first on bickering law partners Carrie Barr (Sonja Smits), “Chuck” Tchobanian (C. David Johnson) and Leon Robinovitch (Eric Peterson). It needed a vixen with plenty of moxie to stir things up in the office. Enter Dale to kick off Season 2. The series lasted for eight seasons, and was the longest-running Canadian drama until Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries surpassed its run a couple of seasons ago.

“I was in New York doing a show off-Broadway when I auditioned for Street Legal,” Dales says on the phone from the Stratford, Ont., home she shares with her retired CBC news anchor husband, Peter Mansbridge. “I got the job and they said cut your hair and loose 10 pounds.”

At the time, Dale was in her 20s and had already enjoyed a long showbiz career. Older sister Jennifer took her to their first audition in 1965. Cynthia was five at the time. The Ciurluini girls, then acting under their family name, both got booked and were on their way.

Dale says she was “out of school more than I was in school” during her elementary years. She grew up “in the halls of CBC,” then spread out over various downtown Toronto buildings. The Tommy Hunter Show as well as Wayne & Shuster comedy specials were among her first credits. “I worked a lot as a kid.”

The hard part, she says, was going back to school. “You were treated with respect in the business if you hit your mark and could sing your song.” At school, “Kids bullied anybody who was different or made them feel weird.”

By the time she got to Michael Power – St. Joseph’s High School in Etobicoke, Dale was already working every school play, attending singing, dancing and acting classes on weekends and spending summers at the Banff School of Fine Arts. There weren’t neighbourhood schools of the arts back then, she says. The movie “Fame,” about a New York arts school, seemed like a fantasy come true.

After her school days ended, Dale gained some notoriety as a latex-clad workout queen in the 1984 Canadian feature “Heavenly Bodies,” co-written by former “Toronto Star” movie critic Ron Base. The movie’s tagline — “Working out, reaching high, dreaming big!” – was pretty much the story of Dale’s life back then.

More respect came with a small but memorable role opposite John Mahoney in director Norman Jewison’s 1987 Oscar-winner, “Moonstruck.”

The future Stratford Festival star’s dance card was filling up with stage work when Street Legal beckoned. She never imagined the series would one day be revived and that she’d be the TV veteran surrounded by young actors.

In the new series, Dale’s flinty character is a big shot Bay Street law partner whose world comes crashing down when she’s squeezed out of the firm. A case in common throws her in with three young lawyers (played by Cara Ricketts, Steve Lind and Yvonne Chapman) and together they create a new boutique law firm.

“I could be the mother of most of the people on our show now, says Dale (who has a grown son of her own with Mansbridge), “and that’s okay, I am the old broad on set.”

In fact, that’s what excited Dale most about this chance to crawl back under Novak’s skin – playing her own age.

“I’m 58- years old,” says Dale. “These lines on my face – they’re there. I’m not changing them. Olivia’s earned them and I want all those lines that are on her face. It’s her body and her heart.”

Dale says she was eager to play a woman who goes through life now, “having people say to her ‘Your best days are behind you,’ which she gets told in the pilot.”

Not that Olivia Novak is any less flinty and ambitious than she was before. “We made a decision to keep her edgy and not play things so that the audience will like her,” says Dale, also a producer on the new series. She still remembers getting called to task by strangers in supermarkets for all the horrible things she did to Chuck on the original show, “which was great,” she says. “It meant it was working.”

Finding that edge was easy, says Dale, who says Olivia “was in my DNA. It was like driving a stick shift and hitting another gear.” The new show is much darker, less soapy than the original. Dale credits veteran showrunners Bruce M. Smith (19-2) and Bernie Zukerman (Remedy) for keeping things real. “There’s an honesty,” says Dale, especially in scenes set at three in the morning where Olivia wakes up and “doesn’t have any makeup on, because you wouldn’t.”

Helping keep things familiar is the addition of a few other cast regulars from the original series. Eric Peterson — busy these days voicing cranky dad Oscar on Corner Gas: Animated — pops into a few episodes as Leon Robinovitch.

“I missed Leon, I missed those characters,” says Dale. “When Eric came back on the set to shoot Legal this time, I was a mess. I’ve heard Eric’s voice a million times in the last 30 years, but Olivia hearing Leon’s voice again was amazing to me.”

Missing is C. David Johnson, who played Chuck. Dale worked with Johnson at Stratford during her years on the Shakespearean stages. He’s busy playing another lawyer in the new CBC series Diggstown, also premiering this month.

One other original Street Legal alumni, Anthony Sherwood (who played Dillon Beck), makes a guest appearance on the new series.

Dale would be happy to have the whole gang back, but she’s energized by the new kids too. After all, she first joined this series in her 20s; she was once in their shoes.

“They’re so talented,” says Dale, who was in on the casting. “It’s fantastic to watch the open vessel that they are as they grew over the six episodes. All of them stepped up.”

“I told them, when the next reboot comes, and I’m coming in on my walker, just remember way back when we worked together on this.”