I’ve been busy this summer watching Canadian character actor Ian Tracey in his many television and movie roles, a daunting task when you consider that he’s been acting for 35 years. You may not be familiar with the name, but you might recognize the face. He’s very distinctive looking, with a wide weathered face, a furrowed brow, and a large gap in his front teeth. He’s not very tall. He reminds me of a pit bull, and I mean that in best possible way. Tracey has a gruff voice and he’s not a classically trained actor, so he’s perfectly suited to play blue collar, regular-guy types. He’s played cops, criminals, bar owners, fishermen, sociopaths, soldiers, homeless guys, and henchmen. He is able to convey a dangerous menace, so it’s not ridiculous when he shoves around a guy who’s much bigger.
Tracey first came to my attention on The X-Files, when he guest starred in the episode The Walk. He played a bitter vet in a VA hospital with no arms or legs. If I hadn’t been so focused on Johnny Depp, I would have noticed him a decade earlier in his four appearances on 21 Jump Street. Tracey is based in Vancouver, and both of these American television shows were filmed there.
Ian Tracey began his career as a child actor. I’ve already discussed Tracey’s first television series, Huckleberry Finn and His Friends. I found this series on YouTube, where I also discovered his 1976 film Dreamspeaker, which is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever watched. I even found stills from Tracey’s first film, The Keeper with Christopher Lee. Watching the YouTube trailer to the cheesy series Tropical Heat (a.k.a Sweating Bullets) led me to buy the third season on DVD at a bargain price, but I can’t bear to write about it. I’ll just say that Tracey played bar owner Spider Garvin in seasons 2 and 3, and maybe he just needed the money. Or, maybe he wanted to soak up some sun in South Africa, since this is one of his few shows that wasn’t filmed in Vancouver.
Hulu.com is a good place to find more of Tracey’s work. All the episodes of 21 Jump Street are here, as well as The X-Files (season 3, episode 7: The Walk), Highlander (season 5, episode 4: Glory Days), and The Dead Zone (season 2, episode 17: The Mountain). Two episodes of The Outer Limits (season 2, episode 9: Trial by Fire; season 6, episode 1: Judgment Day) and one of Poltergeist: The Legacy (season 2, episode 13: The Devil’s Lighthouse) are also on hulu. There’s the more recent series Rookie Blue (season 1, episode 10: Big Nickel) which is available with a paid hulu plus subscription. [Sadly, it seems like every time I go back to hulu, something that was free before has now become part of the paid subscription.] His six episodes of Sanctuary rotate in and out, so you just have to watch for those to stream. The first two seasons of the Canadian series Da Vinci’s Inquest are also on hulu, and this is the show that kicked off my interest in Tracey.
Da Vinci’s Inquest ran for 7 seasons from 1998 through 2005, followed by one season of Da Vinci’s City Hall. Dominic Da Vinci is a Vancouver coroner, played by the brilliant Nicholas Campbell, and he works with pathologists, forensic scientists, and Vancouver homicide detectives on cases of suspicious death. What makes this show unique is the realistic depiction of police work. More often than not, the bad guys aren’t caught, let alone identified. Even when they are identified, many times a case can’t be made to convict. There are even times when it can’t be determined if the cause of a death was accident or homicide. The good guys don’t always win, if ever. It often leaves me at the end of an episode feeling seriously blue. What really depresses me, though, is that only the first three seasons are available on DVD or streaming. Petitions, emails, and messages in fan forums have so far failed to get the rest of this excellent series released. As the show reaches the end the third season on my local Retro TV station, I’m holding my breath to see if we go into season 4, or if they just start airing season 1 again. My email inquiry to the station has received no answer.
Ian Tracey plays detective Mick Leary, a younger cop who is usually paired up with old school veteran Leo Shannon, the wonderful actor Donnelly Rhodes. Leary has a problem ex-wife, a problem brother, and a sweet romance with one of the pathologists. One of Tracey’s best episodes in the season 1 finale, The Capture. A traumatized victim leaves him in tears, and later he gets pissed off at a suspect and threatens to shoot her through a car trunk. I love his range of emotion and his intensity.
Da Vinci’s Inquest was created and written by Chris Haddock. Once it ended, Haddock cast Tracey as crime boss Jimmy Reardon in his CBC series Intelligence. This show only lasted for two seasons, and I knew when I started watching that it ended abruptly with a cliffhanger that was never resolved. I’ve read online debates over whether the story was veering too close to the truth about water rights and Canadian/US politics, leading to its cancellation. Even knowing I wouldn’t get any resolution, I am still surprised about how emotionally invested I got in this show. I’d love to know what was going to happen next.
Intelligence is a complex drama about Mary Spalding, head of the Vancouver Organized Crime Unit, who’s fighting for a promotion to CSIS, a Canadian version of the CIA. When a stolen briefcase containing informant files lands in Jimmy Reardon’s hands, she is forced to swap information with him. Reardon is a third generation weed smuggler, who heads up the family business which includes legitimate operations like shipping. He’s fighting his volatile ex-wife for custody of their 12-year-old daughter, and he’s also struggling to keep his loyal but undisciplined brother in line. Reardon should be the bad guy, but he turns out to be the most moral, level-headed character in the show, and the most sympathetic. Sure, he’s in the drug trade, but he won’t touch anything besides marijuana. He’s fair to his business associates. He obviously hates resorting to violence, and he just want to go about his business. His long term goal is to become legitimate and move away from criminal activities. The real bad guys here are the agents in the intelligence network, who are busy backstabbing their associates, when they’re not covertly recording them or lying to their faces. They never arrest any bad guys, they just turn them into informants and let them continue their activities. Matt Frewer plays one of the worst offenders, and he’s also a fascinating actor. In the first season, his character Ted Altman is secretly working with the DEA to bring down Jimmy Reardon, threatening Mary Spalding’s career in the process. This show has a bunch of other interesting characters, too many to describe here, and it helps to watch these episodes back to back to keep them all straight. Chris Haddock uses many of the same actors who appear in Da Vinci’s Inquest, and it’s fun to see them playing different roles.
I’ve got many more films and television shows to watch before I’m finished with Ian Tracey’s body of work. I won’t be able to watch everything, since so many series and seasons and TV movies are not available. At least I can look forward to new roles in the future. He’s appearing in the pilot of Alcatraz, a midseason drama series airing on Fox. It’s set here in San Francisco. Was he filming in my own backyard? Possibly. According to IMDb, filming locations included both San Francisco and Vancouver. [Update: I couldn’t find him in the pilot when it aired.]
One of the things that surprises me about Ian Tracey is that he has almost no internet presence. There is no facebook fan page, no twitter, no major fan site, not even an actor profile on the official Da Vinci’s Inquest website, at least not on the international version. Here’s his profile from the US site. He’s obviously a very private person. Perhaps his brush with teen idol status during the Huckleberry Finn days makes him avoid the limelight, or perhaps he just wants to work as an actor without all the fuss of stardom. I will respect his privacy and not make a fuss, but I will recommend that you watch some of his brilliant work.
Update: Here’s an article about Tracey from 2006. It gives more information about the missing Da Vinci’s Inquest seasons than I’ve found elsewhere, at least about Tracey’s character. [see updated link in comments below]
Happily, my Retro TV channel is showing season 4. Tracey is brilliant, especially in the fifth episode, “Ugly Quick,” where his character is reeling over the shooting death of a fellow officer.
If you’re a fellow fan of Tracey’s work, be sure to leave a comment! Also, let me know if you have seasons 5-7 of Da Vinci’s Inquest, or Da Vinci’s City Hall.