The union of the two Steve Smith's bumbling Red Green character and his multipurpose duct tape have been an archetype of Canadian comedy for 11 years. But only now, after about a decade of filmmaking bureaucracy, are the pair coming together on the big screen.
By Sean Davidson
Less than 30 seconds into the interview, Steve Smith's secret was out. Surprising, nay even shocking, but true. The star of CBC's long-running The Red Green Show the flannel-clad outdoorsman who personifies small-town backwater life in the Great White North for millions of viewers worldwide spends his winters in Florida.
"I know, It's so shameful," says the 56-year-old comic, chucking, on the phone from his Gulf Coast home. :I've hated Florida my whole adult life until five years ago. And now I don't know what the heck I was upset about. It's a great place to be for winter.
Oh, no doubt. All those birds and retirees can't be wrong. But don't people give him a hard time about being a fair-weather Canuck?
"People aren't actually aware of it," he says. "As soon as they are, they'll be all over me."
It was down in the land of oranges and electoral irregularities that Smith in between writing his books, newspaper columns and TV scripts hammered out the 90-or-so page screenplay for Duct Tape Forever, the big-screen debut of his alter-ego Red, and of Red's many dim-witted friends. In various stages of development and demand since the early 90s, the comedy was finally shot last summer, on a pocket-change budget of just $3.5 million, in the country outside Hamilton, Ont., and gets a limited release across Canada this month.
But even though he's written all 11 (yes, 11, going on 12) seasons of the show, and put in another 20 years as a comic and entertainer before that, penning the script was tough work, says Smith. "I think in television you can get away with doing less. If I have six good jokes in half an hour that'll probably do it," he says. "In a 90-minute movie you've gotta have 85 minutes of real content that's funny, that keeps it moving along."
"In a movie theatre we're demanding your attention for every second," he offers, "so we better be worthy of having it."
The story gets going in front of Possum Lodge, familiar to TV viewers as the swampside hang-out of Red and his buddies, where the limo of a wealthy tyrant (Richard Fitzpatrick) gets sucked into a sinkhole. Red and the other Possums are stuck with the $10,000 tab, and the only way feasible way to raise the money after selling roadkill on the internet is voted down is to enter a duct tape sculpting contest in Minneapolis, the third prize of which just happens to be an even 10 grand. Unorthodox use of duct tape, "the handyman's secret weapon," is, of course, a running joke on the series. And so, a giant duct tape goose is hitched to the back of his van, and Red heads south. Series regular Patrick McKenna tags along as geeky nephew Harold, and is joined on screen by Graham Greene and love interest Melissa DiMarco. Eric Till, journeyman director of innumerable TV dramas and, before that, Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock, was behind the camera.
It's McKenna, says Smith, who's really the center of the movie. "In a feature film, the main character is supposed to undergo a radical change," he says. But Smith didn't want to rewrite his signature character, "so we focused more on doing that with Harold."
"He's a better actor anyway," Smith say of the Second City alum, who recently returned to the show after a brief hiatus. "The Red Green character tends to be more of a reactor."
But surprisingly, Rick Green, a series regular for the first eight seasons, is not in Duct Tape. Known to fans as the accident-prone hayseed Bill Smith, Green is routinely blown up or run over in the show's many black-and-white shorts. His slapstick has been a big part of the series, and, given that the film includes ample pratfalls, presumably would have earned him an equally big part in Duct Tape.
"The thing with Rick is, he's always down work that's been supporting a group, or him supporting another person. The whole time he was with [comedy troupe] The Frantics he was one of the four, and then he was with my show. He just wanted to do something that was all him," says Smith. Green now hosts and writes his own show, History Bites. "And he didn't want to compromise it by working on something else."
Smith has been playing Red Green, in one form or another, since the '70s. It was after a short musical career that this former teacher, steam fitter and mailman, together with his wife Morag, produced and starred in the variety program Smith & Smith on a local Hamilton station. ("I haven't had a job since 1971," he declares.) Red Green was among the show many characters. Back then, audiences understood that Red was caricature of another Canadian TV personality real-life woodsman Red Fisher, who hosted a bizarrely rudderless fishing show back in the 1960s.
"He was a slow talker," Smith recalls, "he was a very slow man and it didn't bother him that he would take five minutes to give a 10-second thought. And then it would cut to film of a fishing trip and I mean film, 16mm. The whole show would go by and sometimes they wouldn't even catch anything. What kind of fishing show was that?" Fisher, also like Red Green, frequently read poetry out in the woods.
It made Front Page Challenge "look like an adrenaline rush," says Smith.
These days, Red Fisher is mostly forgotten. But Red Green is seen around the world and, as it enters moviedom, has attracted card-carrying fans from Canada, the U.S., Australia and elsewhere. Red could be with us for a long time yet to come, seeing as Smith says he's nowhere near tired of playing the character.
"The only reason I would stop doing the show is if the audience said 'Please stop.' And I would stop in a New York minute," he says. But otherwise, he says he could keep playing Red until they're both well into their 70s.
Maybe Red could retire, and move to Boca Raton.