Eric Peterson is performing at The Centaur Theatre in the award winning play Half Life. We caught up with him on a snowy Friday afternoon the day after opening night. Half Life was off to a good start, and had already received a fine review from CBC Radio.

“I grew up in Indian Head, Saskatchewan – not exactly a bastion of the arts. However, it was an unusual small town because there were many scientists working at the Forestry Research Centre and the Experimental Farm. My father was a scientist working with the Forestry Department, and he was one of the many well-educated people living in Indian Head.”

Eric went to the University of Saskatchewan, “I had no idea what I wanted to do – and acting wasn’t even in my thinking.” However Eric was coaxed into taking on a role in a campus production.

One of professors apparently saw talent, and encouraged him to take acting lessons, which he did in for two years in the Drama Department.

“I had an older half brother that was in the publishing business in England, so I moved to London and lived there for about six years. I did all kinds of jobs; – I worked as a stage manager, and assistant carpenter, trying to make a living in theatre.”

“After six years I came back to Saskatoon, and then went to Vancouver. For Westerners, Vancouver is our ‘big city’.”

While attending the University of British Columbia, Eric met John Gray, with whom he would later create the acclaimed Billy Bishop Goes to War. While attending UBC, he was a co-founder of Tamahnous Theatre in 1971, along with Gray. It was in these productions that Eric received favourable notices from critics.

In 1974 Eric moved to Toronto and joined Theatre Passe Muraille met John Thompson. “He gave me direction and focus, and taught me that you could make theatre out of your own experience. He instructed us to go out to our public, to listen to them and then give back their story in a theatrical presentation.”

Eric continues; “We would go out and talk to farmers – the real people -and then try to render that as a theatrical expression, and give it back to them. This is what made shows like The Farm Show, The West Show and Them Donnelly’s work so well. Essentially we were giving back the stories that we’d been told.”

Peterson and Gray co-wrote Billy Bishop Goes to War over a two year period; from 1974 until 1976. The two man show had Gray in the role of narrator and playing piano; and Eric playing a dozen characters. It was a hit – a huge hit – taking the pair to Broadway, London’s West End and the Edinburgh Festival Mainstage. In New York, Eric won the Clarence Dermot Award for most promising performer. The musical was adapted for CBC Television in 1982, and Eric was nominated for an ACTRA Award.

Eric has also become one of Canada’s most recognized television actors. He played the left-leaning attorney Leon Rabinovitch on the CBC drama Street Legal from 1986 to 1994; winning an incredible 6 Gemini Awards in eight seasons. Reflecting his pragmatic side, Eric comments: “Street Legal got me my house!” Somewhat ruefully he continues; “In the States, I would have been set for life after a program like Street Legal, but I like it here…”

He played the television persona of Judge Malone from 2004 to 2006 in This Is Wonderland, a CBC courtroom drama. His current television role is that of Oscar Leroy on Corner Gas, produced by CTV and arguably one of Canada’s most popular television shows.

Eric is a passionate Canadian, and he is extremely proud of the success of Corner Gas. “We have stories to tell that are uniquely Canadian. When we’re shooting Corner Gas on location in Saskatoon, the prairies stretch to the horizon in all directions. The same people that watch ER on CTV also enjoy Corner Gas. Viewers in Oklahoma and the American Midwest can relate to the program in the same way that Western Canadians do.”

Eric is on a roll: “Our competition is the world’s largest corporately driven entertainment industry. Young actors absolutely assume that to be successful – they must go the US. They’re much more accepting of a global culture. My argument that it’s important to tell our Canadian stories to ourselves and the world doesn’t seem to resonate with them.”

Eric can back up his position; Corner Gas has been picked up the American superstation WGN. The show has received positive and even rave reviews from Gannett News Service (publisher of USA Today) saying the show is “one of the season’s best new shows,” More good news from; Pittsburgh Post, The San Jose Mercury News, the McClatchy News Service writes “…the knock-down winner is an obscure little show from Canada called Corner Gas.” Take that Hollywood!

Eric doesn’t buy into the notion of a world culture. “Culture is specific. It’s not generic. We have film producers coming to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal and then remove street signs, flags and other identifying items. They pretend that their film is taking place somewhere in North America that isn’t Canada or Mexico – guess what’s left?”

“A show like Corner Gas proves that we can produce a popular Canadian show. Canadian acceptance is important to me as an artist. The sense of the audience’s pride of ownership is very gratifying. It’s a reminder that we are different.”

Eric has strong opinions on the effect that cuts to the Canada Council have had on funding of the Arts. “When the Canada Council had real money, I could and did make a living in a theatre like Passe Muraille. Now I and those actors coming after me cannot.”

Eric is performing at The Centaur Theatre in Half Life, a play about love in a seniors’ residence. He has performed the role of Patrick, one half of the amorous couple on previous occasions, and he thoroughly enjoys the play and his role. “It’s a beautiful play – lovely to see. It’s almost like a meditation for me.” The roles are evenly balanced and as such, the actors have time to enjoy each other’s performances. “It’s a very successful piece of theatre – something happens in the audience – there’s a shift and you can feel it.”

Obviously fond of Half Life and his role, Eric continues; “As the play progresses, the audience begin to ask themselves some of the same questions coming from the stage. ‘What is my life about?’ Can I be that generous with my time – my emotions?”

“I’m enjoying being in Montreal – it’s a beautiful city. Our eldest daughter Molly is going to Concordia; so we’ll probably see more of it.”

Eric is married to Annie Kidder, a former theatre director who is now a very involved Public Education activist in Ontario. Their youngest Katie is 15. “I started a family late in life, and with two kids continuing their education, I’ll continue acting as long as I get the parts.”

Eric Peterson can be seen as Oscar Leroy in Corner Gas Monday nights on CTV and live on stage at The Centaur Theatre in Half Life until February 24th.