James Robert McGowan was born on May 30, 1960, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. James is the youngest of three sons of Johnny McGowan, a former light heavyweight boxer from Northern England. James grew up on the West Island in Montreal. He graduated from Concordia University with a B.A. in Communications. After graduation he took a job as a copy writer at an advertising agency. He then worked in the audio-visual department of McGill University.
While at McGill, James got in touch with a friend who was directing plays, expecting to pursue acting as a hobby. He loved it so much he decided to pursue it as a profession. He got guest spots in television shows and minor roles in movies. He also worked in television ads.
One of his first big parts was a role in the TV movie 10,000 Black Men Named George. He then landed a starring role in the CBC drama The Border.