BWW Interviews: John Davidson Joins THE FANTASTICKS
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by Joseph F. Panarello
In 1966 the HallMark Hall of Fame presented a television adaptation of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's Off Broadway musical THE FANTASTICKS. Ricardo Montalban appeared as El Gallo and Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway were the two fathers. The young lovers were played by Broadway's favorite ingénue, Susan Watson, and a clean-cut young man named John Davidson who had made a strong impression on Broadway audiences as Lahr's son in the musicAl FoxY.
As fate and irony would have it, John Davidson has just stepped into the role of Henry, the Old Actor in THE FANTASTICKS, which is currently in its 53rd year and still delighting audiences Off Broadway.
Meeting Davidson in a rehearsal studio finds the actor to be more mature than he was when he appeared in the television version. His hair has gone white and his face shows the maturity of his years, but his blue eyes still twinkle with a certain impishness and those famous dimples are very evident. He remains quite handsome but it's a handsomeness that's shed the wholesomeness of the past and reflects his survival in show business as well as the growth of a human being. He's sharp as a tack and has the agility that man half his age may lack. Heck, he's presently making his grand entrance in THE FANTASTICKS by climbing out of an on-stage prop box! He's also a pleasure to converse with.
"I came to New York after graduating from Dennison University in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts in Theater," he recalls. "Nobody ever asks you if you have a degree, though." He pauses and adds, "Bob Banner, the television producer who had discovered Carol Burnett, saw me in FOXY and said that he wanted to develop me into a variety show host. He said 'We're gonna sign a five year deal and I'm gonna develop your career' and he did it the way the studios used to do years earlier. It was like signing with M-G-M. He managed me, he got me a Columbia Records contract, he taught me how to tell jokes, he told me how to wear my hair and what clothes to wear. He said, 'You don't move very well, let's give you tap dancing lessons,' he even helped me put together my club act for Las Vegas. In a very real sense, Bob Banner put me together and I have him to thank for my career." It was Bob Banner who produced the Kraft Summer Music Hall which Davison hosted. "I presented these new comedians like Richie Pryor, George Carlin, and Flip Wilson. That was the beginning of my career in '66."
The Kraft Music Hall became a very popular television show and it attracted a wide and mixed audience. Middle aged ladies viewed it regularly and younger people loved the comedians. One twenty-ish rake declared in a cafeteria that "John Davidson really has balls!" The reason for this declaration was the singer's habit of going into the audience to take song requests and then singing the songs that the people asked for. He never seemed to fudge a lyric.
"That's sort of become my 'hit record'. I've never had a hit record," Davidson laughs. "The one thing I do as if it were my 'hit segment' is what Bob Banner created. He came up with something called 'That Wonderful Year' for Garry Moore. When he signed me and developed me, he said, 'We're gonna give you a medley of songs from every year-at that time it was 1930 to 1960-and you'll go out in the audience and ask people what year they started dating or when you met your wife and I would sing a medley. There were lots of jokes connected with it. It's something that developed my audience technique and made me something more than just a singer. It made me into an entertainer."
Looking back on his first Broadway show, Davidson stops and ponders about his impressions of Bert Lahr. "He was a very worried guy…not a happy man. However, every performance was different. I would watch him from the wings and he taught me how to throw a punch on stage. In the show I had to knock him out and he taught me how to do it effectively. He was very nice to me but he was always worried that he wasn't getting enough laughs…that it wasn't funny enough. When I played his son again in THE FANTASTICKS he was the same thing, even though we had Stanley Holloway and Riccardo Montalban--who were well-known--Bert sat in the corner. He was never one to tell long stories to entertain the crowd like a Sammy Davis, Jr would do, he was a loner and very troubled. Personally, I found that very appealing because he really cared about the comedy and I worry and care about the same thing. It enabled me to become that concerned about my performances. I'm not the life of the party, either. I'm constantly thinking whether my performance could possibly be better. In a nutshell, I don't think Bert Lahr was ever good enough for himself."
Davidson's recollections about Bert Lahr prompts him to remember that at the time David Merrick had two shows trying out on the road: FOXY and HELLO, DOLLY! "The word we heard was that DOLLY was in trouble and so he fixed DOLLY but he didn't fix FOXY. We ran about four months at the Zeigfield Theater."
There was a whole roster of shows that John Davidson toured in: THE MUSIC MAN, I DO! I DO! and MAN OF LA MANCHA are just a few, but he also did "The John Davidson Show" on television. "I'd been on the road so much and my first marriage was in trouble because of all the travel, so I said to my agent at the time--Jerry Weintaub, 'Can I get on television?' and so he got me "That's Incredible!" and my own talk show in the late 70's. I took over from Mike Douglas during the day. I loved it because we had six different topics for every show. We'd have a politician, and entertainer, people from a comedy show, and authors. I had to read so many books that I took a course in speed reading in order to plow through them fast. That show was the highlight of my career. It only lasted two years because at that time talk shows were becoming more controversial. Oprah was coming in and Phil Donohue was doing some pretty heavy stuff."
Of course television viewers will always remember John Davidson on "The Hollywood Squares". "In the 80's my agent came to me and said, 'I've got that show you've always wanted.' I said, 'Great! I'm gonna be the "Six Million Dollar Man!' He said, 'No, it's not a series, it's a game show called "Hollywood Squares". I said, "But Peter Marshall already did "Hollywood Squares" and he's the award-winning host.' He assured me that the show was being re-done and re-vamped and that Joan Rivers was going to be the center square. "It gave me the chance," the actor continues, "to be a game show host and meet a lot of stars. I don't go to Hollywood parties very much so this gave me a chance to meet A LOT of stars. We made five shows in a day; with 'Hollywood Squares' we taped a whole week in one day. We'd have dinner between Wednesday and Thursday. That's when we all hung out together. It was just great!"
Of course, there was the controversial Playgirl centerfold that Davidson posed for in 1974. It appears regularly on Ebay, and is the cherished possession of many women and gay men. "That was a mistake," Davidson says, shaking his head and almost blushing. "Helen Gurley Brown wanted to do this for the magazine and Burt Reynolds had been the first to pose for her. And remember, I wasn't completely nude: a towel covered what mattered most." Still, it draws an incredible amount of bids when it appears on the on-line auction site.
There were two movie musicals that Davidson starred in for Disney that may not have fared well at the times of their release, but have acquired a following in the age of VCR's and DVD's: THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE and THE ONE AND ONLY GENUINE ORIGINAL FAMILY BAND. "It was a three picture contract," the singer explains. "The Disney people saw me on "The Bell Telephone Hour" and they signed me to a three picture deal. This was after MARY POPPINS was such a huge success. They felt that period musicals were 'in' and THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE was their first one after MARY POPPINS. However, it had no fantasy. MARY POPPINS had the cartoons, fantasy and a strong story. THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE didn't. It was about rich people in Philadelphia. Fred McMurray, Tommy Steele, Geraldine Paige, Glynis Johns, Lesley Ann Warren and Walter Pidgeon were in it. HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE was not the success that MARY POPPINS was and then Walt Disney died. Now working at the Disney Studios, Walt Disney called me 'John' and I called him 'Walt', you know. Still, when he came on the set everyone got nervous, but he called us all by our first names. FAMILY BAND was done after his death and everyone was saying, 'Well, what would Walt do?' You know the Disney Studio went through several years when they ran the place questioning themselves about what Walt would have done. You can't run a studio that way. It wasn't until Michael Eisner came in-and he was a fraternity brother of mine at Dennison-that Disney got going again. Neither HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE nor FAMILY BAND were money makers and so my contract was dropped because the third picture was optional. I've had little parts in movies since then but nothing big."
Somewhere in this period, John Davidson took on a television role which required him to perform "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in drag. "That was a role that came along and my manager said that I'd always done the boy-meets-girl typical stuff. He felt that this would be a role that I could stretch and might have people broadening their idea of me. It was on the series "Streets of San Francisco" and was extremely well received. I worked on it very hard. That was a fascinating role I that I played a killer who couldn't stop himself from stabbing men with a hat pin. It certainly was a chance to stretch."
In between hosting the "Tonight Show" for Johnny Carson, "Hollywood Squares", his talk show, guest shots on various TV series, and "That's Incredible!", Davidson was doing stage musicals. "I played Curley in OKLAHOMA! until I became too old for the part, CAMELOT-I played both Lancelot and Arthur in different productions, I did Starbuck [in 110 IN THE SHADE] several times and lots of National Tours. It's always been my love."
There is an actual grimace detected on Davidson's face when the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical STATE FAIR is mentioned. Although the show had its admirers, Davidson was not one of them. "It's a lovely show," he explains. "The music is lovely, the new script by Tom Briggs is lovely but I never believed myself being a hog farmer and taking my hog to the fair. I felt guilty because I didn't believe it more and I didn't trust it. I often played the role bigger than I should have. I was not pleased with my performance in STATE FAIR. It reminded me of when I played Billy Bigelow in CAROUSEL. I played that part a couple of times. You have to believe that Billy Bigelow beats his wife. I wasn't bad enough to be Billy Bigelow. I'm not rogue enough.
Nor is John Raitt. I never believed that he would hit his wife. Or Gordon MacRae. Billy Bigelow is like an Al Pacino. Finally, they're now doing CAROUSEL as dark, as I think it should be done." After a moment's reflection, he states, "STATE FAIR was a chance for me to come back to Broadway and it was such a thrill to do Rogers and Hammerstein, but I don't think I was good enough in it. Other people could have done it better. I wasn't proud of my work in that show."
It seems more than coincidental that both of Davidson's Broadway shows were produced by David Merrick, who has been dubbed "The Abominable Showman". "Yeah Merrick came in and he sort of saved STATE FAIR. At that point I think he was heavily into dementia and senility. This Asian lady, I can't remember her name, took over everything for him. I don't even believe that he was aware he was producing STATE FAIR. It was so sad, but when he came to see me in Philadelphia, he acted as if he remembered having discovered me in FOXY. I couldn't tell if he was really there, though. He was certainly a hollow shell at that time."
The average theatergoer may not be aware that John Davidson is also a playwright. "I wrote a play about my relationship with my father that was produced twice. It was called THE BOY WHO LOVED HIS FATHER. Its original title was FATHER, SON AND HOLY GHOST because it's all about religion. It's a three person play; basically a confrontation between my father and me. I was trying to express my relationship with my father. You may know that my father was a Baptist minister and so was my mother. I'm not religious at all. I've had problems in understanding how my Dad was so religious. I'm anti-religion and don't mind saying that. I guess I'm an agnostic, whatever that might be. The play is powerful."
Davidson's anti-religious views may come as a shock to those who have followed his career and collect his recording. His Christmas album contains some traditional religious carols that he sings in his customary, straightforward and clear baritone; imbuing them with enormous spirituality and fervor, "Oh, that's the music of Christmas," he explains. "That's my upbringing. It's in me. I went to church more than any other young man who ever set foot in church. Originally I went into theater to be a preacher. I was going to become a minister like my father. Someone had said to me, 'If you want to be a good preacher, become a theater arts major and you'll be a better preacher.' Then I fell in love with theater and theater people. I love the people of the theater. The theater is a discussion of human nature: human problems, human challenges. I realized that I just wanted to get up in front of people and express myself and move them. I'm in the right business. I should have never been a minister."
Continuing, he says, "For me, religion is man made. Man created religion because of fear and I feel it has strangled the world so many times. I choose science over religion."
Davidson's play also has a pro gay theme and the actor has strong feeling that same sex marriage should be promoted because "it deals with love between two human beings. What can be wrong with that?" He continues by saying "Religious Fundamentalists just cannot get used to that idea. Homosexuality has been around ever since man first walked this earth. I have a somewhat different view on it in that I agree with the Kinsey Report in thinking that we are all-in varying degrees-heterosexual and homosexual. Human beings are animals, just like other animals, and we are all gay and we are all heterosexual. It's a part of human nature. It's natural. I've never had a homosexual relationship, but I think it's so natural to have an attraction to another human being. Our Puritanical society will tell us that if we want to procreate our race you have sex between a man and a woman. If you want to love another person, which is a wonderful thing, you love another person and don't worry about the gender. People who are fighting for gay rights probably won't agree with me but I feel that everybody has a varying degree of gayness within them. Other animals are bi-sexual. I think it's natural."
That just about brings the conversation to Davidson's present engagement: a two week stint in THE FANTASTICKS. Forty eight years after starring as Matt in the television version, the actor is now appearing as The Old Actor in this charming show. "It's such a thrill," he says. "I'm just doing it for these two weeks but I hope they'll invite me back to do an extended run." THE FANTASTICKS has always held a special place in Davidson's heart. "It's about coming of age, and heck, I was Matt. I was a preacher's kid who was coddled and pampered and definitely not street-wise. I was wholesome and clean. Just being in the theater has given my life texture that makes it great. THE FANTASTICKS, to me, was about opening my eyes. Now, coming back to it, and playing this old actor at this point in my life-I'm 70-is a marvelous experience."
Davidson enjoys his first line in the musical, "The Players have arrived" and relates it to life in our present society: "Role playing is a part of every business. If you work for IBM and you have a business meeting, you're role playing. If you're a business manager, you're role playing; we're all actors, so life is a stage after all! I love Henry and I feel some of his dementia," he adds with a hearty laugh.
The actor has nothing but praise for the cast he's working with in THE FANTASTICKS. "Ed Watts is a great El Gallo, and our Luisa, Juliett Trafton, has a wonderful, ethereal quality about her that's very special. And our Matt, Aaron Carter, has been extremely kind. He welcomed me with a big hug and is really fine in the role. He also has a good work ethic. I'd like nothing more than re-join this cast at some point. They're all very special."
Audiences can discover for themselves how special THE FANATASTICKS is with John Davidson in the cast. The show is playing at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Center For The Performing Arts on 50th Street and Broadway, in the heart of Times Square. For tickets, go to: http://fantasticksonbroadway.com/
For more information about John Davidson, go to: http://www.johndavidson.com/