"Never underestimate the insecurity of an actor." So said Bruce Davison in our recent interview discussing the actor's enormously busy work schedule. During the interview in December, he was filming a CBS movie Ties That Bind, in which he gets to play a villain and spend his days "abusing Jane Seymour," an old friend with whom he'd long wanted to work. In the recent Apt Pupil, Davison co-starred as Brian Renfro's na™ve father. In HBO's Vendetta, he played a defense attorney for falsely accused dock workers; in Showtime's Locked in Silence, he played the father of a mute crime witness. Davison was also a star of Dreamworks' first family film Paulie. This week, Davison can be seen as the brilliant doctor who is able to restore Val Kilmer's vision in At First Sight.
All of these roles were played in rapid succession and we wonder why such a successful actor pushes himself so hard. The answer is simple and, Davison smilingly acknowledged, clich d, "It is a hedge against never working again. I used to hear it from Henry Fonda: "Jimmy Stewart is going to get the only good part around.' When I was on stage in The Elephant Man, Jason Robards came to my dressing room, saying he was staring at the pictures on the wall in his house waiting for a script. It's like fishing‹you never know when the mackerel are going to run out."
The fishing metaphor becomes an apt one for Davison as he describes the way he has defined his career. Part of his enormous success has been his willingness to bait his hook for smaller fish and discovering that they never do run dry. Said Davison, "There was some great advice given to me by Robert Aldrich in 1972 when I was complaining of something I was losing to another actor. He said, "Kid, why do you want to be a leading man? If you're a leading man, you'll do six pictures, then nobody will ever hear from you again. You'll be washed up at 30. You have to be a character actor, be a supporting actor, and be a villain or a victim in the movie. The audiences will always love you and you can raise a family in this town.' It was great advice and I have followed it.
"So many friends are stuck having to play one part all year. One film that they build and develop and carry. Their whole life is about that one project. While they do one part, I do 20. I kind of like it because it is more immature. I get to come and go, dabble with roles. Val has to carry his movie, I just come in and give him his eyesight."
The part in At First Sight came through a simple phone call from director Irwin Winkler who had given Davison one of his first jobs in the 1970 student protest film The Strawberry Statement. When Winkler called, Davison accepted without question. Though he still goes on casting interviews and even occasional auditions, much of Davison's non-stop career has been shaped by the relationships he's forged since first appearing in Last Summer with Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas 30 years ago. Davison is an extraordinarily popular figure within the film community because, in addition to bringing in fine talent, he carries with him a professional courtesy and genuine kindness that always adds to the positive feel of a set.
Davison shyly conceded his ability to make friends in every job. "I treat people the way I'd like to be treated and hopefully I have made a lot of friends in this business," he said. "At least I have a lot of war buddies. I can't think of anybody that I really haven't gotten along with."
Actor... No Hyphen
Part of Davison's ability to keep on the light side when working is that he has limited his ambition to what he knows he does best. "When I have a strong point of view about the perfection of an idea that I have had, I have to stand back and say, "Do I want to write, direct, produce, edit, and star in this or am I an actor?' The answer is easy. I don't have the energy to do all of that. I used to think I did. But you can't do everybody's job; it is a collaborative effort."
Having accepted that he is solely an actor, Davison has concentrated on working as much as possible in film and television‹perhaps making up for recently taking six months off to star Off-Broadway in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, the disturbing story of the unusual relationship between a man and his niece. "This was the best role in theatre and there was no way I was going to let it pass me by," he said.
But Davison has more reason than ever to concentrate on higher paying Hollywood work. He and his wife of 12 years, actress Lisa Pelikan, are raising a two-year-old son. Pelikan has moved away from acting to concentrate on parenting and Davison feels pressure to make sure he can support his family. For the first two years of their son Ethan's life, the couple felt easy about taking the boy with them on location, but Davison said that since Ethan can now express himself verbally, he is showing clear resistance to so much travel: "He is starting to buck a little bit. He keeps saying, "I no like Toronto any more, I want to go home.' He learned how to walk in the Montreal Ramada Inn."
Having a child has changed both Davison and Pelikan more than they expected. There is a yearning to nest and Pelikan came up with an idea to merge that urge with the couples' lifelong commitment to live theatre and to each other. The two first met at a theatre party when he was playing opposite Richard Dreyfuss in The Normal Heart and she was starring in Craig Lucas' Blue Window, directed by Norman Ren .
"I hit on her and told her we had something in common, that we had both played psychotic killer nurses on Alfred Hitchcock Presents," Davison recalled. "I had been in drag where I strangled Annette O'Toole. She looked at me like I had two heads‹so it wasn't a great come on line, but it opened the door." The door opened not only to their relationship, but to a relationship with Lucas and Ren who would later give Davison a role in the AIDS drama Longtime Companion. This role earned Davison an Oscar nomination that has fueled his career throughout this decade.
Davison's career is in high enough gear that he no longer has to live in Los Angeles. He's even beginning to believe that he won't be forgotten by casting directors and producers if he's out of town. Meanwhile, Pelikan's maternal and theatrical instincts have combined to drive her to create a theatrical company in her summer home community of Rehobeth Beach, a thriving summer vacation area straddling Maryland and Delaware.
Pelikan discussed the beginning of her idea, "Having a child made me realize how important family is. He only has one set of grandparents; Bruce's parents have passed on. The notion of having a place where we could summer every year with his grandparents and make a theatre where we could all work and be with family at the same time seemed very appealing."
But not appealing only as a place to live. Pelikan is happily a mother now before an artist, but she could not stand to abandon theatre altogether. So she and Davison are focusing much of their energies on forming the Henlopen Theater Project on Cape Henlopen near Rehobeth, where Pelikan has convinced the community to support first a summer theatre, then a year-round performance space."
Of course, part of Pelikan's job will be to teach the community about theatre. "I have been cautioned by the community: "Light, light, light, musical, musical, musical.' But I am not interested in being the artistic director of a theatre that only produces light musicals or light dramas. I actually have an artistic mission to create a "safe and nurturing environment at the beach where the artist is central.'
Davison is highly supportive of the plan, but always takes a back seat to Pelikan, insisting that it be understood she is the boss. He explained, "I'll be a floating babysitter and do what I have to do. If my wife and kid are going to be there, I have to see if I can throw a little Chekhov on the fire. I'd like to play all the great roles. I don't know exactly what the thrust is going to be, but I hope we can give voice to new American plays."
Encouraging new plays is a clear passion for Davison who recently cleared some Hollywood time to act in a staged reading of Jane Anderson's new play Looking For Normal, at the Falcon Theatre for the Taper's New Play Series. This, among his myriad other projects in 1998, has made Davison acutely aware of how overworked he has made himself and he is ready for some off time with Lisa and Ethan. At this point, he has no plans (a normally terrifying position), except for family.
"I keep saying I need to rest. I just finished a movie with Bonnie Bedelia where we were farmers up in Canada, and I am real tired. I'd like to at least rest through the holidays." By this printing, the holidays are over and Davison is most assuredly working on a new project. BSW