Thursday, January 25, 2018

"Finding Neverland" Star John Davidson Has Some Advice for Actors

"Bring your own shoes."

Posted By on Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 11:23 AM

click to enlarge John Davidson - JEREMY DANIEL
  • Jeremy Daniel
  • John Davidson
Finding Neverland star John Davidson has an affinity for the double role he plays in the spectacle-laden musical adaptation of Finding Neverland. "As Captain Hook, I give [Peter Pan author J. M.] Barrie the same advice I'd give anybody getting into the business," he says. "Find the child within yourself, because to find out who you are is the greatest challenge of life. I'm telling Barrie, 'Don't write what you been writing. And don't write what everyone expects you to write. Write your story.' Then, as Charles Frohman who's Barrie's producer, I'm trying to talk him out of writing a play for children. 'It will be a disaster,' I tell him. 'Children don't have money; they can't buy tickets!'"

When it comes to the business of show there are worse people to take career advice from than Davidson. The clean cut actor started on Broadway in the 1960s before packing up his Pepsodent smile and taking his act to Hollywood, where he became a ubiquitous game show presence, recorded albums, and landed notable guest spots on popular shows. Davidson hosted That's Incredible, The New Hollywood Squares, and was a frequent substitute for Tonight Show icon Johnny Carson. But between appearances on The American Style and in made for TV films like Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders II, Davidson continued to work as a song and dance man.

"Until this time, my favorite roles have been Don Quixote in Man of la Mancha and playing Harold Hill in The Music Man. But now this is by far my favorite role," Davidson says. "I'm at my best when I can chew on the scenery, and each of these roles gives me a chance to do that. It is exhausting and I just love it and I'm so grateful.

"In my mind, I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have this role," says Davidson who, at 76, describes Finding Neverland's Hook/Frohman as, "the role of a lifetime."

Intermission Impossible: Critics really seem to like you in this role. Even those who don't love the script seem to love you in this double role as Hook and Frohman

John Davidson: It's true that it's not a typical Musical. It is not Sondheim. It's not Rodgers and Hammerstein. But it's a magical show with a hit song in every scene. It's British pop music and very singable. I just love the music. The story will make you laugh. There's a lot of funny funny pieces. But it's guaranteed to make you cry. It's a very moving script. Of course it's paste on the film where Dustin Hoffman play Charles Frohman and Johnny Depp played J.M. Barrie. But I think the Broadway show. It has incredible special effects. It is a powerful two and a half hours in the theater.

As I read the reviews I wondered if there was some surprise among people who may mostly know you as the host of Hollywood Squares or from That's Incredible. It's got to be at least a little gratifying to turn heads: "Wow, he's really a good actor!"

That is true. My career has been very confusing. I would call it variety. But it is confusing. Is John Davidson just a game show host? Is he just a singer or not an actor? Whatever. I've been so many different things, and that's been the fun of my career, but it's true that it does surprise people. A lot of people who saw me on That's Incredible didn't even know that I sing or act. But I have a Bachelor of Arts in theater and I started out on Broadway as a leading man. That is at the heart of what I do. That kind of storytelling is what I started out doing, and it's nice to get back to that. But I understand. It is surprising people. And that's okay, it's kind of fun to surprise people.

The great thing about being a generalist writer is getting to wake up in a new world every day depending on your subject. So I really appreciate that perspective.

I'm sort of old school. You know, the performers that came on the scene in the 50s and 60s and before always thought of being multifaceted performers. I had an early manager who said, "Don't be a spear, be a pitchfork." By that he meant a spear has one prong. But a pitchfork can handle a lot of points of attack. The variety is what's kept me going all these years. That's the old-fashioned way of doing it, and that's my advice to a lot of the kids in our cast. I'm 76, and most of the kids in the cast from their late 20s. When they Google me.

You get Googled!

Oh yes. And they come back the next morning and they're surprised by all the things I've done. And I say to them, "You could do that too. Don't just think about playing roles in musicals. The greatest role you play is yourself. You got to figure out who you are, Because that will help you play other parts."

You talk about being old school. But you really have worked with generations of artists. Your first Broadway show was with the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr. As a host and panelist on Hollywood Squares you worked with so many people including the great Rose Marie who just passed — best known for The Dick Van Dyke Show, but whose career goes all the way back to Vaudeville and variety when she was Baby Rose Marie. Were there performers like this who inspired you particularly?

I think Bob Hope. I worked on a lot of his specials. He was an early supporter of mine and he was a total performer. I guess he didn't do any serious roles, but he did Broadway film television. And Betty White. Any person who has a talk show always wants Betty White on because she's mischievous and funny and she's a total performer. I was always attracted to people who knew yeah, but to tell a story with a song. To take stage. To master the space. I think that excites me more than just a singer. Robin Williams was an inspiration to me.

I knew you'd been a guest host for Johnny Carson before he retired from The Tonight Show. I honestly can't think of anything more intimidating than sitting in for an icon like Carson who so completely owns his format.

When you substituted for Carson you always knew it was his desk. It was his desk, it was his chair. His name was on the pencils. His name is on the coffee cup. I couldn't book my own guests. They were very tight about getting people on. I remember trying to get Kenny Rogers on. I told them, "You understand Kenny Rogers is a major performer, right? He's a Storyteller he's a singer, he's a great talker." They saw him as just a hit record guy. I finally got him on. I want to have a Jacques Cousteau on because I'm a scuba diver and a big fan. And I couldn't get him on. Then they finally put him on but in the last 7-minutes of the show so I didn't have enough time with the great Jacques Cousteau. You realize you're just a guest there, you're not the host. You can't really indulge yourself. But I began to have this realization — I replaced Carson. I replaced Mike Douglas on his daytime talk show. When I got the music man I replaced Robert Preston in his Harold Hill. I came to realize you can't feel someone else's shoes. Like in Finding Neverland I'm replacing Kelsey Grammer from Broadway. I began to realize you can't feel someone else's shoes. You've got to bring your own shoes and try and fill them. That became my motto. Bring your own shoes.

But what kind of shoes do you bring if you want to be a game show host? That's its own skill set it seems. Where does one train for that? How do you prepare?

It's a very tough thing. And it's a very good question. That's why I talk about with the young actress in Finding Neverland. We talk about it all the time. How do you make that jump from Broadway to television. Because you can play Broadway all your life, and it's great it's very fulfilling. But if you want to have some power, and the freedom to pick and choose, and if you want to have producers call you instead of you trying to call them you've got to get some television so that you mean something. And fame gives you power. That's the reason for being famous. But when I first started on Broadway, a television producer named Bob Banner Who had just found Carol Burnett signed me to a five-year contract. And he brought me to television. And he helps me do my Las Vegas act. And he help me find out who John Davidson was. He developed me as a television variety show performer. I was very lucky in that way.


So we've talked about how you were a goto replacement guy. But you were also at the leading edge of some things. That's Incredible is a pretty clear antecedent to reality programming.

That's Incredible and another show at the same time called Real People.

With Sarah Purcell who you sometimes had as a guest on Hollywood Squares.

Yes. And they were some of the first shows to bring real people to television in that way. It was fun working on That's incredible with Fran Tarkington and Cathy Lee Crosby. I think that advanced my notoriety, but it didn't advance my talents as a singer or actor. It gave me the power to say okay now I want to do Man of La Mancha. So I can go to a theater and people would come because they see me on That's Incredible. That's Incredible was at its best when we celebrated human triumphs over physical and mental obstacles. We were at our worst when we dealt with ghost stories and psychic phenomena, and some of them really superstitious stuff. Just these pitfalls the imagination can get us into. I think we were at our best when we should real stories, and not people who just wanted to be on TV.


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