Roger Davis, co-star of ABC-TV's Alias Smith and Jones, was in New York for a few days this week doing TV commercial spots and attending to the business of being a star.
We met for lunch at Sardi's after Roger had spent a grueling morning filming some twenty-seven spots. I asked Roger if his schedule is always this tight. "I'm usually as busy as I am this week," he told me, "but I like it that way. I have a lot of energy. Oh, I run down every now and then, and I just pass out.
"But in a way I can relax more now. You see, I got this show because over the two years prior to this I read, tested, talked, acted in several different shows, was seen over and over again, before it reached a point where they stopped and said, 'Well, Okay! Not bad! Yeah!' and then, finally, I could sort of ease off a little bit. Of course, once you really start to do well, other problems become paramount, like trying to hang onto some of the money you've made--the age-old problem of anybody who's made money quickly. So, we spend a lot of time in business meetings--boring, boring things.
Roger took over the role of Hannibal Heyes on the show after the suicide of his friend Peter Duel. Much has been written about the peculiar situation that Roger had to face landing his first big network TV role as a result of the tragedy that befell his friend. People said that he would never really feel at home in the part--would always feel like he was reading Peter's lines, standing in Peter's shoes. Roger said that from the outset he did not allow himself to think of the role as a replacement for Peter. With Peter's death, the old Hannibal Hayes died, and a new character was born to take his place. "The role has never been anything other than what I was going to do with it. They weren't looking or a look-alike or an act-alike of Pete. If they were, they never would have chosen me. I mean, they've seen Pete and me together, acting together too many times to think of us as being really similar. We'd always acted in counterpoint to one another, simply because our acting styles were different. They don't put actors who are similar in the same show.
"At first I did have some awkward feelings about taking over the part, but it was only because it had all happened so fast. I was skiing in Denver when I got a phone call telling me at one swoop that Peter had shot himself and that I had been chosen to replace him.
"As for all that has been said about my friendship with Pete, I think I've clarified now that no one really was that close to Pete. It's a shame that they weren't, that you couldn't get closer. No one has really understood, completely, the nature of my relationship with Pete. It's just that every now and then you meet somebody whom you have at easy rapport with, who understands what you're about and you understand what they're about. Pete had a tremendous objectivity about other people. Perhaps because he couldn't really get close enough to get involved, he was able to stand back and see things about other people more clearly. In view of what's happened, I guess he just wasn't able to be objective about himself. That quality of objectivity never seems to apply to ourselves. We're never quite as intellectually distant from ourselves as we are from other situations and other people. That's why psychiatrists can have such tremendous personal problems and still be objective about their patients."
According to Roger, the first turning point in his career came when he played Bobby Kennedy in the off-Broadway smash hit MacBird. "Until then, I'd been playing juvenile roles, and that was my first real adult role. One of the unfortunate things about getting into the movie business too early is that if you're unlucky enough to get established as a juvenile, it's damn hard to make the transition to being an adult. Fortunately, I didn't get established as a juvenile. Maybe because growing up in a military school, as I did, I d lost being a kid a long time ago. I never really had a chance to be a kid. There was too much of a demand to be an adult."
Roger's first TV role was the part of Roger Gibson on ABC's The Gallant Men series. Following that, he was signed for the daytime series Dark Shadows, and he did a number of pilots, TV movie features and guest-star spots. "They were all done quickly. I've never had the luxury of hopping from one film to another.
On daytime TV you do as much show in one day as you do for nighttime TV in six days, while in a high budget film, you've got three months to do it. You'd always like more time. Roy Huggins has a saying, which is, 'Brevity is the soul of wit, and pace is the soul of brevity.' Now, that really has to do with something that I like about Smith and Jones. The essence of good comedy is pace. Timing is everything. Smith and Jones has a sense of when to stop short. Naturally, in six days, in shooting so fast, you make a lot of mistakes. I don't hold that against the show, or against the studio, it's just the nature of television. Everyone in television understands that it's a kind of controlled mediocrity, and that, were doing the best we can within the confines of that medium.
"Is it more fulfilling to do a good play than it is, generally speaking, to do a television role, because a TV role is over more quickly? But good plays are few and far between, too. A question that people often ask me is, you know, 'Gee, how could you have sold out to do a television series?' And really, that just doesn't make any sense to me because there just isn't that much work around. Everybody and his brother was up for this role, and I still have actor friends coming up to me going, 'Lord! How did you get that?' As far as the studio is concerned, choosing me for the role must have been a natural decision, or they never would have made it, especially for someone who was virtually unknown."
Despite his great success on the show, Roger feels that he is still comparatively unknown to the general public. "I'll bet you that right here in Sardi's, right now I could stand up, and say, 'Who am I?' and there wouldn't be, other than the maitre d', who's finally come to know my name because I'm in here doing interviews so much, a handful of people who would know."
I asked Roger if there have been any big changes in his life since he started doing the show, aside from getting to know the maitre d' at Sardi's. "Well," he answered, quite seriously, "I empty the garbage on Saturday instead of Tuesday cause I don't have any time during the week. There have been many changes, of course, like all these interviews where somebody is interested enough to listen to you, and there are better parts available. Suddenly I'll get a call, or a script will be on my doorstep. Smith and Jones was definitely a major turning point."
Roger and his wife, actress-model Jaclyn Ellen Smith, live in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. The star says that "the only conflict created by our both having careers is that we're separated for long periods of time. That's difficult in anybody's life. Long separations are very bad for a marriage. Married people should be together. But marriage isn't easy, it's something you have to work at. You have to be willing to make certain sacrifices."
Right now, the Davises have no children, but they'd like to have some. "I'm not like Cassius Clay. I don't want fifteen or sixteen, 'cause I don't know how much Cassius Clay makes, but I couldn't afford fifteen or sixteen. I also understand completely that overpopulation is our primary problem. But I'd like to have a couple of children, mainly because my wife would like to. Women feel these things much more strongly than men, and you shouldn't be married if you're going to deny your wife the great pleasure of being a woman." Roger said that Jaclyn would be willing to give up her career to raise a family.
As far as Roger s future career plans go, he'll be doing the show when it resumes shooting this fall, and he's under a contract with Universal. "It remains to be seen as to what that will mean exactly. I don't think it matters what field you're in, it seems to be that the options are always up to somebody else. The real option that we have as human beings is whether we want to get ourselves involved in life itself. Which novel was that where Hemingway said, if you're passive about life, and don't go after it al all, somehow it sill will affect you, but if you like life and make an attempt to make it work for you, it'll wear away at you, but if you love life, and you really cherish it and it's special to you and you attack it, it will destroy you. I'm always out there hoping that it won't, because I have the latter attitude about life.
"That's one of the things about Peter's death that's very hard for anybody who has the same aggressive attitude about life that he had, to be able to forget. Peter went after life as something that he loved, but he would always say that death's an alternative. That kind of sticks in the back of your mind."
It seems ironic to equate a burning love
for life with the eventual destruction of it yet somehow Roger
can see the connection very clearly. He saw it in Peter Duel,
and be sees a bit of it in himself. And it worries him. But Roger
doesn't seem like the type to burn himself out. He's got too many
hopes and plans wrapped around his skyrocketing career to take
a fall. Besides, his wife wants a baby.
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