Roger Davis poetically reflects on his past as he devours a huge, three course lunch at Universal Studio's commissary.
"I grew up in the blue grass country of Kentucky and I really like it back there," he admits, a hint of pride in his voice.
"In fact, the biggest thrill I've had so far as a sense of accomplishment was being able to help my brothers to do the things they wanted to do. When I started making a little bit of money, I bought a couple of horses. They switched from teaching to the horse training business!"
Although still New York residents, Roger and his actress wife Jaclyn are now planning a permanent move to California, where he is currently starring with Ben Murphy in ABC's "Alias Smith & Jones."
After the tragic death of Pete Duel last December 30, Roger was selected as the replacement in the role of Hannibal Heyes.
"All everyone wants to talk about is Pete," he exclaims honestly, and "it's understandable. After all, I'm playing Pete's role, and doing Pete's show. It's hardly MY role and MY show. I'm not making any claims for it being anything else. The idea is to make it my own. Naturally, I can't talk the audience into that; they can only have their own opinion as to whether I've made it mine or not."
He pauses to grab another bite of meat before continuing.
"It was my own show from the day I started doing it terms of it's another actor's interpretation of the role. Afterwards, the public will make their judgment as to whether they like the other actor. Of course, it's been very hard for writers to say they liked me because Pete died a horrible way. They don't want to go out and saw "Well, I like the show with Roger Davis, you see, it's very hard. The reviews were very slow to come out at first but I understand. It is a difficult situation for everyone."
Times haven't been easy for Roger. Like most actors he has paid his dues.
"The first thing I ever did was to play the Archbishop in The Prince and the Pauper' when I was 11," he recalls.
"I played character parts until I was about 22. (He is now 31.) In fact, I learned my craft basically as a character actor. There's been an interesting switch in the business. Now I'm considered a lead whereas when I first was put under contract I was considered a character because everybody was so pretty in those days. That was the era of the Troy Donahues and Tab Hunters. Two days before I signed to Warner Bros., Robert Redford was turned down--considered too ugly! What a joke!" he laughs, still heartily tackling his lunch as he talks.
"The business has changed considerably, although most people don't realize it. Ten years ago the public was being fed the very perfect image. People today accept you as being attractive out of the role that you play. One of the things I noticed when I first started taking acting classes was that an actor could transform himself and become really attractive just by virtue of the work he did. I never think of Dustin Hoffman as being attractive or being unattractive. I think of him as being a good actor."
Dressed casually in light tan slacks and jacket and a dark brown turtleneck sweater, Roger makes a striking figure as he saunters across the restaurant to answer a telephone call. He bears a slight resemblance to Steve McQueen with his twinkling blue eyes, blond hair and boyish grin.
When he returns, he raps about ABC's longstanding soap opera "Dark Shadows" in which he played eight different roles.
"It was nothing more than a repertory really," he comments.
"It was an opportunity to play several different roles when the stakes weren't very high. You could be bad one day but you always had the next day to make up for it. I did it for two and a half years and sometimes got the feeling that I wasn't getting ahead," he smiles.
"Dark Shadows' was a lot of fun for all of us. We were having a good time. No one was taking it seriously. We were just making the best of being New York actors trying to keep our heads above water and make a living. Every actor on that show was serious about a career in new York or we wouldn't have been there. I was doing a play called "MacBird" when I was signed to "Dark Shadows." The hardest thing about doing "Dark Shadows" was doing them both at the same time. You learn a tremendous amount doing soap operas. A lot of people in very high places can put you down but that's strange thinking to me because where today can you learn the craft? It's very hard because the stakes are so high in most places. Doing "Dark Shadows" helped me in this role of Hannibal Heyes. If I had been absolutely green and stepped into this role that awful week that Pete died it would have been a disaster. We had to work every day under great tension and pressure. I couldn't have done it if I didn't have a craft to cling to. I learned one thing while doing "Dark Shadows"--the best thing I could ever do is to play a scene for the value of a scene. Don't play a lot of extraneous things. There was not time on that show to do anything but try to believe and work on the scene itself. Some of those scenes were pretty far out," he laughs.
One of the waitresses brings over a sealed package for Roger marked personal. Inside are several copies of his review in "Variety" signed by each of the commissary staff. Below the article is written "Also the best and favorite actor to come to lunch. Commissary award for 1972!"
The girls crowd around him laughing and joking, all caught in his genuine warmth.
Genuinely flattered by their compliments, he teases. "Everybody's trying to fatten me up! The first few weeks they said I was losing too much weight. I've got to start eating. I've been the commissary's most regular customer!"
As he continues with his lunch, he talks about his role on "Alias Smith and Jones".
"You see, it's a very good role. The reality of the situation is that it's an excellent role for any actor. It's flattering to me that I've been chosen to do it," he says with sincerity.
"Hey, I had strong guilt feelings about this. There's no doubt about it. That a close friend of mine..." he pauses. "I hesitate to say close because I don't know how close anybody was to Pete. We passed more than idle chitchat between us. We talked a lot, and I was over at his house about three weeks before he died. I wouldn't have had any idea except that Pete took things very, very seriously. I'm genuinely sorry if anyone gets the wrong impression about this situation and thinks ill of me. When this happened I thought a hell of a lot about whether I should or shouldn't take it. the fact remains though, that it is a terrific role. It was there to be played by somebody. I didn't ask for it, it was more or less thrust on me. I knew there was a possibility I would fail in the role, and this was challenging to me," Roger reveals openly.
Thus far, the response towards Roger has been encouraging.
"Naturally, I'm only going to get letters from people who like me. If people don't like you, they don't waste their time writing. There are undoubtedly going to be people that no matter what I'd do, they are not going to like me because they were close fans of Pete's. This I understand too."
Is the rumor true that Roger was originally chosen for the role of Hannibal Heyes but turned it down and that Pete Duel was Universal's second choice?
"That's mass confusion and NOT true," replies Roger with conviction.
"The confusion probably stems from the time when Pete and I did a pilot together. It was a comedy western entitled "The Young Country," and I played the lead. Everyone loved it. It was a great show. Anyway, Pete was set to play the lead but there was a switch, and I ended up playing the lead instead. That's where everyone got confused, I think. I didn't find out about "Smith & Jones" until the auditions were already finished. I was on location in Mexico with Dack Rambo, and he told me that he was up for a role in a new television series "Alias Smith & Jones" and explained the show to me. That was the first I had even heard of it."
"Damn," he roars suddenly as his forkful of food splatters down his chin, "I missed my mouth completely and got my nose."
Roger's sense of humor is refreshing as he is able to make light of a situation which could easily have been embarrassing. The more he relates to you, the more you see how unaffected and candid he is.
"The fun of doing this show is to bring it off the way they're attempting to bring it off. That's another challenge of the role. Not to overplay it--not to try to be funny. The show is amusing," he clarifies.
"You know, Pete and I used to laugh and kid around a lot about how enthusiastic I was about the work in general," he reminisces. "He said one day while watching me do something You know, I actually think you really like doing all of this'--and I do, I really do. Pete was such a good actor that he could be in a very bad mood, he could be very down and go in and play a role and appear up and happy. I can't do that. If I'm not up and my life in pretty good shape, I don't function as well, so in that sense I haven't yet mastered the ability to be up when I'm down."
Roger's handsome face clouds over with emotion as he continues, "I'm sure that Pete wasn't any happier doing "Gidget" than he was doing anything else in his career but in those days everything looked up, I'm sure. He hadn't gotten down. That's why I say it probably wasn't this role or any other role. I'm afraid that a very sad thing had happened to a really terrific person. Because he genuinely cared about a lot of things, and I don't mean this in a maudlin old showbiz way because Pete wasn't maudlin and he wasn't old showbiz at all, it could really bother him. He cared so deeply about everything that it could really weigh on his mind. The fact that he wasn't doing anything about the causes he believed in and had to be doing a show night and day--this also bothered him. so maybe there are no answers to any of it. Maybe Pete had an accident, who knows? Maybe Pete did have too much to drink that night. Maybe he took a gun out that had one bullet missing that he knew he had fired and spun the cylinder and put it to his head. Maybe he did it every night that week. Who really knows? I mean...maybe...maybe..maybe...." His voice trails off and after a brief silence he goes on.
"Existentialism was a big thing with me in college. The whole idea of a novel I read called "Les Jeux Sont Sait" which means the chips are down, was so real. It's set at the gambling tables in Monte Carlo. The novel begins with a man who's already dead and can't go back. It's very frustrating because your soul pours out to this man and he's dead. It's like something you see in a B' movie. You know, this whole thing of taking over for the actor who died a tragic death...rushing into the role..." he sighs and shakes his head sorrowfully.
"To clear up...see,.... not to clear up anything--there's nothing to clear up," he laughs, "I haven't done anything yet to clear up because I haven't done enough yet. Anyway, I think the role of Hannibal Heyes on this show is great. I love playing it. It's under terrible circumstances, but I don't think it's necessary for an actor to apologize for doing his job. Why should I have to apologize for doing the thing that I do especially when I didn't ask for this role? I guess Pete's brother Geoff put it the best way. He said Somebody was going to do it, Roger, and there are a lot of people that we would have cringed at the thought of their doing it. It's nice that it was you. The irony of it was that you knew Pete so well and that you both enjoyed working together.'"
Roger's genuine concern and guilt feelings over the role are obvious. Although he stated at first that he would rather not discuss Pete, his conversation was full of his feelings about his friend.
But the question still remains. Will Roger
Davis make it on his own talent and creativity or will the ghost
of Pete Duel and the loyalty of his fans prevent Roger from achieving
the success he rightfully deserves?
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