Roger Davis was on a plane headed for a skiing vacation in Colorado. When the plane landed in Aspen, the sheriff came on and took him off. "There was a phone call for me from a Universal executive in Los Angeles. He told me Pete Duel had shot himself and was dead." Roger paused. He and Pete had been friends.
"Universal asked me not to go skiing. Someone had to fill in for Pete on the last five shows."
Pete had been starring with Ben Murphy in ABC's Alias Smith and Jones. The season wasn't over. In the age-old tradition of the theatre, "The show must go on." Roger had been with the series since the beginning. He was the voice who introduced the characters at the opening of each episode. He'd also appeared in one show.
"I got back on the plane knowing I had an obligation to the show, to a producer who had used me many times in the past, and to an actor I had known and worked with. I didn't go skiing."
Roger finished the season and is back again this year in the role of Hannibal Heyes, also known as Joshua Smith. "Every actor in California was up for the role," Roger told me. "Universal was swamped with calls from actors' agents. It's a wonderful role--one of the best leads on TV.
"The show is more than a Western. Alias Smith and Jones is about charm and style. It's about good and bad. Everything is light, easy, fun. It could be set anytime. It just happens to be set in the West. Kids can identify with the leads. They're not lawyers, doctors, cops. They're not even really cowboys. They're not the phony good guys of most shows."
What they are is outlaws who have decided that crime no longer pays. They've gotten a promise from the governor that, if they stay out of trouble for a certain length of time, he will grant them full and complete amnesty. They find that it isn't as easy as it sounds.
They have to find honest means of supporting themselves. That's tough when you're used to walking into a bank and helping yourself to what's in the till!
They have to stay out of the clutches of bounty hunters. There's still a price on their heads--and that keeps them on the run. They're listed on the WANTED posters as Hannibal Heyes and Jed "Kid" Curry. In respectable company--and that's everybody on the right side of the law--they call themselves Joshua Smith and Thaddeus Jones.
It is indeed a Western with a difference. It doesn't take itself seriously. There's no heavy-handed moralizing about the good guys and the bad guys. It's a sagebrush saga with a sense of humor.
"When I took the role a very important director said to me, 'Hey, don't take that. I'm going to use you in a big picture in the spring.'" Roger flashed his big smile. "I think even then they had the actors cast. If you wait for all the promises, you'd wait forever.
"I came to Los Angeles on a bus with $13 in my pocket. The main thing I had was a good education, I started to work in a gas station. For one month I worked 90 hours a week. Then I washed dishes in a restaurant. I also worked as a waiter, but I got fired."
Roger was born in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father owns a tire company. He went to grade school in Louisville and high school at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee.
He was graduated from Columbia University where he majored in English literature. During vacations, he appeared in summer stock in Woodstock, New York, and with the Repertory Theatre in New York City.
"My parents wanted me to go to law school," he told me. "Clarence Darrow [a famous lawyer] was my hero when I was growing up. So I went to Harvard Law School. I lasted one week. As soon as I got there I realized it wasn't for me."
He switched to UCLA, where he received his master's degree in English literature and taught freshman English. The classroom didn't provide a big enough stage for him, though. He quit to play his first TV role in The Gallant Men series.
Later he played eight different roles in Dark Shadows and a leading role in the stage production of MacBird. "Pete Duel and I did a movie for TV called The Young Country," Roger said. "It got good notices, but it didn't sell as a series. Westerns are hard to sell. It sold in Europe as a feature film--and it brought me back to the attention of the network.
"Acting, contrary to what many people think, is not a phony life. It's a real one. You have to deal with truth all the time. Good acting is being truthful. What you're marketing in show business is truth."
If that's so, then what Alias Smith and Jones is merchandising is an offbeat, lighthearted approach to programing that seems to have gone over much bigger with kids than with older viewers.
Roger stepped in to take the place of
a friend. He's worked hard to make the role his own. "I haven't
had that much come my way," he admitted. "I have to
do my best. If I want anything, it's to be happy and to have a
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