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Daniel Davis: An Actor In His Milieu

February 18, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

"I have a problem, as an actor, of demanding too much of an audience," acknowledged Daniel Davis, who plays the lead role in Jon Robin Baitz's "The Film Society" (through Sunday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center).

"I want (people) to understand they have a part in the evening," he added. "This is something that's happening in front of them. There's a symbiosis that occurs and the audience is just as much a part of the process as I am. The better they are, the better I am--just as the better the actor I'm opposite, the better my performance will be."

Davis is particularly buoyed by his role of Jonathon Balton, a 45-year-old Afrikaner schoolteacher, who retreats from personal and political turmoil by immersing himself in Hollywood movies.

"Somebody asked me if I related to the political implications, if I saw Jonathon's (emotional) journey as a metaphor. Well, that's not what I'm doing at all. For me, Jonathon's journey is a human one: the journey of a man finding out what kind of person he is, why he has hidden himself away, locked himself into films--what that represents."

The actor's empathy with his character is not surprising, given his own background. "When I read this play, I knew who this man was," he said. "I grew up in the rural South (Little Rock, Ark.) in a very religious, fundamentalist atmosphere. There was a lot of fear. The world changed in unimaginable ways after the Second World War and my parents were caught in that. All the things I laugh at now--the bomb, fallout shelters--were terribly real then."

Movies were a great escape.

"At one time, my father maintained three jobs. One was running the movie theater in town. He ran the projector and sold tickets, my mother ran the concession stand. There was a partitioned area called 'the Cry Room' for mothers and infants, and I was put in there: in a high chair with a box of popcorn and a Dr. Pepper, and I watched Tyrone Power from the age of 2."

As time passed, Davis--just like the character in Baitz's play--grew impervious to the racial turmoil just outside that filmic haven.

"When I was in the seventh grade," he continued, "the National Guard bivouacked on my front lawn, but I ignored what was going on around me. I went to the movies, where everyone was pretty. So I use everything about myself," he laughed, "and just add on."

He's been adding on since his first role at age 13; now his resume totals upward of 300 plays. Yet Davis regards as his happiest time the six years at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre and the PCPA/Solvang Theatrefest, where he starred in "Peer Gynt" (1975), "Hamlet" (1979) and "Macbeth" (1984).

"We had something like 22,000 subscribers at ACT," he recalled with a smile. "You played to the same people all the time. They knew you, you knew them, yet you could surprise them, show up in different disguises, various incarnations, and they were always willing to accept it. That's one of the sadnesses of the theater now: economically, those (stable) situations don't exist. You have to look around for places to work."

And travel does get wearing.

"It used to be that you'd do a tour like the one I did in 'Amadeus' (he played Salieri on Broadway, then in 54 cities), and got famous. Nowadays (people) don't show up if you're not a TV star.

"Part of my problem has to do with being 41. I moved here for the same reason every actor does: We're seeking autonomy and financial security in a business that does not offer it. If you get lucky (here), you can set yourself up for life: take artistic control, make choices. Money talks. The theater I started out to be in 25 years ago doesn't exist any more. If I don't change my goals, I'll get buried."

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