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Intense on the Set! : Bruce Davison's Career Continues to Take New and Uncharted Turns


Bruce Davison was in a friendly, talkative mood. At first.

It was last summer and Davison was filming Fox's "Live! From Death Row," at a small studio near downtown Los Angeles. Davison, a best supporting Oscar nominee a year ago for the AIDS drama "Longtime Companion," was relaxing in his small, air-conditioned dressing room during a break.

In "Live! From Death Row," which airs Friday, Davison plays Laurence Dvorak, a notorious serial killer who takes a newswoman (Joanna Cassidy) and her camera operator hostage during an interview just hours before his scheduled execution, vowing to broadcast the first public execution.

The thriller, Davison, 45, acknowledged "is pretty rough stuff for television. It is in your face. I know that it's hard doing it."

Davison's mass murderer is "not really a brilliant man," he said. "But he is the kind who is driven to kill by stupidity. Here is a man who is about to go out in flames, literally, so he creates a forum for the death penalty, sort of a public service announcement with a gun."

Davison's own views of the death penalty changed during the filming. "I have taken a real, long hard look at the death penalty. I was pretty pro-death penalty before this. I am really not any more. The show doesn't portend to come from a point of view that one most follow. (We say,) 'Here are the facts and take responsibility for your actions.' "

Fifteen years ago, Davison played another criminal--a child molester--in the gritty "Short Eyes." "That was really hard. The character was so guilt-ridden, that it was really hard to shake." Playing Laurence Dvorak, Davison said, didn't affect him in the same way because he had matured as a person and an artist.

"I have this old home movie that I get a kick out of," Davison said, jumping out of his chair. "There is a scene of me doing 'Hec Ramsey' with Richard Boone. I am running all around preparing and Boone is sort of sitting up against the wall looking at me. I would literally bang my head against the wall to get to a certain point (in my acting).

"I put my fist into a wall a few times. I put my head through a toilet lid. I can go to a deeper place (now) that is a little more in focus and they don't have to cover up the bruises with makeup."

Davison, who made his film debut in 1969's acclaimed "Last Summer," admitted he didn't handle his early success. "I often referred to myself as 'Pinocchio on Pleasure Island.' There was a real jackass-turning-into period for me. But I always managed to work. After that period of time when I really had to work, I learned my craft."

He said the Oscar nomination came at the perfect time in his career. "It was a wonderful experience to have now, " he said. "If I would have had that back during my 20s or 30s, I would have flown off and disappeared somewhere. I don't know how I would have handled it."

He's "grateful" for the nomination, he said, but being caught up in the Oscar fever is "relentless. Things keep going faster and faster and you better hold on tight before you fly off into oblivion. It was quite an adventure. I really enjoyed it, but it was hard. It was sort of like being caught in a Fellini movie."

A knock at the door interrupted Davison. He was due back on the set. Davison invited his visitor, a photographer and his publicist to join him.

As soon as Davison stepped onto the set--a claustrophobic re-creation of death row, complete with an electric chair and small holding cells--the affable Davison disappeared. He became nervous, jumpy, on edge. In short, his character began to take over.

The photographer wanted to shoot Davison holding a gun standing in front of the electric chair. The idea did not please him. "This isn't a good day for photographs," he said firmly to his publicist. But Davison reluctantly posed.

Minutes later he acted a short scene in which he confronts prison authorities. Davison was brilliant and terrifying.

After a few takes, Davison slowly walked over to his chair and sat. He looked anxious. The next scene, he said tersely, was a pivotal one in which he had to rough up a female guard. "I've got to totally commit (to the scene)," Davison said, eventually agreeing to talk in the future.

Several months later at lunch during a break from shooting his syndicated sitcom, "Harry & the Hendersons," Davison was back to his friendly self. Or so it seemed.

Had he recovered from "Live! From Death Row"?

"I think what I have found is that every acting experience alters me or changes me in some way," Davison said. "As far as the dark side, I don't know if I have shaken that. It seems the world has turned very cynical in the past year and I am cynical about a lot of things."

Such as?

"I don't like to talk too much politically because I am kind of an anarchist any more," he said. "My view on how to fix things is to blow them up. (The dark side) is still there."

"Live! From Death Row" airs Friday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

"Harry & the Hendersons"' airs Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KTTV, 6 p.m. on KUSI and 6:30 p.m. on KADY.

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