A few hours before the premiere of "To Kill a Mockingbird," now on the boards at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the star of the show got a telegram from Gregory Peck.
"Dear Bruce," it said, "With every good wish and a trace of envy that this time you will be playing Atticus. He's such a great character. Good but not too good to be true . . ."
Coming from the man who is indelibly associated with the role from his Oscar-winning performance in the 1962 screen version of "Mockingbird," the message had more significance for Bruce Davison than the usual show-biz boost.
"That movie is one of my all-time favorites," says Davison, a note of awe in his voice for "the impossible mantle" he must carry on the La Mirada stage.
The telegram from Peck, whom he barely knows, is the second time Peck surprised him with an unsolicited vote of confidence. The first was the night of the 1990 Academy Awards, when Davison was an Oscar nominee for his supporting role as a middle-aged homosexual in the AIDS movie "Longtime Companion."
"I'd lost, and I was standing in the parking lot waiting for my car," Davison recalls in an interview over the phone from his home in the Hollywood Hills. "He came up behind me and put his arm on my shoulder, and I heard this voice say, 'I had to come here six times before they gave it to me. You'll be back, too. ' "
A return engagement would be nice, of course. And given his recent track record in such prestige pictures as "Short Cuts" and "Six Degrees of Separation," the blond Philadelphia-born actor might very well land the sort of role to get it.
One independent new movie he has made with Blythe Danner, now being edited, especially excites him. "It's Mark Medoff's latest," he says of the dramatist-screenwriter best known for the Tony Award-winning play and movie "Children of a Lesser God." "I play a sleazy lawyer. It's about what I call the first morally bankrupt generation and the parents and teachers who hatched it."
Davison, 48, has other, more mainstream movies coming out--"Yellow Dog" (about a shipwrecked father and son) and "The Cure" (about a raft trip down the Mississippi seeking a miracle antidote to AIDS).
But for the moment he is content to work far from the Hollywood limelight at a suburban theatrical venue, which is overhauling its artistic identity with a new subscription series of professional productions from McCoy/Rigby Entertainment.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee's novel, is the inaugural offering in the series. The others are "The Wizard of Oz," starring former gymnast Cathy Rigby (who co-owns the production company with her husband); "The Belle of Amherst," starring Amanda Plummer, and "Forever Plaid."
"To me it doesn't matter that I'm in a suburban theater," Davison says. "I've had good and bad experiences on Broadway and Off Broadway and everywhere else across the country. It's the experience of doing the work that counts. It never ceases to amaze me that the things that come out of nowhere sometimes give you the greatest treasures."
As Atticus Finch in "Mockingbird," set during the Depression in a small Alabama town, he plays a self-effacing widower raising his two young children to be morally upright despite the racism that surrounds them.
But that's only half the tale. The other half is that Atticus is a deeply civilized lawyer, and he has just been assigned to defend a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
Atticus knows that the jury, made up of white townspeople who are racists bred in the bone, will convict no matter what he proves. Yet he performs the exercise with all his skill and eloquence and an unshakable belief in human decency.
"More than anything I think the play is like a bedtime story," Davison says. "You can be told it a thousand times and still want to hear it again. I find it invigorating."
* What: "To Kill a Mockingbird."
* When: Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 20.
* Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada.
* Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Beach Boulevard; exit east on Beach to La Mirada Boulevard; turn left on La Mirada.
* Wherewithal: $28 to $32.
* Where to call: (310) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.
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IN FULLERTON: 'THE CRUCIBLE'
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IN BREA: 'HAIR'
The classic '60s rock-musical about a naive farm boy, the flower power generation and the Vietnam War gets a grand, energetic revival that retains the tone and shape--but not the nudity--of the original. At the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, through Nov. 20. (714) 990-7722.