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Also Starring : At Your Service : PROPER OR NOT, NETWORKS PIT TWO BUTLERS AGAINST EACH OTHER

November 13, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether it's mere chance or a deliberate programming move, TV's toniest butlers are currently engaged in a battle of fine china over Monday's 8 p.m. time slot.

And surprisingly enough, "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air's" Joseph Marcell and "The Nanny's" Daniel Davis share similar backgrounds. Both actors, who are in their late 40s, have strong classical stage backgrounds--Marcell as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and Davis as a member of state Shakespeare Festivals and the American Conservatory Theatre. Both have been working actors--with a strong emphasis in theater--for more than 23 years.

And both have had little, if any, contact with actual butlers.

"If I've encountered any real butlers, it's purely by accident, if I strayed onto some well-heeled person's property," muses Marcell.

Neither the ever-proper Niles (Davis), who attends to CBS' New York Sheffield family, nor the equally attendant Geoffrey (Marcell), who takes care of NBC's Bel-Air-based Banks family, is based on any particular person. Both Davis and Marcell created their characters based on the work of other actors.

Marcell, who grew up in London, says Geoffrey is "made up of all the butlers I've ever seen, from Arthur Treacher to John Gielgud to Gordon Jackson. What I've done is make him an amalgam and tried to make him different."

Davis, an Arkansas native, says, "Niles isn't like anyone I've known, but based on a number of actors who have that English-Irish actor tradition. The personality comes from various people, but in particular the actor Louis Beachner, who had a great sense of timing."

Given that "Fresh Prince" has three seasons on "The Nanny," it's not surprising that more of Geoffrey's background has been revealed (he's actually a disgraced English marathon runner, caught cheating in the Olympics by the Queen).

So far, little has been revealed about Davis' Niles, since "Nanny" is only in its second season. The actor has come up with his story for Niles, which Davis says "may not particularly be shared by the writers and producers, but helps me play him."

In Davis' scenario, Niles and Maxwell (Charles Shaunessey) have had a long association: "I imagine they grew up in the same household, that Niles' family worked for Maxwell's. I think Niles went along to school to attend to Maxwell and ended up doing quite a bit of his homework for him, while Maxwell was the bon vivant. "

Davis says the character of Niles is "an old standby, who dates back to the Roman comedies, the haughty servant with the acerbic remarks, all knowing, all seeing, the wisdom of the family." This description fits Geoffrey as well.

Davis adds, "I tried hard to find something new to this standard. Then I decided I wanted him to be a member of the family. More ideas about Niles will come up in the story line, but the less we know, the more mysterious and funny he remains."

Geoffrey, like Niles, is "proud of what he does and is dedicated and a professional and has complete confidence in his abilities," Marcell notes. "But most importantly, Geoffrey doesn't confuse who he is with what he does."

Marcell, who was born on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, emigrated with his family to England at age 5. To the dismay of his family--"They had a very immigrant sensibility to get a stable work situation"--he decided to become an actor ("which they thought was outrageously stupid").

Despite success in theater and film--he appears in the films "Cry Freedom" and the current release "Sioux City"--Marcell wryly points out that his father didn't believe in his success until "Fresh Prince." Marcell's second wife, Joyce, manages a theater company in London, where she lives with their daughter, Jessica, 6. "The long-distance company has a statue of me in gold," he says of his daily phone conversations with his family. Marcell's son, Ben, 16, lives with him in Studio City while "Fresh Prince" shoots.

Davis, with more than 200 plays under his belt, recalls that he was still nervous about trying comedy. "But it's a great way to come into the door," he says, citing the success many television actors have had on Broadway.

"The hardest thing for me to believe is I'm the British butler from Arkansas!" His theatrical background helped him develop accents and character and a broad emotional range that translates well into television.

Davis' interest in acting stems from early elocution lessons from his mother, which led to public speaking, then children's and community theater. He got his first professional role in New York at 18, and has been working ever since.

Davis, who hopes to direct one day, looks forward to traveling to the Greek Isles during the show's next hiatus. Marcell conducts Shakespearean workshops during down time.

They both find it ironic that, despite all their classical training, it's their butler roles on television that has gotten them the most attention.

"I've experienced recognition from people of all ages and all types . . . certainly more than I could ever expect," Davis says.

And Marcell reports, "My father, who's retired to St. Lucia, says it best: 'Oh, Shakespeare was well and good, but because of "Fresh Prince," the whole world knows my son is an actor!' "

"The Fresh Prince of Bel - Air" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC. "The Nanny" airs Monday at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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