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Just an Average-Looking Guy : Nathan Davis has lent his 'nondescript face' to a wide array of characters (including several in son Andrew Davis' films). His latest: the weak-bladder guy in Steve Martin's 'Picasso' play.

November 20, 1994|Janice Arkatov | Janice Arkatov is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

Getting fired was probably the best thing that ever happened to Nathan Davis.

"It was kind of a relief, a liberating feeling," says the Chicago native, whose job termination at age 59--after 25 years as a salesperson for a wholesale drug company--gave him the opportunity to return to his first love: acting. Now, at age 77, Davis is making his Los Angeles stage debut in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at the Westwood Playhouse.

"I'm enjoying playing this guy, Gascon, whose expertise is (with) women," says Davis, who originated the role in Chicago workshops with Steppenwolf more than a year ago. In Martin's hypothetical 1904 meeting between a young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in a Paris cafe, Davis' Gascon is a spirited senior whose periodic bathroom breaks are one of the show's running gags. "He's more or less the cue man for the entire group, the transitional character," notes the actor. "And Steve has given me a lot of funny bits."

The role is in stark contrast to Davis' screen work, which has often found him in a much more sinister mode. In his first film, "Thief," he was an older safecracker advising James Caan. He played a Russian murder conspirator in "The Package" with Gene Hackman, a "Mafia character" in "Code of Silence" with Chuck Norris, a "Mafia relative" in "Above the Law" with Steven Seagal (his role was subsequently cut from the finished product) and a "Mafia guy" in three episodes of the '80s television series "Wiseguy."

"I guess I have a nondescript face, and directors don't want to stick with stereotypes," Davis theorizes, relaxing backstage at the Westwood Playhouse before a recent performance. "I get a wider variety of roles in the theater." In Chicago, those outings have included "The Sunshine Boys" at the National Jewish Theatre, "The Time of Your Life" and "Lakeboat" at the Goodman Theatre, and "Awake and Sing" and "Fool for Love" at Steppenwolf.

"I go a little batty when I'm not working," admits the actor, whose last touring experience--playing Grandpa Joad in Steppenwolf's acclaimed production of "The Grapes of Wrath"--was a two-year excursion that took him to La Jolla, London and Broadway. During off-time at home, Davis adds, "I do some recording for a blind service in Chicago, I'm active in Actors' Equity. And my wife and I don't stay in one place very long; we do a lot of traveling. Just before this we spent three weeks in Turkey." (His wife of 53 years, Metta, has accompanied him for the "Picasso" run.)

The local sojourn has also enabled the couple to spend time with their two eldest children and their families. Daughter Jo Friedman is ombudsman of the OB/GYN department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; middle son Andrew Davis directed the hugely successful films "Under Siege" and "The Fugitive." "Andy's first film (as director) was a low-budget picture called 'Stony Island,' " says proud papa. "Meshach Taylor was in it, Dennis Franz, Rae Dawn Chong. Our youngest son, Richard (a Chicago-based musician), was the star. And I was in it too. I played a bad guy."

The familial connection has apparently served both Davises well. Nathan's turns in "The Package," "Code of Silence" and "Above the Law" were all directed by Andrew; the director also cast his mother as Steven Seagal's mom in "Above the Law." "My mother told everyone she got the job because she slept with the director's father," chuckles Andrew Davis, speaking by phone from his Santa Barbara home. "Having my parents in my films is a joy."

Growing up, adds Andrew, he was well aware of his father's artistic frustration. "I knew he didn't love his work; it was a real Willy Loman thing," says the director. "But all of their friends were from the theater. I think a lot of my ease with actors now comes from that."

Nathan was also instrumental in his son's future career: It was his friend Studs Terkel who recommended Andrew, fresh out of the University of Chicago, to cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Andrew subsequently became Wexler's protege and served as his assistant cameraman on 1969's "Medium Cool."

For Davis pere , it's really a life come full circle. As a young man, he worked as an actor (he met his wife at an acting class), then served overseas in World War II; afterward, he returned to Chicago and for a short time worked in radio as a soap opera performer.

"That was the only (acting) outlet during that period," he explains. "There was no professional theater to speak of, just road companies. And I was raising and supporting a family." During his salesman years, Davis did the occasional community theater production, but not without conflict: "I worked for a firm that wanted your total allegiance, every moment of your life. So if I had a dress rehearsal that conflicted with a sales meeting, the guy would say, 'Do you want to be a salesman or do you want to be an actor?' "

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