There is a certain immortality involved in theatre, created not by monuments or books but through the knowledge an actor carries with him to his dying day that, in an empty and dusty theatre, on a certain afternoon, he cast a shadow of a being that was not himself but a distillation of everything he had ever thought or felt. All the unsingable heartsong that the ordinary man may feel but never utter he gave voice to and, by that, he somehow joins the ages."
Bruce Davison was in college when he first came across this quote (by Arthur Miller) in a book of theatre essays, and it convinced him that he was on the right track -- that there was something ennobling about the acting profession, being the conduit that connects an audience with the ideas and emotions of a writer.
By that time he was already acting in two mediums stage and screen and his strongest connection was in the latter, playing a teen-age rapist in Frank Perry's controversial Last Summer. It was his first film, and it would carry him away from the theatre and that nightly shot at "immortality" -- but he's currently back on course at the Century Theatre, having replaced David Morse in How I Learned to Drive as the hauntingly human Uncle Peck, a middle-aged man who lures his trusting niece into a sexual relationship.
No easy chore this, "following another actor especially one who has received such accolades for the part -- but the play is so beautifully written that there's room. David said that to me. He said, 'You'll make it your own.' And I think I've had the chance to do that, just because it's a wonderfully complex, fascinating character someone you can't label as a villain, someone you really have to get to know. He's not a monster who is easy to hate.
"The play seduces the audience much the same way Peck seduces Li'l Bit. You don't have all the information until maybe it's too late to make a snap judgment, so you go away from this play not knowing quite how you feel about him certainly a man capable of reprehensible acts but at the same time someone that everybody seems to know."
Since he started on the stage, returning to it is always a kind of homecoming for Davison. He was a student at NYU when Anthony Quayle tapped him to be Troilus in Tiger at the Gates at Lincoln Center, "my first stepping onto the stage" (excluding some theatre at Penn State). He carried spears and roast pigs for Lee J. Cobb's King Lear and did "all the things yeomen do growing up on Shakespeare."
He even found himself in a play about Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway, A Cry of Players, with Frank Langella and Anne Bancroft. "I remember sitting in the wings, watching Anne and Frank do the big climactic scene every night. She would say, 'What's the worst, you milksop? You think you'll leave me?' He says, 'I think you're older, and you'll die first,' and she just crumbled. I would be in tears before my entrance, watching her do this every night."
It was while Davison was doing a play Off-Broadway -- A Home Away From ("I remember Clive Barnes saying, 'The actors speak as if they have typewriters in their mouths.'") -- that his playing arena expanded to movies via the New York-filmed Last Summer. After that critical and commercial success, he suddenly found himself at a crossroads and opted for the road more traveled by: "I was to do Ah, Wilderness! for Ted Mann in Washington D.C., but I ended up getting The Strawberry Statement, which swept me off to Hollywood."
The next thing he knew he had achieved cult-film status, playing second fiddle to a rat in Willard; thankfully, he was devoured alive and didn't do the sequel (Ben). "The rat went on and got all the stardom, but I made him what he is today: a broken-down has-been, living in Van Nuys and trying to get back into Disney films."
Given the fickleness of film fame, Davison has always fortified himself with stage work. He won Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards for both The Normal Heart and Streamers; whenever filming permits, he will return to the New York stage (The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Tandy, The Cocktail Hour, Richard III and The Elephant Man).
Davison's most memorable performance the one that won him a Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination and awards from the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics came in Longtime Companion, the only film made by a pair who worked exclusively in New York theatre: playwright Craig Lucas and director Norman Rene.
Its most indelible moment was the heart-wrenching "let go" scene in which Davison eases his AIDS-stricken lover (Mark Lamos) into death. Rene, who subsequently succumbed to the disease, was spartan and specific in its staging. "I remember him saying to me -- the only direction he gave me -- 'This isn't about how you feel. This is about getting him to let go.' Then he turned to Mark and said, 'Just listen to what he says.' We ended up only doing two takes, and we used the first one. I don't want to say it was an 'easy' scene to do what's hard for an actor is trying to make things truthful that aren't truthful -- but, as conceived and written, it was so beautifully crafted that it was an honor to be able to play it." Davison connected so powerfully with the audience doing that scene he continues to get compliments for it seven years after the fact. These he takes as confirmation of what he does and why he does it.
If that motion needs seconding, he has a striking memory from his Broadway run as The Elephant Man. "I was doing a matinee, and there was quite a lot of rustling and distraction on the left actors always feel the rustling in the audience and, afterwards, as I was leaving the theatre, the stage manager asked me to meet a group of paraplegics who had been brought in as a group. I said, 'Sure,' and a man came up to me and said, 'There's someone I'd like you to meet.' Then, he brought over this little man, carried him in his arms like a pieta, and the little man spastically grabbed my hand and brought it to his cheek and said, 'Oh, so very moving.'
"It was one of those moments that really changed me. This is what I'm here to do. I am connected. I am part of my audience. It's not just rustling noise in the distance. It really brought me into why I love the theatre, why I do it, why I've always wanted to do it. We sometimes forget that because we go off and do our car chases and make money, but for me theatre has always been like church."
-- By Harry Haun