PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Davidson, of The Fantasticks, "The Happiest Millionaire" and More

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28 Jul 2012

Once "The Boy," John Davidson — of stage, television and movies — returns to The Fantasticks as "The Old Actor."


The perennially chipper and boyish actor John Davidson, who played "The Boy" in the 1964 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV production of The Fantasticks, has returned to the long-running little musical. Now 70, believe it or not, Davidson has taken on the role of Henry Albertson, the "Old Actor," in the Off-Broadway production at the Jerry Orbach Theatre in midtown's Snapple Theatre Center. (He played the role June 1-16 and takes the part again July 30-Sept. 2.)

Davidson won a 1965-66 Theatre World Award playing Curly in a City Center revival of Oklahoma! His diverse credits include Disney movies "The Happiest Millionaire" (1967), "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band" (1968) and, oddly, "Edward Scissorhands" with Johnny Depp, in which Davidson played the TV host. Davidson also competed for long stints on TV game shows, notably "Hollywood Squares," and has released a dozen albums of country and pop songs.

Davidson was last seen on Broadway in 1996 playing the father in Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair.

The Old Actor is one of the more mysterious characters in The Fantasticks. He's one of two broken-down old performers El Gallo hires to help him stage his "Abduction" of The Girl, Luisa, to help end the fake feud between the two neighboring families that has been engineered by the two fathers as a scheme to trick the children into falling in love. He and his Indian partner Mortimer, "The Man Who Dies," seem to be the last survivors of a defunct theatrical troupe. The Old Actor reappears as the mysterious Ludovigo, to tempt The Boy, Matt as he sets out to experience the real world.

"See me — in light!," implores the ragged superannuated thespian, and Davidson is asking audiences to do the same.

You have a special connection with The Fantasticks.
John Davidson: Yes. Forty-eight years ago I played The Boy in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV adaptation of the show, which had Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, Susan Watson as The Girl and the two fathers played by Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway. Ironically, they eliminated the role of the Old Actor and The Indian and kind of combined them with the fathers. I know there are a lot of things that [lyricist/librettist] Tom Jones didn't like about the TV adaptation. It lost a lot of the fantasy. For instance, there was a real wall between the two houses, instead of just a stick, the way it was done on Sullivan Street [Off-Broadway's Sullivan Street Playhouse].

Lyricist-librettist Tom Jones still spends a fair amount of time around the production. Did you have chance to discuss the part with him? Did he give you any special insight into the character? He did, after all, originate the role (under the stage name Thomas Bruce).
JD: Tom actually directed me when I took over the role [in June]. He asked me if I thought Henry had ever really been a great actor, or if he never was great. I said I thought Henry had never been that good. But Tom said, "You're wrong. I like to think he was once indeed a great actor who had just gotten old, and probably hasn't had a job in a long time." That was something to think about.

Tom came in and directed me, and he helped me an awful lot. I think I was getting into the trap of self-pity a little bit, and he helped me get away from that. It reminded me of when I played Curly in the 1965 production of Oklahoma! at the City Center. Susan Watson was in that, too, playing Laurey. Richard Rodgers came in and directed us personally. It was a huge thrill to be able to get it from the horse's mouth. He was so meticulous. In "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" he told me I was slurring "chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." It's supposed to have the crisp rhythm that matches the clip-clop of the horse pulling the surrey. I was very impressed at how much he cared about every detail. Tom Jones is the same way.


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