With his new role as The Sultan in Disney's Aladdin, Clifton Davis is back on Broadway after a very long spell. Ask the veteran entertainer why it took him more than 40 years to get back on the boards (since appearing in 1971's Two Gentlemen of Verona) and he'll take the opportunity to clarify his record; he starred in Lincoln Center's production of Tom Stoppard's Hapgood, opposite Stockard Channing in the mid-1990s.
"Actually, all along the way, I have been doing some theatre," the 1972 Tony Award nominee explained. "I came back to New York in 94 and I was in Hapgood for six months. So I was back on Broadway, so to speak."
"Now granted, that's still 19 years ago but I am thrilled to be back," the debonair and eloquent thespian quipped.
In between his some-odd 20 year breaks from The Great White Way, Davis has ascended to soaring heights — composing the #1 R&B hit song 'Never Can Say Goodbye' for The Jackson 5 in the 1970s, and during the 1980s starring in 'Amen,' the NBC sitcom that netted an average of 30+ million viewers weekly. The Chicago native (raised in Long Island) also descended to crashing lows — his womanizing ways were well documented in the media, and a career-derailing addiction to cocaine cost him almost everything. Since those days of decadence, Davis, who also starred in the 70s sitcom 'That's My Mama,' has survived triple bypass surgery, became heavily involved in religious endeavors and restored his acting career — appearing in countless TV series and movies. "Let's be real, during that period of time I ended up taking two and three and four steps backwards in my career and although I bounced back, I hurt myself in a way that was irreparable," Davis confessed. "Thank God I repaired a whole lot of damage and put my life together and redeveloped and redirected myself with God's help, and I'm just grateful for life and opportunities."
In Aladdin, based on Disney's 1992 animated blockbuster, he takes on the role of Princess Jasmine's father, the ruler of Agrabah. A far departure from the character in the movie, the role has been expanded quite a bit.
"I've seen the movie and of course in the movie The Sultan was sort of a non-entity," Davis explained. "I mean, he was a meek and mesmerized puppet leader and he was short and stubby and white. So it was quite different. So I knew if they were entertaining the idea of using me for the role, it would be different. I only saw the sides, I didn't see the entire script until we finally started rehearing and upon reading the script I was very, very happy that my character figured very strongly in the show and I think it gave me the opportunity to contribute to the piece by bringing just a little dignity and gravitas."
Even after 40, or 20 years away from Broadway, getting back into his musical theatre groove wasn't that much of a stretch for Davis, who turns 69 later this year; before Aladdin started rehearsals, he played Dr. Dillamond in the national tour of Broadway's Wicked during a 16-month run. Before that, he toured in David E. Talbert's urban theater stage-play What My Husband Doesn't Know, which was filmed for BET and continues to air on the network.
"So I've been ramping up for another Broadway stint and God just blessed me with this part and I'm proud, proud to be a part of this company."
"It feels phenomenal, it feels wonderful," he said about the Casey Nicholaw-directed spectacle replete with Arabian themes, a disappearing genie and a flying magical carpet. "Every night when the orchestra strikes a downbeat, excitement rushes through me again. It helps to lift me and prepare me to give the best performance I can give. And it does the same for every cast member. We love our show."
"I've done other shows but I've never worked with a cast that gelled as well as this cast," he continued. "We are concerned about each other and we have a high regard or each other's gift. It's a very special unit. And none of us take it for granted."
Davis can still be seen regularly on television too. Classic episodes of 'That's My Mama' often airs on the TV One network. He's also resumed his role as host of 'Praise the Lord' series on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
"I'm grateful that I'm able to now do ministry and do a role that doesn't conflict with that and therefore fulfill my calling in both areas because I see acting as a calling too," he added. "I see it as a gift just as singing and dancing. Acting is also a gift that's natural when you develop and treat it like the valuable entity it is.