By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Institute of the Arts
210 – 112 East 3rd Ave
Sunday, November 15th at 7pm
William B. Davis is not just the Cigarette-Smoking Man (CSM) from FOX TV‘s cult hit, The X-Files (due to return in a mini-series next year). He is a well-respected veteran of the Canadian theatre scene. He directed A Man for All Seasons for United Players of Vancouver and he has plans for new productions. Anyone who has followed his career may recall his work with Sherlock Holmes, Stuff Happens, and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
But for those more familiar with his work in X-files, he can’t say too much about what’s to come. The cigarette smoking man is back, for a very enigmatic character, the man behind the veil of smoke is a gentle soul. His life prior to X-Files is written in the aptly named memoir, Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.
This book looks at his life from his youth to getting the role as the CSM (with some thoughts on the production) to a chapter that deals with life after the series. The book was published in 2011, and its information is still relevant today; It very nicely details how Canadian theatre evolved. Davis’ involvement is huge. He also recaps what X-Files is all about. If fans want a quick way to get up to speed before the new series, this book does the job.
“My voice appears at the end of the trailer,” said Davis, in reference to the new series. “So it’s not a secret; people know that in some way or another, my character will appear.”
But for the man who is a fixture in the Vancouver entertainment scene, he keeps busy. In November, he will be doing a reading from his seminal memoir and autograph signing at SchoolCreative – Institute of the Arts. He fondly recalls coming to this city to appear in other projects, like the upcoming TV movie Signed, Sealed and Delivered — it was filmed in this Garden City some months back. If he still visits, he hopes to have some time to take in the sights when other times have not afforded him, the chance. Who knows, maybe there will be a Cigarette Smoking Man sighting at the Empress Hotel, experiencing “their version” of Afternoon tea. These days, he’s recognized as Alec Sandler, a character from Showcase’s Continuum, a science fiction style story where terrorists come use time-travel to come back to present time to change history.
When looking back at this performer’s own past, he does not feel the need to change. He’s expressed a few regrets in his book, but for how the world of theatre has evolved out of his family’s basement, Davis said, “There was very little professional theatre at the time and my cousins were starting university — or just graduated from university —and running a summer theatre company. There were quite a few summer stock companies in Ontario at the time and they rehearsed in our basement (it wasn’t very big). They managed to block out their scenes and we had actors in and out of the house for several weeks as they prepared their season. They then moved North through the cottage country [in Ontario] to present the plays.
“I was 10 years old when they started and my brother and I used to watch them through the window. My parents always took me to the theatre even though the action was kind of more mature than you would think, it helped. When the group needed a boy in the play, and I was there, that’s what started me down the path.
“I’m not quite sure why I said yes, but I just followed my nose,” said Davis.
Proper acting lessons would follow, and his prowess helped him get work at CBC Radio drama during his high school years. There was not much choice back in the early 50’s for what boys could do for a living. One detail this performer wrote in his memoir is that he only knew of two choices for his future: to continue acting or to play professional hockey.
“When you think back on it, hockey was really different when I was young. We didn’t have organized teams, we didn’t have a little league team — a pee wee team of whatever. We all played outdoors and it was all just a big free-for-all really. We had some games, but they weren’t very well-organized. We never had a referee; that was the day few will remember. The great Max Bentley was a brilliant hockey player for Chicago [Blackhawks] and then Toronto [Maple Leafs]; that’s how he learned to play hockey. He was a kid playing on a frozen river with the big boys. When he wanted the puck, he learned to stick handle and he was sensational. I, however, did not have quite his talent,” laughed Davis.
“I did get to play one game at Maple Leaf Gardens because we formed a proper Pee Wee team for one game and that was about as far as I got on organized hockey,” said Davis.
By the time this young man was ready for university, he realized that being an actor was his plan. He took the time to talk to folks in various professions to help him make up his mind. He knew the decision had to be a practical one. The reason the University of Toronto was his post-secondary institution of choice was because of the extracurricular activity than the course work. Robert Gill was teaching there and he was the centre of the still evolving theatre world. He graduated with a major in philosophy and minor in psychology.
“We all had a broad perspective on the world which has an interesting mix of people. I sometimes worry that people go from high school right into a theatre program without too much thought — that’s a fairly narrow vision. You want to bring to your theatre world a wide perspective on life. So in a way, we were lucky,” thought Davis.
When reflecting upon his own career, Davis is now 77 and he thinks he still has not really made up his mind in what to do. He simply did what’s next by instinct. He’s made some great friends along the way and Donald Sutherland is one of them, a fine performer that he’s maintained a friendship with over the years. According to Davis, he thought Sutherland was not sure of himself in the early days, when he started to act in plays. Davis thought of him as a Bohemian — he had dyed hair and wore sandals. He lived in a pad and hung out with “strange” people. By comparison, Davis thought of himself as a simple middle-class Canadian, just learning how to get by, if not taking each day as it comes.
When thinking back to his days, just hanging out with Sutherland, he said, “We were doing a production of The Tempest and he was playing Stefano. We were sitting in the theatre during tech rehearsal, and he said to me, ‘I know I can act.’ I kind of looked at him and thought, ‘Oh we don’t know that, but it’s interesting that you know.’ But I heard later that he decided then that if he got a good review for that production he’d be an actor and if he didn’t he wouldn’t. And he did, get a good review. Then he went off to England to LAMDA [The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] which he didn’t like but I worked with him in England after he finished at LAMDA and he was very good and very disciplined — had very solid method. He knew what he was doing and he was superb to work with.”
After university, Davis spent time in England refining his craft, and he says the theatre scene was dramatically different; It was much more developed, much more serious. There was very little happening in Canada at that time (1960’s) and there was more happening overseas. “It was a very exciting time to be in England. It was a very rich time with small theatres in every town in the country [flourishing],” said Davis.
“It’s interesting because to be a successful Canadian actor at that time, you had to be able to do a pretty good English accent. If you were English that was even better; you had a better chance of getting theatre work in Canada. Now, of course, we have to be able to speak with an American accent because we’re doing all this American film and TV. So it’s changed considerably over the years.,” said Davis in his transition to including television work in his resume.
Since his return to settle back in Canada, he sees himself as now having more mileage, experience and confidence.
“It’s easier for me to just drop myself into the situation,” said Davis, in reference to his performance ability. “All those things come much more naturally to me now. The actual technique, how do I work, maybe hasn’t changed too much and certainly my sense of what good acting is has probably not changed dramatically. My ability to do it may have changed but what it is I’m trying to do probably has not changed very much.”
He started working in television when he lived in Toronto, and eventually, when he was offered a job as the director of the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School, he moved to the west coast. His love for theatre was first and foremost. He started teaching. To expand his options, he continued auditioning and subsequently appeared in shows like The Beachcombers and Sliders, to name a few. He was simply a working actor. By basically auditioning, he got the part of the CSM on X-Files. Since then, during his tenure with this Fox TV show and after, he’s appeared in genre products like Poltergeist: The Legacy, Smallville, Supernatural, The Outer Limits, and Caprica — which Davis explained is because he’s built a reputation in the field. “Vancouver’s been a kind of a central location for that work, [science fiction]” noted Davis.
Name recognition helped this performer and he still finds it remarkable in how often anyone in this field is still expected to audition even though the producers know their work. But there are times where he’s simply asked if he can appear in a certain project. In 2006, he produced a show called 49th and Main for the CBC (when they set a national contest for taking in pitches), where he played a mysterious character that he wanted to nickname “Well Dressed Gentleman.” Sadly, the network decided they could not afford this daytime series. Davis’ idea was great. “It would develop on Canadian diversity and situations. So the characters were mostly of colour,” revealed this producer.
Although the passion does not drive him to make a another television program, he is interested in being in a feature film where he plays the central character. He’s open to directing, working at an auteur level. Davis is very drawn to movies that are proper dramas. “Whether it’s Woody Allen or Mike Leigh,” said Davis, “it’s in how they work that fascinates me.”
“I know I’m identified with the science fiction world but that’s not where I’d [like to] be.
“I saw an interesting post in Facebook recently: somebody who saw the advance screening of the first episode of The New X-Files said that I was even scarier than ever. That’s pretty interesting because I don’t think of myself as scary at all. Where does this come from? I can’t really answer the question except that one of the basic lessons I learned about acting is if you do what the character does, then you’ll become the character. What kind of personal experiences would I’ve drawn on? None that I’m especially aware of except for the smoking.
“Chris said the writers really didn’t imagine that my character would become significant in the series. He was just going to be a background presence of danger [for the original series] but they hadn’t thought it through any farther and didn’t expect a lot more than that. But they saw things that were happening, the fans saw things that were happening — they got interested into what I was bringing to it. The cinematographer was bringing to the mystique in how I was lit,” said Davis.
These kind of details show how similar theatre production is with television. Bob Goodwin is a senior executive producer who imposed a visual style which helped create the mood throughout seasons one to three of X-Files. The way the cigar was misting and how Davis acted with the luminosity helped create this actor around the CSM and many people have liked. Davis rolls with the recognition.
“It’s great when that happens so there’s just a broader range of how viewers experience your work as an actor. There’s whole other side of my career just as a theatre director less well-known but seemingly very well appreciated. That’s always touching,” said Davis.