Read Where There's Smoke...: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, a Memoir Online
Authors: William B. Davis
A Memoir by
WILLIAM B. DAVIS
Copyright © William B. Davis, 2011
Published by ECW Press
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Davis, William B., 1938–
Where there’s smoke : musings of a cigarette smoking man : a
memoir / William B. Davis.
Also issued as: 978-1-77090-047-9 (pdf); 978-1-77090-046-2 (epub)
1. Davis, William B., 1938-. 2. Actors—United States—Biography.
3. Actors—Canada—Biography. i. Title.
PN2287.D323A3 2011 791.4302’8092 C2011-902825-5
Editor: Jennifer Hale
Cover, text design, and photo section: Tania Craan
Cover photo: © Fox Broadcasting/Photofest
Photo insert: page 6: photo by Kevin Clark; page 7 (bottom): © Fox Broadcasting/Photofest; page 8: © Fox Broadcasting (Photographer: Carin Baer)/Photofest. All other images courtesy William B. Davis
Production and typesetting: Troy Cunningham
The publication of
Where There’s Smoke
has been generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada, and by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities, and the contribution of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit. The marketing of this book was made possible with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation.
I’m standing beside a filing cabinet. To my right is the actor Charles Cioffi, and to his right is Ken Camroux, the actor playing the Senior FBI Agent, the part I read for and didn’t get. I got this weird part with no lines. All I do is smoke. On the other side of the desk is a young unknown actress with red hair. We are doing a low budget pilot for an obscure science fiction show about alien abduction, if you can believe it. Well, a gig is a gig. I’m getting paid. Scale, I think.
I’m feeling pretty dumb, just standing there like a statue listening to the red-haired actress talk about someone called “Spooky Mulder.” I look at the cabinet beside me, the top just below my shoulder. I think, ‘If this were really me, would I stand here as if I were part of the scenery?’ which of course I was. ‘What’s to lose,’ I think. So I stretch my elbow across the top of the cabinet, cross my feet, and watch the action from this new position, a praying mantis with a cigarette. An icon was born. You can buy the trading card if you want.
At that moment my career went up in smoke. Well, perhaps it had been smouldering for some time. Once a boy wonder, I had failed in my major ambition. I was not the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival at the age of twenty-nine, unlike my idol, Peter Hall, who headed the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK at that age. Still, always torn between directing and teaching, I was getting along, making a good living, until that fateful day when everything changed.
At the time, of course, I had no idea anything had changed. I had played a non-speaking role in a pilot for a television show whose chances of being picked up were about as good as the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series. It would be another year or two before the show and then this character became household names. At age fifty-three, I would become a full-time actor, a star even, dealing with fan mail to this day.
One of my pet peeves are workshops conducted by successful people in the film business. Do what I did and you too can be a success. What did I do to become a successful actor and minor celebrity? I auditioned for a small role, didn’t get it, and got an even smaller one with no lines. If you do that, you too can become a television star. Life is random. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson became stars by chance. That is not to say they weren’t and aren’t worthy. They are talented actors and I wish them the best. But there are hundreds of other talented actors who were not so lucky. I’m waiting for the workshop where a lottery winner tells her story and inspires us to follow in her footsteps. It’s all a question of where and when you buy the ticket, the 7-Eleven on Main Street on the second Monday of the month.
It may be that life is really a series of random events. But being biologically human, I am going to make a story out of them. The story will be a lie, of course. But then so are the best stories. Richard III was actually a good king and Macbeth ruled for years. I don’t promise a story of Shakespearean scope, but hopefully it will be entertaining and occasionally enlightening.
I may even open a window into my soul — well, not my soul actually, I don’t have one of those, but I will let you inside, as far as I dare.
Should the story be lineal? Should I start at the beginning and finally arrive at now? I am a product of the print generation and for us, according to Marshall McLuhan, lineality is natural. But many readers will be younger and will have grown up in the electronic age. When did you last see a movie where the story started at the beginning? In fact, when did you last see a movie where you could follow the story? Well, perhaps that’s another issue. Suspense in a movie used to be about how the movie was going to end. Now it seems to be about how the story is going to come together. I could weave a tapestry of events and you could be on the edge of your proverbial seat wondering how it will all come together. And then, the joke would be on you. It doesn’t come together.
It may feel like one life, but is it really? They say that every seven years each cell in our body has changed. Am I the same person that I was seven years ago, or in my case, seventy years ago? Bill Davis has had many lives, many loves. These stories may weave together into a coherent whole or they may not. There will be stories of life in wartime Ontario, of early Canadian theatre and radio, of university life in the late fifties, of Britain and British theatre in the sixties, of the National Theatre School of Canada and Festival Lennoxville, and finally,
. But is Bill Davis an actor, a teacher, a director, a skier, a water skier, a lover? Wasn’t he once a birdwatcher and a bridge player? Who is he, really? It’s all very well for Polonius to say, “To thine own self be true,” but who the hell is thine own self?
I will leave it to you to decide about meaning; all I can tell you for certain is that it’s been quite a ride and it’s not done yet.
I questioned whether to include a chapter in this memoir on ‘my early life.’ My younger years seem to have had little bearing on my future career and, after all, everything in my childhood seems to me so normal that I wondered why those years would interest anyone else. But then everyone’s childhood seems normal to the adult of that child.
How things were when we are growing up is how they ought to be, now and forever. Southern Ontario in the forties is how life should be. It is an anomaly that the Muskoka Lakes are now full of boats. What’s right is that there should be no more than five boats go by in a whole day, pleasure boats all being up on blocks as a result of rationing. Or that dogs should run loose in the neighbourhood. That milk and bread were delivered by horse. That horse manure on Eglinton Avenue was normal. That movies in the brand new Nortown Theatre with pushback seats cost fourteen cents. That we listened to plays on the radio. That most middle-class families had household help. That there was no television, and certainly no computers, cell phones, internet, terrorists, security. The big ski area in Ontario, now called Blue Mountain, then called Jozo’s, boasted nine rope tows. And the giant ski area in Quebec, Mont Tremblant, had two chairlifts, one of which was broken. The speed limit was forty-two miles per hour and everyone had ration books. And kids walked to school. By themselves.
Two important events happened in 1938. My parents built their own cottage on Lake Muskoka north of Toronto. Or instructed a contractor to build it. And I was born. They did that themselves. Fortunately, by the time I came along they had abandoned their fascination with ancient family names. Two and a half years older than I, my older brother was saddled to his perpetual discomfort with the name of Ashe, short for Asahel. Imagine explaining that everywhere you go. I was named William, but known as Bill, for which I have been forever grateful. Two other brothers followed, Rolph in 1942 and Tim in 1944. Rolph was named for a surname in my mother’s family, but Tim was named for an imaginary character in a game that Ashe and I invented and played for years called the Timothy Game.
Perhaps Ashe and I insisted on naming Tim because we were so dismayed by Rolph’s name. In 1942, ages four and seven, we were playing outside, waiting impatiently for my father to return from the hospital with news of our new sibling. In those days, one didn’t know the gender in advance. When my father arrived we were delighted to learn we had a new brother, but shocked to learn that he was to be named Rolph. Rolph?! Ashe said he should be named Parrot. I insisted on Miss Harris. Why shouldn’t he be named for my kindergarten teacher? Needless to say my parents didn’t budge and he is still called Rolph.
My mother, Carroll Davis, named after another surname, was, I imagine, with her jet black hair, freckles, and crinkly smile, a strikingly attractive woman in her day. How would I know? She was my mother. From a family of two doctors, her mother being one of the first female medical students in Toronto, my mother had an honours degree in Philosophy and an MA in Psychology from the University of Toronto. Her specialty was child psychology. She was a devotee of William Blatz, the renowned child psychologist. There is speculation that she was more than a devotee, but I am getting ahead of myself.
My father, Bruce, was the only child of the eldest of the Davis clan of Newmarket, Ontario. His family had made a considerable fortune in the leather tanning business, a business that none of the children, my father or his cousins, who included Murray and Donald Davis who would found the Crest Theatre in Toronto, were allowed to enter. Why? No explanation has been given. Were there too many of them? Did they know that leather tanning had seen its best days? In retrospect it is hard to imagine the actors Murray and Donald Davis as managers of a tannery, but the twelve-year-old Donald was quite upset when he heard the news. “This is a great shock to me, Murray,” my mother quoted him as saying. The family sold the tannery in 1952 and, as far as I know, it never made another dime. Whether my father was glad to be out of it or not I never knew. His real passion was history, a passion he passed on to my brother Ashe. Our house was full of books of history and politics and on Christmas morning my father could end up with twelve large volumes piled in front of him.
Surprising as it may seem, to my father’s family history was not considered a suitable profession. So when my father wanted to marry a middle-class woman from a family of doctors, permission would only be given if he chose a different profession. Or at least so the family story goes. In any event he married my mother and became a lawyer. Neither decision worked out well.
Years later my mother would wonder how a marriage that had been so good for the first ten years could have gone so bad. But yes, during World War II, while the world was going to hell in a handbasket, Bruce and Carroll Davis and their growing family were doing just fine. We spent our summers at the new cottage in Muskoka on a lake that was serenely quiet, all the powerboats being up on blocks for the ‘duration.’ Bruce, who in time became very overweight like all the elder Davises, was fit and trim and a rising officer in the Canadian Army and, fortunately, a year too old to be sent overseas.
Our winter home was in Toronto. At least now it is in Toronto. At the time it was Forest Hill Village, an adjacent but politically distinct community then thought to be a suburb of Toronto, where my father was reeve. When we visited my grandparents, on my mother’s side in Richmond Hill or Newmarket on my father’s side, we would travel through the country to reach these towns north of Toronto, towns which are now bedroom communities for the city. Our house on Old Forest Hill Road was, in fact, almost at the edge of the city. The vacant lots across from us gradually filled up after the war, but for many years they provided excellent playgrounds. The house itself was a handsome affair with a spacious backyard. One day before going off to school the yard was invaded by strange men. When we returned there was a jungle gym, a sandbox, a swing set, and a playhouse with a slide. Was this before or after we had destroyed all my mother’s attempts to grow flowers in the backyard? I don’t remember. But what was my mother thinking trying to grow flowers in the outfield of a baseball diamond?
If we weren’t destroying the flowerbeds outside, we were playing war games inside. Like all boys at the time we had a collection of toy soldiers. But best of all were bombing raids. Ashe and I shared a double bunk in the large bedroom over the garage. We would build cities with playing cards and then bomb them from the upper bunk. Of course it never occurred to us that we were emulating the slaughter of innocent human beings. We were well indoctrinated. Germans and Japs weren’t real people and Asians in particular didn’t place as high a value on human life as we did. My mother told me that. But I never took to some of the things my friends did, like putting firecrackers in the mouths of frogs and lighting them. Now that was cruel. My mother told me that as well.
School. At age two and a half I started at the Institute of Child Study, a nursery school founded in 1925 by noted psychologist William Blatz and where my mother worked from time to time. The school eventually added a number of primary grades, and years later my mother would be the principal. Everything about this renovated house on St. George Street seemed normal at the time, but when I went back years later I was surprised to find the doorknobs were at my knees. It was a place for children. Part of a longitudinal research study, we were known as Blatz Babies and did surveys and tests for many years afterwards. My mother wrote a book called
Room to Grow
, endeavouring to distill some of the results. As far as I can recall the central theme of Blatz’s work — and my mother’s — involved finding the right balance between discipline and freedom in child rearing. Ironically if one were to place my mother’s personal application of the technique on a graph there would be a steady reduction in the degree of structure imposed on her four children, Ashe’s world being the most structured while Tim’s, the youngest, was pretty much free-form. Did it make a difference to how we each developed? Cognitive scientists still debate the subject.
At any rate I must have done quite well in nursery school, as I was moved up to kindergarten at Windy Ridge, also a Blatz institution, when I was four, and from there into Grade 1 at West Prep in Forest Hill when I was just five. I’ve always bragged about how I skipped a year of nursery school. And I guess I was pretty good in Grade 1 because at Christmas I was moved into Grade 2. I still remember the day we were handed the Dick and Jane readers of which there were three levels and were told to have a look at the pictures. We were going to learn to read. Heck, I knew all three books by heart. Ashe had taught me to read long before.
When I became a long, lanky teenager it was hard to believe that I had once boasted that I was the fattest boy in kindergarten. With a round face and blond curls I must have been pretty cute. But soon I started to grow, and grow, and grow, until by fifteen I was well over six feet tall. Perhaps that should have helped ameliorate my discomfort at being two years younger than other boys in school. But in sports at least, my age handicap was exacerbated by being almost unable to control these long legs that had suddenly appeared, like a colt trying to stand for the first time. But somewhere in my teenage years I made an amazing discovery: with boards on my feet, on snow or water, my body somehow worked. I was coordinated, even athletic. Skiing became a lifelong passion, even when it conflicted with career or marriage.
Childhood academic success comes with another price. When you are in Grade 10, how do you avoid the shower room after sports? When you have no pubic hair and everyone else in class does? Or how do you explain that you don’t shave yet? You are just a kid in a class of young men. Well, they don’t skip students anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing.
But I sometimes had trouble with bullies. As I have said, we would walk to school by ourselves. There were two possible routes to West Prep from our house, the north way along Ridge Hill Drive or the south way, along Whitmore Avenue. Before long Steve Borns and his friends on Ridge Hill terrified me so much I had to go the south way. But George Sterling was always a danger that way so finally I ended up going a much longer way around, along Wembley Road, occasionally protected by two girls (one of whom eventually married Ray Stancer who appears later in this story). But the worst day of all was one Saturday morning when Ashe and I were going along Whitmore to the local library as we often did on Saturday morning. Not only was George Sterling hanging out with a friend on the street that day, but they had
. I mean, Jesus Christ, guns! And they started waving them at us. We tried to hurry by without looking too frightened. But then they started shooting! We ran for all we were worth and didn’t stop until we were sitting exhausted in the library.
It was 1946. We had never heard of cap guns.
Summers in Muskoka were free of such terrors. The Davis family had been cottaging since the early 1900s on Lake Muskoka at St. Elmo, a peninsula jutting out into the lake near the mouth of the Muskoka River. Family and servants in tow, they used to travel to Gravenhurst by train, take a steamer to an anchor spot near the cottage, and then travel by small craft to the cottage itself. Before long, they built a steamer dock on the point so that the steamer could actually land, which it did on a regular basis, bringing mail and supplies. My great grandfather’s cottage was built at the head of the point near the dock. In the twenties, three other Davis cottages were built, one by my grandfather, one by a great aunt, and another by Murray and Donald’s father (Uncle E.J.). And finally, my parents built their cottage around the corner of the point from the other Davis houses, my mother stubbornly insisting that there had to be a road to her cottage.
Ashe and I were inseparable in the early years. Our structured day in Muskoka would begin by tiptoeing from our bedroom at the end of the cottage to the outside door near our sleeping parents’ bedroom, walking along the outside path to the kitchen door and into the kitchen where the housekeeper, Bea, would give us breakfast. We might stop to water a tree on the way. After breakfast we headed to our rock houses to play. Our rock houses were stretches of bare granite beside the lane that led to the cottage. Mine was a sloping two level affair while Ashe’s, separated from mine by twenty yards of fairly open bush, was flatter and quite broad. As I write this both are overgrown and barely visible, but in the forties they provided inspiration for a range of imaginative games, the most successful being the Timothy Game. In this game I played John, a grown-up boy of sixteen who was in the Mounties, while Ashe played the quintuplets, all five of them. They were much younger than John, but Timothy was the lead quintuplet and quite smart. Jonathan was number five and quite stupid. To this day I can’t take anyone seriously with the name of Jonathan; I keep hearing Ashe’s rendition of a mentally challenged boy with a lisp. We created and acted out endless stories built around these central characters. Soon it would be time to return to the cottage for lunch, summoned often by a large cowbell. Mother would join us for lunch, my father also if he were not in the city or away in the army. After lunch it was time for our Rest. We weren’t required to sleep, but we were expected to lie down in our bedroom and be quiet for an hour or so. I still don’t know if the reason for this had to do with our upbringing or with giving my parents an uninterrupted hour in bed, it still being the “ten good years.” But once we got through that we were rewarded by the best part of the day. Time to go to the Beach. The lake front for our cottage was rocky and not very suitable for small children, but Uncleej (E.J. Davis Jr.) had a small sandy beach by his boathouse and we would head over there most afternoons, a ten minute walk through the woods or a short ride by boat. We swam and played water and sand games until it was time to return home for drinks — ginger ale for us — before dinner. I don’t remember what we did in the evening, possibly because we were sent off to bed so early there wasn’t much of an evening. I do remember that Ashe, being older, got to stay up and listen to
on the radio, the story of a Lancaster bomber. It wasn’t until I was an adult I realized the title was
L for Lanky