Interview: John Davidson on Life, Show Biz, and His Role in 'Wicked'

John Davidson as The Wizard in Wicked
John Davidson as The Wizard in Wicked

Before John Davidson settled into his most recent role as The Wizard in Wicked (at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music through August 4), he was an icon of variety entertainment, a role he’s held since making his debut on Broadway with Foxy in 1964. Since then, he’s been everything from a touring musical actor (name a show, he’s been in it), a consummate host (his own talk shows and guest host gigs for Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas), a nightclub entertainer, a Disney film star (The Happiest Millionaire; The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band) and a harbinger of reality television (That’s Incredible!). Mostly, he’s been John Davidson, the consummate, chiseled All-American Boy, who just happened to turn 71.

A.D. Amorosi and John Davidson
When we met at the Marathon Grill on Sansom Street in Philadelphia the day before the July 4th holiday, the thing I found most engaging about John Davidson was his self-deprecation. In the face of all of his accomplishments, he kept knocking his status within the industry as well as his age.

A.D.: Getting out of Pittsburgh, PA, getting out from under a Baptist family hand so to speak, what was it like trying to become an actor with that upbringing?
J.D.: My parents were both ordained ministers. They were Northern Baptists – American Baptists was the term – rather than Southern Baptists. So it wasn’t really a strict upbringing. They were quite liberal in fact. I went out to Denison University and got a BA in theater, but I went into theater because I was a Pre-Theology.

A.D.: You felt as if you had a calling for the ministry.
J.D.: Yes, and if I wanted to be a better minister, taking theater would be a good thing. See, I wanted to be closer to my dad and so I was going to go to a seminary. That then is what brought me to the theater in the first place. I took courses in comparative religions and my religion fell apart. I came to the conclusion that all religions are man-made.

A.D.: Were your folks OK with that?
J.D.: They were liberal. My father was almost Unitarian in his beliefs. Jesus was a great man who did a lot of great things for the world in his mind. My father’s thing was to get as much education as one could, to make the world a better place. Entertainment – theater - makes the world a better place.

A.D.: I know that you’ve done comedy and drama, but obviously you made your mark through musical theater. Did you know when you were studying that you had that talent beyond and above anything else?
J.D.: When I got that BA, I thought of theater as a trade, something I could do. Other kids were psych majors and philosophy majors. That seemed too wish-washy, too liberal an education. I wanted to learn to do something specific. I thought of it as a craft. I forgot that about 90 percent of all people who do this craft are out of work. Still I thought of it as a trade I could do – even if I wasn’t famous. I was passionate about the art of storytelling. Whatever it was, I wanted to do it well, even if happened to be doing community theater for the rest of my life. I didn’t plan on being famous. Producers saw me, and thought I‘d be perfect for Broadway, television, film and nightclubs. All of it was storytelling.

A.D.: Do you feel that the younger actors that you are with as part of Wicked have the same passion you spoke of, the same drive, for acting and not just fame?
J.D.: Oh yes. I mean, there are kids that want Justin Bieber’s fame, but the dedicated theater people – the Broadway kids - love the craft of it. I don’t think they think of things in terms of stardom. I think they’d like to be really good at what they do. That’s the Broadway discipline. Maybe in the pop world, the fame factor is stronger, but then again there is so much talent out there. I’ll say this, Justin Bieber sings very well. His material doesn’t appeal to me, but his voice is very good, very disciplined. That’s indicative of the talent that’s out there now. In Wicked, we have singers who can do things that I could never do when I got into the business.

A.D.: Hey, I saw you twice at the Valley Forge Music Fair, once in Carousel and once with your live act. Your voice was pretty strong.
J.D.: Thank you. But take that show, that’s Rogers and Hammerstein. Now, I love their work, but it is not as demanding as the Wicked score is. What they’re asking the characters to do, especially the witches, is extreme. I don’t know many shows that ask so much range and strength of its singers. Maybe Evita. Rogers and Hammerstein is soothing to your voice. Other musicals in the last 40 years came along to change the musical landscape, of which Wicked is the latest change. It’s just more demanding.

A.D.: Let me connect Wicked with your first Broadway show, Foxy with Bert Lahr, who was famous as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. You also did The Fantasticks for television with him. What kind of a man was he?
J.D.: Bert Lahr was an interesting study. I never worked with a guy who was so intense, so worried, so self-critical and so unhappy. He was always frustrated that he wasn’t getting the laughs he should be. He was a great lesson in focus and dedication and stage craft.

(Davidson’s mushroom tomato omelet with egg whites arrives)

A.D. I feel bad I’m doing this while you’re eating.
J.D.: Don’t. I’m happy to do this. I‘m happy you’re doing this. I’m happy to be alive. I’m 71. These are borrowed years, you know. A lot of people are retired at this point. I will never retire. I hope to do this forever. I’m so thankful that I can do this and that people appreciate me. Oh my God, it is such a thrill. That’s the truth.

A.D.: You did The Fantasticks as a young man and played the boy, and you were Off-Broadway not so long ago, as the old man. How did it feel returning to that show in a considerably different role?
J.D.: Totally bizarre in every way. I can’t believe I did “the boy” for the Hallmark Hall of Fame when I did. The show is a classic and was a big step toward a different American theater, back then. It’s funny to think that I just came from the intimacy of Off-Broadway – a 160 seat theater that may have on occasion had 40 people in the audience. Backstage we’d say “How are they”? It mattered what the audience was like because they were two feet away from us. In Wicked at the Academy of Music, you have to keep your chin up because some of the audience is way up there. Here, no one asks “how are they?” because you are playing to all THAT. With The Fantasticks you had an almost one-on-one relationship with the audience members. It made you realize when you were being phony. Of course, “the Wizard” is a phony, so there is that.

A.D.: From the audience wearing green to the number of times that some of them have seen this, did you know about the cult of Wicked before going in to all this?
J.D.: I have now met people who have seen it thirty times and will compare me to other Wizards. I do the role a little differently, but I guess I hold my own. I do get comments at the stage door at the end of each show. I guess that I didn’t know about the cult going into it. Then again, I’m just a spoke in a wheel. The entire Wicked organization is so powerful. We had the crew in from New York City – including director Joe Mantello and composer Stephen Schwartz – in to see us recently while we were in New Orleans and they whipped us into shape.

A.D.: So do you feel in control with such a huge production?
J.D.: Yes, but he’s a small part of all this. The Wizard has to fit into this niche. There’s a lot of talk about me throughout the show, but I have very little stage time. It’s Galinda's and Elphaba's story, the witches' show.

A.D.: Yes, but you’re the character around which the story revolves.
J.D.: I’m only onstage about 18 minutes. I know because I’ve timed it. I’m the highest paid actor on stage per minute than anyone I know.

A.D.: You’re the Marlon Brando of touring theater companies.
J.D.: Clifton Davis and I have timed each other. Assuming that we’re paid the same amount of money, we’re in competition for my record. It’s interesting having a cameo role, I mean, I’ve been Harold Hill in The Music Man. I’ve been Curly in Oklahoma. I’ve been the lead throughout most of my career and now – well, I have a friend in New York City, John Cullum. John also does these roles where he is backstage a lot. He’s a huge veteran stage actor, yet here we are, talking about how with so little time on stage, that it is actually harder to get ready – because you have to hit the stage and be ON while other actors have been out there a while warming up. That’s a challenge but that’s what an older actor does. I love having stepped into the role of The Wizard and I love being on tour. It’s more fun than you can know.

A.D.: This will make sense when I segue into something you did in Philadelphia a while ago, but you, along with Joan Rivers were the rotating special guest hosts for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Now, there’s a lot going on around that show. Carson’s life and times are being celebrated. There’s the discussion of The Tonight Show’s new host and the change in its dynamic. That was a heady moment in time and you held a very rare position.
J.D.: When you were guest hosting for Johnny Carson you were always reminded that you were guest hosting for Johnny Carson, that it was not your place, that it was his place. His name was on the pencils, his name was on the coffee cup. You’re in Carson’s seat temporarily. I felt grateful to be there. I did some good interviews. I did some bad interviews. The press said that I was an option to take over for Carson, as was Joan Rivers and Jay Leno. I was never really an option. I was a singer who did this trick. I was just an interesting idea. The best time that I ever had behind a desk was when I was in Philadelphia. You know, I think of this as Mike Douglas’ town.

A.D.: That was my next topic, the Philadelphia years.
J.D.: When I took over for Mike Douglas in 1980 and 1981, it was because Westinghouse came to me and said,”would you like to replace Mike Douglas?” It was between Dick Clark and me and I got the job. Mike Douglas was furious at me, really pissed. But his producer chose me. So for two years I had this day time show with authors, politicians, big movie stars and television personalities. I took a course in speed reading so that I could read four books a week, to be ready for all the interviews. There were more topics coming across my face than was imaginable, all so fascinating and such a variety of people. It makes your life very full. I love those years. I was also hosting That’s Incredible! at the same time, and that was an interesting show because you had fakers, honest people who could do truly amazing things and so many scientific discoveries. Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby were real friends. Fran and I were particularly close because we were both preachers’ kids, so we battled to see who could be more foul mouthed with the other. That was my most fun time.

A.D.: Do you feel that between That’s Incredible! and Real People, which was out around the same time, that you are to credit or to blame for reality television?
J.D.: Well, it’s entertainment, another form of storytelling, really. I do feel good that we were part of launching the genre. I mean it’s pure entertainment. That’s Incredible! was at its weakest when it did ghost stories and UFO stories. Instead of saying “this is malarkey or questioning things ourselves, we left it up to the audience and asked them “Do you think this house is haunted?” I don’t happen to believe in ghosts. It’s just human imagination. We should have said that. We should have called these guys on the carpet. We had people on who claimed to have ESP. I think now that they were conning people. I wish that we would have shown them up for what they were – phonies, but we didn’t. Yet, when That’s Incredible! celebrated human triumph over mental and physical obstacles, it was at its best.

A.D.: We mentioned all these Broadway and Off-Broadway and touring theater shows that you’ve done. What do you look for? Do some approach you with you approaching others?
J.D.: Not many shows approach me anymore (laughs). I am at a point in my career where if I want something I have to go after it. I have to get in there and tell them that I can do this and prove it. The name “John Davidson” is not on the tip of anybody’s tongue, unless you’re 95 and drooling. But look, I have had a great career and now, I’m making sure I maintain that. Make no mistake, I wanted to be the Wizard and I went after Wicked. I asked my agent to call them and tell them that I wanted to be part of this phenomenon. I feel so lucky to have gotten the gig, That said, I have just commissioned a script about Ted Kennedy, a one –man show on him. He died at 77. I still have six years to pull that off (laughs). We just have to get this script finished and produced. I had to go after that too. With television work, that is a young medium. I mean, look, there is usually only one grandpa per show. Everyone else is 12.

A.D.: That’s why so much of the medium is hard to watch. It’s like Romper Room.
J.D.: No matter what the great older parts are, I’d have to do what Sally Field did to play Mrs. Lincoln. She went to Spielberg and made him realize that she could do that. Like her, I’ve got to make the calls. Sometimes they take them, sometimes, not. But l’ll never retire. I tried it once. We bought a house in Florida three years ago. It didn’t work. It’s just not exciting enough, I want to be excited and live in a New York City, Philadelphia or Boston, a city where theater thrives and creative people dwell. I’ve been living in New York City for the last year and every day I meet people working on scripts, showcases, and readings. That’s where I want to be in my life – close to the action. I have to convince a producer that I can do Ted Kennedy amongst other roles. I have to make my own showcases.

A.D.: The hair looks very convincing for Ted Kennedy.
J.D.: Right, I’ve got that. I have to do the prosthetics for the pointy Irish nose and the jowls. Plus, I have to get a fat suit. This piece is a nightmare, as he is dying of brain cancer and facing God. He was a very religious man who felt as if God was real and that he could talk to God and that God would talk to him. He lived that way all his life and this story is about him getting ready to meet his maker.

A.D.: Before I let you go, what is your favorite moment in Wicked?
J.D.: There is a song in the second act, “Wonderful”, where the Wizard says “they call me wonderful, so I am wonderful,” when he knows he is not, wonderful that is. That’s the bluff that every actor, maybe even every person, goes through. Everyone questions that they are not good enough to be here. You know you could be a better actor or columnist. Yet, you have to act as if you are as good as you think you are. The Wizard faces that always. He has no special powers at all. He’s faking it. That’s just like life …faking it. But you have to do that, it stretches you. I think that song says an awful about human nature, just like the whole of Wicked does.


For info about Wicked in Philadelphia:
Academy of Music
240 S. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA. 19102

John Davidson in Wicked photo ©Joan Marcus
John Davidson and A.D. Amorosi photo: Carole J. Morganti ©Glamorosi