Carolina Conversations with Actor and Singer John Davidson


by Thad Mumau



John Davidson, hugely popular for decades as a star of stage, screen and television, appears in the Judson Theatre Company production of “On Golden Pond” later this month.

Davidson, 74, will portray Norman Thayer in Ernest Thompson’s story of an aging couple returning to their summer home on Golden Pond. Their daughter and fiance leave his teenage son behind while they go to Europe. The play, which is touching and funny, is about generations of a family learning to communicate and care.

Davidson takes the stage in “On Golden Pond” Thursday, March 24, through Sunday, March 27, at Owens Auditorium at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst.

Davidson debuted on Broadway in 1964 and in movies in 1967. He is well known for his lengthy and convincing bluffs on the TV quiz show Hollywood Squares. Over theyears, he was frequently seen on TV, in sitcoms, game shows and variety shows. He was a guest host 87 times for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” A singer as well as an actor, Davidson has recorded 13 albums.

ONC: Your looks, smile and personality have always given you kind of a golden boy image. Have you enjoyed that?
JD: I think we all have to to deal with how people receive and perceive us. I have found, I guess, that a smile works well with the traffic cop, with adults, employers and the girl you want to get to know. A person who sulks, or is morose or exudes negativity, constantly, is not someone I would want to be with. I do think it matters to me whether people like me. That may not matter to everybody. But I think it does to most performers. We need people to like us. I tend to reach out perhaps more than even other performers, I guess. I like being open and positive.

Do you think those above characteristics have slighted you in terms of being recognized for your talent?
No. I feel whatever talents I have, have been appreciated. It’s been a wonderful 50-year ride for me in practically all parts of this crazy business. I’m not even sure I know what talent really is. Is it a trick or trade you learn to do well? Is it an ability at something that wows? Is it admirable or just what comes out when someone does what they truly love? I find that when I am giving my all to a role or show, and I’m really into it, I am recognized a lot and have enjoyed the attention I have gotten from people who matter to me.

Do you enjoy singing or acting more?
Not sure. I like acting out a song. Singing without acting is pretty flat. Who cares? But there is something about singing that really feels good in my chest, my face, my mouth, my lungs. The total coordination of singing really feels great for me. Physically. I have spent years studying vocal technique so that now it is free enough to allow me to act. Acting feels great when it is really free, when you really know the lines, when it really plays without any self consciousness.
What are your favorite accomplishments?
My three children. My marriage of 32 years. My Spanish. Songs I have written. My one-man performance as Teddy Roosevelt in “Bully.” Navigating my own boat on a nine-month cruise from L.A. to Miami through the Panama Canal. My wife and I created an educational geography card game called Borderline USA.

You seem to have numerous interests. Tell a little about non-career things you most enjoy.
Aside from the above list, I have to say that my obsession is singing folk songs with my guitars. I have a Taylor six-string and a Takamine 12-string. I have sung with symphonies and Las Vegas 20-piece orchestras, but I really love performing and practicing with just my guitar.
Has being so well recognized for so many years affected your relationship with your children—positively or negatively?
I guess you would have to ask my children. My family life is very important to me, and I think they have enjoyed whatever perks my career has brought.

How early in life did you decide to be an entertainer, and why did you want to do that?
I went to college (Denison University) just to get a liberal arts BA. I started as a philosophy major. I got into theater because I liked theater people and I enjoyed plays about philosophy of life and human conflict. But I was very shy as a kid and I guess once I got myself up on stage, I liked the fact that people listened to me. No fight for attention.

Can you share a few singers and actors you most admire and why?
Al Jolson for his voice and showmanship. Jack Nicolson and Meryl Streep for their freedom, candid performances and total immersion in roles. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mandy Patinkin for their voices. John Denver for his voice and song writing.Johnny Mathis for his pure vocal tone. Sammy Davis, Jr. as a performer. And Harry Belafonte as a concert performer.

On Golden Pond was a classic movie as much for its cast as its plot. How much of Henry Fonda will you inject into Norman Thayer?
I loved the movie, but I have no desire to play Henry Fonda. I guess I see Norman Thayer Jr. as me. I am so much like him it is embarrassing. I don’t intend to act in this play. I hope to be free enough to just be. What a role. What a play. What dialogue. I can’t wait.

Does playing a role previously portrayed by such a respected actor take on special significance for you?
When I played Harold Hill, I didn’t play Robert Preston. When I played Curly in “Oklahoma” on Broadway, I didn’t play Alfred Drake. When I did “Man of La Mancha,” I didn’t play Richard Kiley. Thankfully, I have enough ego to consider the role is mine.

How active are you professionally these days?
I just finished three contracts over the last two years as the Wizard in the national tour of the Broadway hit musical, “Wicked.” It was really fun. I also do a lot of concert dates.

Aging is not always well received. How would you say you have handled getting older?
I do a very funny segment on aging in my concerts. It ends with my song, “Seventy Sucks.” But that is just for laughs. I’m glad to be alive.

What are things you would like to do that you haven’t yet?
Norman Thayer Jr. is a biggie for me. I hope to do many more productions of this wonderful play. I am in the middle of rehearsal now and can’t tell you how much I love this role. I have five more years until I hit his age, 79!

How would you sum up your life and the person you are?
Life is about change and growing and discovery. I always want to know more.