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Bruce Davison: Character Counts

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On the upcoming ABC miniseries “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital,” Bruce Davison plays Dr. Stegman, the chief neurologist of a very strange medical facility who is described in media notes as “hopelessly arrogant and mean-spirited.”
Though Mr. Davison has enjoyed a varied career, this role is a departure for him. He is better known for serious and sensitive parts on TV, such as his role of an accused murderer on “The Practice” and in TV movies such as 1999’s “A Memory in My Heart,” feature films, including “Runaway Jury” and “X-Men,” and signature roles in films such as 1990’s “Longtime Companion,” where he played a gay man caring for his lover who was dying of AIDS. The “Companion” role earned him a Golden Globe award and an Academy Award nomination.
How Mr. Davison came to get the “Kingdom” role is a story in itself, one that is instructive about what it takes to sustain a career despite the preponderance of typecasting and ageism in Hollywood.
For Mr. Davison this tale begins with a job he didn’t really like-being a voice actor for audio books. “I really hated doing them because there’s not much money in it and it’s just so killing to be in that booth and do all of that work in three or four days,” Mr. Davison recalled last week while in L.A. on a break from the “Kingdom” set in Vancouver, Canada.
Nearly three years ago Mr. Davison got a call from his longtime reps at the Gersh Agency. Stephen King was doing an audio version of his book “From a Buick 8” and wanted him in the cast. Mr. Davison had never met Mr. King but was a big fan of his work. “I couldn’t turn that down,” he recalled.
“When you are out there for all these years you don’t realize maybe somebody’s been watching from their living room,” Mr. Davison said. “So I did the King book and got a beautiful letter from him saying, `You did a great job. Anytime you want to do something, you are the man.’ So I kept the letter on my wall.”
Mr. Davison decided long ago that he wasn’t going to worry about being the star in every project. Director Robert Aldrich once advised him to be a character actor because character actors always get work.
A year after working on “Buick 8,” Mr. Davison heard about the “Kingdom Hospital” project and called his agent. “And they said, `Well, you are on the list,”’ meaning he was one of the actors under consideration.
“And I said, `The hell with that. Here’s this letter. Take this letter to the producers, to the powers that be, and tell them I am the man!”
Mr. Davison knew the odds were against him. Despite his ability to be a chameleon on-screen, he knows all about typecasting and ageism. It is particularly difficult when dealing with young casting directors who think he can do only the kinds of roles he has done in recent years.
A week later the phone rings in his L.A. home and it’s Stephen King. “He said, `I’m a real fan.’ I said, `Well, gosh … yes, I am too, sir.’ He asked me, `Why do you want to do this?’ I said, `I think the part can really work if it had a kind of vulnerability to carry off all the evil, and I can do that.’ He said, `Well, you go in and do what you can. I’ll do what I can.’ And he put his head down and he got me the part, finally, after reading and auditioning and everything else. It’s not something I’m usually cast as. [Dr. Stegman] is bombastic. He’s big and arrogant and totally self-involved. It’s a blast. I’m having the best time ever.”
Mr. Davison also said it has been one of the most difficult experiences of his career. He has spent eight months in Canada, working in a former food processing plant that has been turned into 28,000 square feet of stages and sets. “Long hours. A lot of pressure. Not enough money to make this monstrous piece, and everybody’s trying to hold it together,” he said. “And it has been raining since I got off the plane. It can get a little grim.”
And that is only the physical challenge. “I usually try to learn my lines and then forget them and fly by the seat of my pants,” Mr. Davison said. “With this character I really had to know the state of his mind, almost on a map or chart. Because we will do a scene in the morning where he is 75 percent crazy. After lunch he might only be 20 percent crazy. And at dawn I’ll be playing him as if he were normal. I don’t know where I am lots of times. This is a hard character because he is really tortured. And those tortured roles are hard to hang up when you come home at night.”
He has enjoyed playing a larger-than-life, outrageous character. “This is eat-the-grapes-off-the-wallpaper kind of stuff,” he said with a laugh. “This character is extremely self-centered. He walks around in his insanity and tells everyone, `I am the big one.”’
Whatever happens, it has been a great experience for him, if only because he has gotten to know Mr. King, who has a small role in the miniseries.
“Remember the line in `Stand By Me’ where he says, `You know, I never had a friend like when I was 12 years old’? He’s like that guy who used to be your friend. He’s like the kid you always wanted to play with.”
Mr. Davison’s blond hair is showing a touch of gray, but the blue eyes still blaze. He has had a passion for acting since he was a college kid at Penn State, not far from where he grew up in Philadelphia. Despite success on TV, in movies and on the stage, he frets between jobs that he will never act again. “I remember Henry Fonda used to say, `Yeah, there’s one good job this year and they’re going to give it to [Jimmy] Stewart,”’ Mr. Davison said. “That’s true for me as well. I never feel I’m going to work again.”
If he can’t act, Mr. Davison would like to direct again. He helmed “Off Season” for Showtime in 2001, starring Hume Cronyn and Sherilyn Fenn. It received five Emmy nominations and won two. He is slowly developing other projects.
Looking back, Mr. Davison wouldn’t trade his career for any other. And at this stage he said he really doesn’t know how to do anything else. “I’m very grateful I’ve had the longevity I’ve had,” he said. “And it’s great to have this opportunity now. I love my life.”%%