John Davidson, the dimpled, wholesome singing actor seen everywhere on television in the 1970s and ‘80s, has a wicked secret: He’s not the squeaky-clean boy next door — and never was.
“I have a national fan club,” Davidson says. “I’m amazed at how this fan club is so conservative and so Republican. I don’t think they understand who I am. But that’s just fine. That’s not important. I’m very much a progressive and have been for years. People don’t always see that right away.”
Davidson, now 73, first found success on Broadway playing Bert Lahr’s son in a 1964 musical, Foxy. Later, he starred opposite Fred MacMurray, Tommy Steele, Greer Garson and Lesley Ann Warren in The Happiest Millionaire, a 1967 musical released one year after producer Walt Disney’s death. Then came two decades of TV superstardom, regularly appearing on morning game shows, afternoon variety programs, primetime comedies and late-night talk shows.
“People found me square. I’m sure people found me too clean-cut at times,” Davidson says. “I kind of capitalized on it. I’m a con man as much as anybody else. I did a lot of Music Man playing Harold Hill and basically that’s what the Wizard [of Oz] is. He’s a con man. He’s not what he appears to be. He’s bamboozled people. I feel sometimes it’s amazing how I’ve pulled this off because I’m just me.”
Comparing his real-life persona to that of the wizard is not by chance. Davidson is in South Florida through March 29, playing Oz in the current touring production of Wicked at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami.
The son of a Baptist minister, Davidson says he felt stifled by his simple childhood in the Northeast.
“I’m not religious at all now. I’m openly secular, is what I call myself,” he says. “That’s why show business was so good for me. It opened my eyes and made me realize — all the diversity of show business has been great for me. It’s been the best thing in the world for me to be in the theater, especially coming from that background. It was a very limited, one-dimensional thing.”
Davidson’s career took off after he was discovered in the mid-’60s by television producer Bob Banner.
“Bob Banner found Carol Burnett on Broadway and developed her as a variety show host. He want to do the same thing with a guy, so he found me in Foxy, this Broadway show, and signed me to a long-term contract and started developing me as a — not a spear, but a pitchfork. He said a spear is Johnny Mathis, Celine Dion, Tony Bennett. They do one thing and they do it very well. But he said, in your case you should think of yourself as a pitchfork, with all these different prongs, to be an actor, a singer, do a sitcom.
“I did a sitcom with Sally Field (The Girl With Something Extra in 1973). If a game show comes along, sure I’ll host a game show. If a beauty pageant comes all, sure I’ll host it. Whatever. So he encouraged me to have this broad, broad career and it’s been great. He helped me to do a Las Vegas act and developed playing the role of John Davidson.”
By 1980, Davidson co-hosted the hit ABC reality series, That’s Incredible. He had also made countless appearances on The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show, where he frequently guest hosted for Johnny Carson.
“My manager at the time was Jerry Weintraub,” Davidson says. “During those years, I was on just all the time, on TV. And in the late ‘80s, he said, ‘You know, you’ve got to lay low for a while. You’ve been overexposed.’
In 1973, Davidson was truly exposed — in a move to break free of his wholesome image, he posed as a nude centerfold for Cosmopolitan magazine, his left hand strategically protecting his modesty.
After That’s Incredible, Davidson stopped doing a lot of television and eventually returned to live theater. He starred on Broadway in a 1996 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s State Fair.
“I’ve gotten back to my roots and this is really what I love the most,” he says. What I find is that if you’re over 40, and if you were to know me as a singer, over 50. What I do now in my live shows is find that senior market when I’m playing the role of John Davidson. Now that audience is in Florida, is in Phoenix and Tucson, where the demographics are older.”
This is Davidson’s second national tour of Wicked. “I’m here until June on tour. There’s every indication it will go for years and years. It’s just phenomenal.”
Davidson, who is married and tours with Rhonda, his wife of 31 years, says he most loves performing live.
“I’m an older guy now. My career is where it is,” he says. “My position in the show is as sort of a cheerleader for all these young people’s careers. The witches are 23, 25, whatever. I’m like cheering them on from the side stage. I’m usually watching the show from the side stage while I’m not onstage. And cheering them to get their careers rolling, to use Wicked as a stepping stone.”
Many of the young cast members have no idea who he is. “It is true, they will occasionally Google me, the kids in the show, they will Google ‘John Davidson’ and they’ll come back and say, ‘I didn’t know you were a hockey player.’ There is a Canadian hockey player named John Davidson. They see me on YouTube and say, ‘Wow, really, you did that?’”
If you go
‘Wicked’ runs through March 29 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami. Tickets start at $49. Click here to purchase or call the box office at 305-949-6722