Bruce Davison Interview: "X-Men" Star Shares Tales of Hollywood Icons
Image attributed to Bruce Davison
Bruce Davison is an actor, a director of television, film and theater and is known for his starring role in the cult horror film Willard (1971) and his Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance in Longtime Companion (1989). He portrayed Thomas Semmes in the HBO original movie Vendetta (1999) and played Senator Robert Kelly in X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003).
Davison made his film debut in the 1969 coming-of-age film Last Summer that also starred Richard Thomas (The Waltons), Barbara Hershey and Catherine Burns. Other film appearances include The Strawberry Statement, Mame, The Gathering, The Cure, Runaway Jury, Insidious: The Last Key, We Still Say Grace, The Manor and Mother, Jugs & Speed, just to name a few. His “too numerous to mention” television credits span five decades, and he made his Broadway debut in Tiger at the Gates in 1968.
"Those words have haunted me, and I’ve kicked off again. Now I’m just enjoying myself."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Bruce, how have you been coping with the pandemic?
Bruce Davison: Pretty good. My wife keeps me locked up and lets me out to eat. But I’ve been painting, which has really been great because I started as an Art major in college, and then I gave it up. Since the Covid, I’ve been really doing that, so that’s been getting some creative things going for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have art showings?
Bruce Davison: Not really showing it, just doing it for myself. It’s very funny. When I was younger, I guess it was the 70s, Henry Fonda was directing The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. I was in the play. Henry was a terrific artist. He’d done a lot of interesting, very detailed work, and he told me, “Bring in some of your stuff.” So I brought in some of my stuff from college, and Henry said, “This is good. Why did you quit?” I said, “I quit because I knew I could never achieve the results that I desired to really be great at it.” He said, “That’s what’s wrong with your acting. You’re all concerned about the results, and you don’t enjoy the journey. The important thing is that you never know what your results are going to be. It’s always best to just enjoy the journey and enjoy the doing of it.”
So that’s stuck with me all these years, and that’s kind of what I’m doing now. Those words have haunted me, and I’ve kicked off again. Now I’m just enjoying myself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you plan on becoming an actor, Bruce?
Bruce Davison: No. Well, I didn’t know that you could actually do it for a living. When I was in high school, my biggest dream was being a marine biologist. I wanted to work in the sea. Then as I got to college, I wanted to be an art major, as I said. So I started as an art major at Penn State, and while I was there, I took an opportunity to take a theater appreciation course, tried out for a play and got really hooked into the theater. I said, “These are my people.” (laughs)
From there, I ended up at NYU at what became the School of the Arts. It became the Tisch School eventually. But we were in the first class there in the mid-60s with Barry Bostwick, Jean Berlin, Bud Cort, Larry Pine, David Lander and Michael McKean.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you receive advice early in your career from other actors?
Bruce Davison: Oh, I’ve had some great advice from great mentors over the years. I carried the advice from Henry Fonda with me all the way. Then there was Burt Lancaster who I worked with when I was in my 20s in a film called Ulzana’s Raid. He basically told me, I guess, what all the older actors tell the younger actors, which is to slow down, don’t try to give a performance to the sound man, don’t give a performance to the man laying the marks, pace your time, save it for the close-up and work on what you’ve got. Don’t overdo yourself with trying to prove yourself with everything you do. It’s not so much about all the activity you have. It’s about the quality of your honesty. I guess the older actors always gave me that advice.
I had great advice from people like Robert Young and Lucille Ball. I did Mame with Lucy. I did my first take, and the director said, “Okay. Print it.” Lucy said, “No, wait a minute. I didn’t believe it.” I thought, “Oh no, here we go. This is going to be tough.” I did it again. I reached down there and did it again. I heard Lucy applauding with her gloved hands. She said, “See. I knew you had a better one in you.” So I learned to reach for something better and keep going.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You must’ve been in awe of some of these huge Hollywood stars when you were new to the business.
Bruce Davison: I was in awe of all of them. But when I got to know them as people, and you spend 12 or 15 hours a day with someone, you realize they’re human beings, too, with their own frailties and vulnerabilities. They’re just older, and they’ve learned some life lessons that they want to pass on. Like I would want to pass on to younger actors now what I’ve learned.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you’d say?
Bruce Davison: Same thing, you know. Don’t try to do it all at once. Enjoy the journey. Hit your marks. Tell the truth, say your lines and try not to be bothered by distractions. Somebody taught me three axioms along the way. The first one is the scene is what it is, the second one is own it, and the third one is once you own it, you can create with it. So if you walk into a room, and you have to play King Lear on a three-cornered stool, and it’s wiggling, and it’s not a throne, you’ve got to own that. Once you own it, then you can create with it. That’s always been a great lesson. Just be aware of your situation, of your presence, accept it, and then work from your own truth within that framework. Then you can create whatever you want.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As a young actor starting out, how did you feel about being cast in Last Summer?
Bruce Davison: That was my first film. Back then, it was a lifeline to a drowning actor (laughs). I remember just a week before I did it, I was in my seersucker suit going in to audition and seeing one more 60-year-old guy in another seersucker suit that looked like an old me. He said, “You’re on Broadway, huh? Love the play. I’ve been in town for 57 years, and I’ve never made it.” I thought, “Oh, God.”
Then the next week, I got the part in Last Summer from Frank Perry. It was a lifeline thrown to me. It was the greatest opportunity of my life, and then to be thrown with Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas and Cathy Burns was a joy and a wonder. Barbara and I just did a film together called The Manor. We’re old people (laughs). How did that happen? Wow, what happened? Where did that all go?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of Richard Thomas, not too long after that, you did an episode of The Waltons.
Bruce Davison: It was after a few more films, but Richard asked me to come on and do the show. I always loved Richard. He’s always been a good friend and actor. So I got an opportunity to be on The Waltons. I’m still friends with a number of the kids that are still around.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve done a number of films, television and theater roles. Do you have a preference?
Bruce Davison: Oh, it’s all different. It’s like, do you like chocolate cake, or do you like lemon tart? You really can’t compare. Stage is difficult doing eight plays a week now because your life has to be totally committed to the play when you’re doing it. I’ve had some great opportunities. I just did a play a couple of years ago with Frances Fisher at the Pasadena Playhouse out here, which I’ve worked in before.
It was a great opportunity doing The Elephant Man on Broadway back in 1980, The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Tandy and A Normal Heart with Richard Dreyfuss. God, we did 500 performances of The Cocktail Hour with Nancy Marchand, Keene Curtis and Holland Taylor, which was a joy. We were a real family for a long time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was interesting to read that some Republicans, especially, loved your character of the villainous xenophobic Senator Kelly in X-Men.
Bruce Davison: Yes (laughs). The Creative Coalition is a great organization. Robin Bronk is trying to keep the arts afloat in the middle of all kinds of stuff, and everybody’s willing to cut the arts first. I always loved Winston Churchill’s quote about the arts. When they came to him during World War II and said, “Should we cut the funding for the arts?” he said, “Well, then what are we fighting for?” The arts have always been so important. They’re one of the most important connections to the human soul that exists.
But I remember I was doing X-Men at the time, and it went over big, especially with Sam Brownback’s office (a senator at the time). They’d say, “Oh, Senator Kelly, come on in! Nice to meet you!” (laughs) X-Men was a metaphor for a whole lot of things that was happening at the time. When a kid would come home and a parent would say, “Try not being a mutant," it was just at the beginning of the X-Men franchise, but like everything else, things get bigger and bigger and bigger and implode.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I wish you the best of luck in obtaining more funding for the arts.
Bruce Davison: That’s always been the trick, you know. It’s been a struggle, but I think it’s the most important thing. I’d like to at least make opportunities for students. Funds, especially for music in high school, is usually the first to go at the expense of stuff that I always loathed. There was this program called PSSC Physics and Chemical Bond Approach Chemistry which lost me in the dust, and I wasted years of my life trying to chase after something that first of all, I wasn’t interested in, and secondly, I had no idea or concept how to deal with it and certainly no passion for it.
But people that have a passion for something, they do it. Now that’s hard to explain though because my daughter is very much like me, and she’s not a big fan of math, but she’s had to stick with it. She’s really mastered so much more than I was able to just by having to do it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What was the experience like working with Ernest Borgnine and Elsa Lanchester on Willard?
Bruce Davison: I was very close with Elsa. I used to go to her house. She had the wickedest, funniest sense of humor, too. She had a stone that she found on the beach that had a big nose on it. It looked like the profile of Charles de Gaulle. Elsa said, “That’s my de Gaulle stone.” (laughs) She had an upside down tree trunk with all the branches shooting out and cut off. On one branch at the front, she had painted a little hair and a little Charlie Chaplin mustache, and it looked like Hitler in the middle of all these salutes. That was the kind of stuff she had at her house (laughs). But I loved her.
People would come up to her, and she’d say, “It’s Elsa Lanchester. It’s Burt Lancaster and Elsa Lanchester.” She gave me the best advice, too. She said, “You know when a director comes up to you, and he’s giving you a load of codswallop and telling you information you certainly don’t need, just tell him, ‘Oh, that’s very good. Let me try to incorporate that into what I’m doing, and then do whatever the fuck you want!’”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) So funny! Elsa must’ve been a hoot on the Willard set with so many rats.
Bruce Davison: (laughs) Well, they were actually kept separate from Elsa. She didn’t see any except when one was in my pocket. So she was lucky to be out of that. Ernie (Borgnine) had a tough time. One ran up his pants leg, and he was not too happy about that. But Ernie was so funny.
The last time I saw Ernie, he must’ve been in his late 80s. We were at this event during the Academy Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I went up to him and said, “Ernie, do you remember me?” He turned to his wife and said, “Honey, this is the young boy that played in Willard!” I was the young boy in my 60s (laughs). But to Ernie, I was still a young boy. He gave me great advice. I said, “Ernie, what’s the best advice you could give me?” You know, I was thinking it would be acting advice. But Ernie said, “Never go to bed angry at your wife. Stay up and argue for three days if you have to. But never go to bed angry.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) Tell me about the TV series Glow & Darkness.
Bruce Davison: It’s a great cast. It just includes everybody during the Crusades through the eyes of Saint Francis. You know, he’s sort of the clothesline that gets everybody into it. But it’s all the characters with St. Francis of Assisi, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the whole existence of those years during the Crusades.
I play Pope Urban III who’s in the middle of the Second Crusade. It’s quite a big production. I don’t know how things will turn out. You never do. But it was a lot of fun to be over there in Spain to do it. The people are wonderful, and they drive so carefully, too. They stay in their lanes, and then they go out in the other lane to go around you, then they go right back in. They’re very responsible.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Unlike crazy American drivers? (laughs)
Bruce Davison: Yes. They’re much more civilized. They’ve had another 10,000 years to get their crap together. That’s more than we have.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Pope Urban III is certainly a very different role for you.
Bruce Davison: Oh, yeah. It was great because he had a great death. He found out that Jerusalem had been taken, and he had been quite ill at the time. He screamed, “Jerusalem!” and dropped over dead (laughs). That was fun to shoot. Now I’ve given away my part. But there’s so much to see.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are your other projects?
Bruce Davison: I’m on the fourth season of Ozark. That’s a great show. I’m playing a senator once again (laughs). I’m a senator on the take. It’s the final season. I’ve done some voiceover stuff. You know, I have a string of films, and I never know what’s going to come out when.
The world has gotten too far beyond me now with all of the TV stations. I mean, Netflix and Hulu and Holo and Bolo and Scratch or whatever it is. I never know what they’re going to be on. I had a Creepshow that was on Snatch or Scratch or something. But I never know when something’s going to be on or be finished.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were your children ever interested in pursuing careers in entertainment?
Bruce Davison: My son certainly wasn’t because his mother, my ex-wife, Lisa Pelikan, was an actress, and I was an actor. He grew up in the middle of it, and he didn’t even want to look at the stage. He just said, “I’m the audience. You’re the actor.” But he became a writer, and he’s working for a company now called Crazy Maple, and he does interactive novels. It’s great, and he can work from his computer anywhere. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my daughter has the bug. She wants nothing more than to go to Broadway and sing and dance. She’s 15, so it’s just dawning in her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Looking back over more than a five-decade career, do you have any regrets?
Bruce Davison: Oh, sure, mostly agents and managers. I always have regrets because I got my success at a young age, and I was an idiot. I really didn’t know what I was doing or who was who. Those things would’ve been great. But at the same time, I look back on my life, and I’ve seen so many people that had stardom and then were done and not heard of again.
I always remember Robert Aldrich who gave me great advice. I was doing Ulzana’s Raid with Burt Lancaster, and Robert said, “Kid, you don’t want to be a leading man. You do a leading man, and you’ll be washed up at 30. You’ll do six pictures, and that’ll be it. Be a supporting actor. Be a character actor. Do the villains, the victims, the doctors and lawyers. You can raise a family in this town.” I didn’t want to pursue that advice at the time, but that’s what happened to me. Here we are 300 pictures later, and I’m still working.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve had a great career, and I’m a fan of your work. But have you ever felt like you were underrated as an actor?
Bruce Davison: Well, it’s better to be underrated than overrated, I think, isn’t it? (laughs) Then you just try to tread water. Then you’re like Wiley Coyote trying to claw your way across the air as you go over the cliff (laughs). Underrated is fine.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But the Oscar nomination was nice.
Bruce Davison: Yes. That was great. That changed things. But you know, it’s just always good for a while. There have been actors that I’ve seen that have won an Academy Award that I’ve said, “This must be great for you,” and he has said, “No, it’s been a shitty year. My son died.” So everybody is dealt their hands in different ways.
Jeff Bridges is fighting things now. I’ve grown up with Jeff. Jeff is my bastard brother. But that is another long story (laughs). It was the bicentennial, and we did this miniseries, The Lives of Benjamin Franklin. Lloyd Bridges was doing Benjamin Franklin. I was playing his bastard son. Beau was playing Franklin as a younger man. It was all for a big miniseries during the bicentennial.
I had a scene with Lloyd in a pub in which Franklin’s bastard son became a Tory. He was almost hung by revolutionaries, and he was in France. They only met one other time on a ship before Franklin died. But there’s a scene I had with Lloyd in which Lloyd asks his son what he wants to do with his life, and I say, “There’s nothing, nothing I could do with my life. Anything I have ever tried or ever will try to do with my life, you’ve already done brilliantly. I will be compared as falling short as mediocre. I hate you. You’ve accomplished more than I ever could ever hope to accomplish, and my life is over. All I’ll do is probably stick around and pick a little piece out of the crocodile’s teeth until you tell me I’ve got to leave.”
I played that scene, and Beau was watching. Beau came to work the next day, and we were hanging out because we all shot on the same set. He came and said to me, “Well, you stirred up some shit at the dinner table last night.” This was before either of the boys had really made their own mark in the world. So I was adopted into the family as the bastard brother (laughs). Beau and Jeff are my bastard brothers.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: We really wish Jeff all the best in his battle with lymphoma. He’s just a sincere, down-to-earth person who has tirelessly worked in support of environmentalism and to end childhood hunger.
Bruce Davison: I do, too. Jeff’s such a light in the world, and the great things that he and Beau have done for the American Hunger Project. Nobody realizes all the work that they do. They’re like their father.
I’ll tell you a story about Lloyd. There was an actor named Bert Remsen, and a crane fell on him. It crippled him. He’s the guy with the cane in the Altman movies. His wife, Barbara, became a casting director. But this crane fell on him in the early 60s, and he was crippled. There wasn’t SAG insurance or anything else like that at the time, and he and his wife were destitute. They got an enormous check from Lloyd Bridges.
Barbara said to Lloyd’s wife Dorothy, “Why are you giving this to us? You barely know us. This is a lot of money. This will get us through the year.” Lloyd said, “Because when I was blacklisted, somebody did it for me, and I have to pass it on.” That’s what Lloyd’s kids were like. That’s what Jeff and Beau and Cindy were like. They were all like that. They’ve got to give back. They’ve always got to give back. They’re the greatest family in Hollywood.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And it’s so cool that they have “adopted” you.
Bruce Davison: Well, I’m the bastard. I’m on the ship out in the harbor, but I love them dearly. We keep in touch.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What else is going on, Bruce?
Bruce Davison: I am writing this book. It starts out with me being shaken awake out of a sound sleep, and a young man saying, “Bruce, we’re ready.” I’m thinking, “Ready for what? I don’t know where the hell I am.” It’s in the LA airport at 3:00 in the morning, and the kid is walking me down the hallway. He says, “Alright. I’ve got the talent. What’s your 20?”
I find myself on a conveyor belt with Barbara Rush, and she’s powdering her nose. I turn to her and say, “Barbara, do you ever get confused about what’s real and what’s not?” She says, “Darling, it’s only real when they say, ‘action.’” That’s the title of my book, It’s Only Real When They Say Action.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Love the title! How’s it progressing?
Bruce Davison: We’ve got a treatment, and I’m trying to push it, you know. Who knows? Leonard Maltin has told me about the young man who worked with him, so we’ve been working together on it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Good luck with the book, and I look forward to speaking with you again when it’s published.
Bruce Davison: Well, great. It’s been nice chatting with you.
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