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Full glow

Bruce Davison reflects on his 40-year acting career and the lead in Noel Coward’s ‘A Song at Twilight’

By Carl Kozlowski 03/20/2014

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Forty years ago, Bruce Davison was a young and handsome actor scoring a string of leads in attention-getting films such as “Willard” in which he played a man whose love for his pet rats led to murderous results. But as he surveyed the career paths of his competitors, Davison realized that stardom was often illusory.

“I asked a director, Robert Aldrich, what the key was to lasting,” Davison recalls. “And he said that it might be nice to be the hot guy in town for a couple of years, but it almost never lasts, but that if I was willing to be a supporting character actor, I could really raise a family in Hollywood.” 

The advice paid off, as Davison has amassed a resume of 203 film and television roles in the decades since, including a staggering nine projects releasing in 2014 alone. Yet the 67-year-old still has plenty of energy to burn, and he’s taking it to the stage of the Pasadena Playhouse through April 13 as the lead in a revival of Noel Coward’s classic comedy “A Song at Twilight.” 

In it, Davison stars opposite veteran actress Sharon Lawrence (best known for “NYPD Blue”) as celebrated author Hugo Latymer, who has entered old age with everything a man could wish for: wealth, success, fantastic friends, and a life filled with laughter, luxury and travel. But despite all of that, his fear of intimacy and a public scandal kept him from embracing the one true love in his life, and now he wonders if he would trade the success for a chance to do it all again. 

“I’m sure it’s Coward’s hardest play, and it came at the end of his life, when he was too ill to perform it on Broadway but he had done it in London theater,” says Davison. “He always said that he had the talent to amuse and entertain, but this is his ‘King Lear,’ coming to terms with the end of his life. It starts out light and gets quite a bit deeper and denser as it progresses.”

Davison offers up a pair of intriguing facts about Coward and the play, noting that the playwright himself starred as Latymer. And contrary to frequent opinion, Coward didn’t write it about himself, but rather about famous author W. Somerset Maugham as “a cloak for his own journey.”
The Playhouse is proving to be an interesting stop on Davison’s own journey as well. He recalls having to decide whether to study acting there or at New York University in the 1960s before opting for NYU, while his teaming with Lawrence marks a creative partnership that is starting after years of close personal friendship and mutual career admiration. 

Thinking back to his Philadelphia boyhood, Davison recalls “playing Flash Gordon in my backyard after school” but focusing his artistic inclinations on painting and art all the way until he started college at Penn State. It was there that he took a theater appreciation course, and “took to it like a duck to water.” He left after three years, transferring to NYU for his final two years of study. 

His big break came with “Willard,” a movie that is indelibly marked in horror fans’ memories for its dark comic wit and endless supply of rats. These days, the lead actor in a film like that would have the luxury of special effects to keep himself safe from the pestilent rodents, but back then Davison was forced to get up close and personal with them.

“It was certainly the days before CGI so there really were over 1,600 rats, with peanut butter all over me for them to chase after,” explains Davison. “The frustrations it took to get a rat to run into a briefcase in 20 or 30 takes were also severe. I worked with [co-star Ernest] Borgnine again a few months before he died and he turned to his wife and said ‘Honey, here’s the young boy who played Willard with me.’ He was 94 and sharp as a tack.” 
 
Davison has spent the past decade portraying seemingly every evil politician in a major movie — a fact that he attributes to his role as Sen. Kelly in the endless stream of “X-Men” movies. In an age of movies and TV shows about politics, it’s a lucrative niche that he waxes philosophical about.
   
“You get typecast every five years by what your last success was,” he notes wryly. “And get used to rejection if you want to make it in this town, because it’s always a numbers game where you get 10,000 no’s for every yes.”

Davison’s greatest career moment thus far, however, was his stunning turn as a gay man helping his lover let go and die of AIDS in the 1990 film “Longtime Companion.” It was one of the first movies to address the AIDS crisis, and his heartbreaking work was seared into the minds of viewers, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

The decision to play that role, and to remain committed to fighting AIDS in his charitable work and with other roles in AIDS-themed films, stemmed from Davison’s own losses in the epidemic. In the six months surrounding his work on “Companion,” he lost his agent, commercial agent and manager to the disease. 
 
“At that period of time, it was a holocaust,” recalls Davison. “People asked if the death was a difficult scene or hard scene. … The script girl was six feet away from me, and her brother had died at the time. The makeup man was crying on the front porch because he was going to be dead in six months. Our director was ill, unbeknownst to us, and was dead within a year. 

“I had gone through my mother’s death, and the director told the actor playing my lover to let it go, and he told me this wasn’t about how I felt but about letting him go. That is a moment that confronts everyone at some point in their life.” 

“A Song at Twilight” is performed through April 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $24 to $100. Call (626) 356-7529.

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