by Leslie Gray Streeter • Featured in The Palm Beach Post, July 10, 2011
photo by Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post
John Davidson has a great idea for a reality show.
“It would be me and name another singing guitar player. Jason Mraz? OK. So you get an old guy and a young guy, and we busker, making money singing on the street corner. He starts in New York, I start in L.A. And we can only travel when we make enough to travel. Think of the odd people you meet! You do a little show in each place, raise money for the community center in town or whatever.”
While the actor, singer and TV game show host (That’s Incredible!, The Hollywood Squares, The $100,000 Pyramid), still impossibly young at 69, waits for some network genius to agree, he’s busy with his new life here in Palm Beach County.
He moved into a beautiful home in Atlantis in the spring with wife Rhonda, planning to rest, put the house together, and take the summer off after touring more than 65 cities around the country. That lasted all of about two weeks until he found himself talking to the Atlantis Country Club about doing a show every Sunday through the end of July.
“I (wanted) to see what it would be like, working less. But I love what I do,” says Davidson.
The show was originally placed in the club’s lounge, but got moved to “our largest dining room to accommodate all his fans,” says food and beverage manager Marti Rayl. “We had to turn people away the first night.”
Somehow, even with his schedule, the Davidsons have managed to create a beautiful home, a bright, open collection from a life of show business and travel. Davidson has an “ego room” lined with album covers, posters, portraits of him painted by his late father and a ventriloquist’s dummy made to look like Davidson “when I had brown hair.”
In other places you’ll find artifacts from the years that the Davidsons lived in La Paz, Mexico. Art’s not all he brought back.
“I’ve learned about 10 romantic Spanish songs,” he says, explaining that he’s dreamed of, just for fun, finding a Spanish restaurant somewhere and, without announcement to the diners, playing there. “Rhonda thinks I’m crazy, but I would love it.”
Having the man who replaced Mike Douglas serenade you over your paella would blow some minds, he’s told.
“People don’t always recognize me,” he says.
Sorry, John. Anybody of a certain age recognizes you. Even with the hair, that boyish face is somewhat unchanged.
But “boyish” has been somewhat of a cross to bear for Davidson. He made a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s as wholesomely handsome with that head of shaggy hair. That hair is now a glistening silver, but still admirably thick.
Broadway, Vegas and TV
He’s not ungrateful. “I keep it long because it’s pretty much the only thing that grows,” he jokes in his show.
But you always wish for what you didn’t get.
“Wholesome can appear boring. I was Richie Cunningham,” Davidson says, evoking the squeaky-clean specter of Ron Howard’s freckle-faced Happy Days character. “I always wanted to be the Fonz.”
That dream of leather-clad scoundrelhood was not to be – Davidson’s story was well-adjusted from the beginning. He was raised in White Plains, N.Y., the son of a Baptist preacher with a musical bent who formed a family band with his boys. The religion didn’t stick, but the music did.
He received a b achelor’s degree in theater arts from Ohio’s Denison University. Two months after graduation he’d landed his first Broadway part in Foxy as the son of Bert Lahr (The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion.)
“I thought I just wanted to do Broadway shows,” he says, and was playing Curly in a revival of Oklahoma when he was discovered by television producer Bob Banner. “He told me I could have a bigger career. He said ‘I’m gonna put you on TV.’ “
The idea was to make him an entertainer, in the classic sense – a personality who could sing, act, maybe dance a little, while holding a live room or a television audience enraptured.
Most of them start in clubs and then work their way forward, but Davidson, by then already getting Broadway experience, went the other way. He did TV shows like CBS’ The Entertainers with Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Dom DeLuise, Ruth Buzzi and others, and a summer replacement show called The Kraft Summer Music Hall.
It was on that show that Davidson, as host, worked with a few guys who would soon be comic legends – Flip Wilson, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, who he affectionately still refers to as “Richie.” It was clear even then, he says, “that these guys were gonna be something,” but Davidson knew he wouldn’t be following in their historically subversive footsteps.
“I was too square. Richie Pryor was out there. Carlin was smoking something that we were not smoking,” he says. “I couldn’t relate.”
But there were plenty of people who could relate to Davidson, who, in the mid-’60s, “looked so different” from the young guys growing their hair and beginning to experiment in the counterculture. “I was very wholesome. All the other actors were very New York, like street guys. I was so not street.”
That wholesome image plays well in his current show, where he juxtaposes some original funny songs like 70 Sucks and pop hits of the past several decades with some relatively racy asides that are surprising and who are we kidding cute.
“I’m naughty like Betty White, with a twinkle in the eye,” says Davidson. Maybe. But White’s current cheeky granny shtick plays well because she looks so sweet and elderly, while Davidson is still handsome, fit and fresh-scrubbed.
His chops were honed in Las Vegas, where, along with Glen Campbell, Bobby Vinton, Bill Cosby, Tony Orlando and others, he formed the “second wave of entertainers, the Rat Pack being the first.”
He played for eight years at the Riviera, then at the Hilton. During his tenure in Sin City, Davidson rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Elvis himself, who came to see his show, and Cher, “who would hold these roller skating parties in the middle of the night, that all the celebrities would go to. She was a fun lady.”
Most entertainers with a long career have a moment where they try to change their image a little. Davidson told himself that he should. And the truth is that “sometimes you tell yourself some stupid things” – like to do a Cosmopolitan centerfold, the second such photo after Burt Reynolds’ famous bear-skinned rug shot.
“I thought I needed to broaden my career. I wasn’t nude. But what did it really mean? My folks were furious. It was stupid. Let’s just say that the picure is not on my wall. Art Linkletter of all people caught me at the Brown Derby and said ‘Why did you do that?’ “
A one-man show
The centerfold didn’t open Fonzie-esque roles to Davidson, but at least it didn’t damage his career. He appeared on the requisite ’70s shows like The Love Boat; Love, American Style; Fantasy Island; and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
By the end of the decade, he was one of four regular guests hosts on The Tonight Show, a gig that lead to co-hosting primetime’s That’s Incredible! and to being named the replacement for popular but aging daytime variety host Mike Douglas, who eventually retired to North Palm Beach.
Davidson enjoyed chatting with the celebrities, politicians, writers and interesting people of the day, as well as “working on my feet. The spontaneity of the live show – I just loved to do it. (My favorite guests) were anybody who was honest with me. We all wanted Cosby. Bob Hope was great.”
As great as the show was, it lasted just two years. Davidson says that kind of show was going out of fashion, “and the Oprah-type shows were coming in that had heavier issues. They thought they could just change the host. But it didn’t work. That kind of show was gone for a while until Rosie (O’Donnell) brought it back.”
Davidson kept working, including movies and television. The Hollywood Squares ran until 1989, and into the mid-’90s in reruns. He had a theater in Branson, Mo., and played Las Vegas and cruise ships. He played famous Americans like Will Rogers and Theodore Roosevelt on stage.
Right now, he’s working with a playwright on a one-man show about another famous, if complicated American named Teddy – Sen. Edward Kennedy. Perhaps now he’ll get to flex some of that bad boy muscle.
“There’s a great deal of mystery about Ted. He walked away from (the car accident that killed a young woman in) Chappaquiddick, but then he fought for human rights. He was a rich kid. He didn’t have to do that,” Davidson ponders. “Why serve in the Senate so long? What was it like to have these brothers that everyone said were so much smarter than he? I want to play a flawed man. I’m a flawed man. That’s a bigger challenge.”
When his time singing at Atlantis is done, Davidson has that project, as well as some concert dates. He’s reconciled himself with the fact that people and careers change: “I get tired now,” he says.
But he’s newly trim – just lost 15 pounds! – and ready to keep being John Davidson.
“Those years, (my career) was really hot. And you have to find a way to come down from that. The way that I do that is to always be working,” he says.
Even if that means putting that summer break on hold.