TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is highly honored to be able to present actor William B. Davis to all of our readers. William has had a long and outstanding career in television, theater and film, and is best known as ‘The Cigarette Man’ in the popular television series, ‘X-Files.
TAEM- William, your latest endeavor involves the memoirs that you have written. Please tell us about the book, it’s publisher, and where our readership can find it.
WBD-The book is called ‘Where There’s Smoke …. The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’, and frankly, it’s the story of my life. It’s a pretty unusual life which I tell with candor and humor – from radio drama in the early fifties to The X-Files. I have been delighted with the response to the book. People will have different interests – whether it’s the history or the life on the set – but it is a compelling story and of special interest to people in the arts. There are a lot of sidebars about acting but of special interest may be the stories of early Canadian theatre and British theatre in its John Osborne, Harold Pinter heyday.
TAEM- William, we have tracked your acting career back all the way to 1983 where you appeared in such notable projects as ‘The Dead Zone’, ‘SCTV’, ‘The Cuckoo Bird’, ‘Head Office’, and ‘The Beachcombers’. What was your inspiration in taking up acting as a career?
WBD- Gosh, you haven’t really gone very far back. My acting career began in 1949 when I began as a child to act in summer stock. My older cousins ran a summer stock theatre in Ontario and rehearsed in our basement before heading north for the summer. One year they needed a young boy for a play – I was there.
TAEM- What training did you undertake for this profession?
WBD- A lot. As indicated I apprenticed as a child in theatre and radio drama – I did a great deal of extracurricular theatre at university and finally studied at The London Academy of Music and Drama. In more recent years I have done many acting workshops. And I spent a lot of time training others which also trained me – including five years heading the English Acting Program at The National Theatre School of Canada.
TAEM- In 1987 you appeared in a flurry of productions which included ‘Deadly Deception’, ‘Sworn to Silence’, four episodes of the popular TV show, ‘Airwolf’, and ‘The Little Match Girl’. Tell us the themes behind these productions and the parts that you played in them.
WBD- To be honest I don’t remember them that clearly. I know in Airwolf we hoped the role would develop into an ongoing part of the series but the series was soon cancelled. The character was the head of the Airwolf crew. We had some difficulty deciding if he should have an accent or not.
TAEM- For the next four years your career was on a roll and you had major parts in many projects. Some of these were ‘Matinee’, ‘Look Who’s Talking’, ‘Wise Guy’, ’21 Jump Street’, ‘MacGyver’, ‘Omen IV- The Awakening’, and the television show, ‘The Commish’. How was this period in your career important to you, and how were you able to keep up the stamina for so many varied roles?
WBD-Not as much stamina was required as might at first seem. Some of the roles were major, Matinee for instance, but others were smaller and only required a few days on set. No what made this period of my life challenging was combining it with the other part of my professional life – teaching acting – which was leading me to starting my own school The William Davis Centre for Actors’ Study.
TAEM- You continued to rack up many roles with parts over the next five years in ‘Diagnosis Murder’, ‘Street Justice’, ‘Nightmare Cafe’, ‘Beyond Suspicion’, ‘Sliders’, ‘Poltergeist: The Legacy’, and many more. How would you describe this period in your life and the popularity you gained among your peers for your work.
WBD- It was a good time to be an actor in Vancouver. There was a lot of work and I was fortunate to keep busy and learning my craft. When I say learning my craft, I knew a lot about acting but I was becoming more and more familiar with a film set and working with different actors.
TAEM- Soon you would play probably your most well known role, that of ‘The Cigarette Man’, in the extremely popular television series, ‘X-Files’. This was personally my favorite television show of all time. I understand that you also wrote one of the stories for that series. Please tell us about this and the character that you represented in this show.
WBD-This was a remarkable case of a character developing in response to the fans and to ideas that developed after the series was well underway. There was not very much dialogue between the creators and the actors – we brought what we could to our roles and often the creators then built on what we showed them. CSM was a character mostly of light and shadow at first but gradually emerged from the background. When they first decided they wanted the character to be more prominent there was some concern about how well I could act as they had not really seen me do anything. Fortunately they were pleased with the result.
Writing for the series was an adventure and the story idea involving CSM on a road trip with Scully turned out well though in truth Chris Carter wrote much of the dialogue – very well I have to add.
TAEM- Tell us about your fellow actors for this production and how your character interacted with them during this long running series.
WBD- Just as the series centered on Mulder and Scully against a background of other often fascinating characters, life on the set seemed to divide somewhat. Gillian was always nice but a little aloof and David’s moods varied. The Canadians on the set were always a joy – I think because we were so happy to be there and we were not overworked as David and Gillian were. I especially enjoyed Chris Owens who played my son, Tom Braidwood, Frohike, and I was delighted to get to know the late John Neville who played the Well Manicured Man.
WBD- I can’t tell you a lot about how the productions were created. As an actor there is quite a separation between the production side and the on set activity. In fact, the productions were created in Los Angeles and shot in Vancouver. As an actor one gets the script a few days ahead – if one is lucky; this show was notoriously late with scripts – arrives on the day and does one’s work. Sometimes we were told we were good sometimes nothing was said. Life on the set was remarkably like any other set except on X-Files there was a striving for excellence that was unusual. Everyone wanted to do their best work, whether actor of focus puller.
TAEM- Your career did not end here, and until recently you appeared in countless film and television productions that included ‘Smallville’, ‘The Cradle Will Fall’, ‘Robson Arms’, and ‘Stargate SG-1’. Your professionalism gave all of the productions you appeared in top-notch quality. We also learned that you directed and produced several projects as well, and appeared in several video games. Please tell our readership all about these.
WBD-One video game involved a building exploding behind me as I lit a cigarette. They only had one building to blow up so the shot had to work. I told them the cigarette lighter they had given me was uncertain but they said it would be fine. I insisted they give me a back up zippo lighter. And sure enough, the first lighter didn’t work and I had to use the other one. Saved them several thousand dollars I figure.
I’ve also written and directed three short films as well as developed a pilot television series. And I have returned to my roots and been directing for the theatre in Vancouver.
TAEM- Can you also give us a sneak-peek behind some of the new productions that you are in and let our readers know when they will be able to see them?
WBD-The most recent is Tall Man where I play the Sheriff. I don’t know when it will be released – we shot it a year ago but we were still doing post production recently. They hope it will premiere at Sundance. There is a fun horror movie called Medium Raw that’s available on video where I play a wolf and eat people. Well it’s not quite that simple.
WBD-Parallel to all my other work I have been an acting teacher. I taught at top schools in London when I was quite young and in the late sixties I headed the English Acting Program at The National Theatre School of Canada. I have taught classes for various groups and finally in Vancouver started The William Davis Centre for Actors’ Study – which is still going eighteen years later. I no longer own the school but I still work there from time to time.
TAEM- William, I am certainly honored by being able to do this interview with you for our publication, The Arts and Entertainment Magazine, and humbled by your graciousness to let us introduce you to our many readers world-wide. I want to thank you for your time with us and hope that you will keep us informed of any upcoming chapters in your long standing career as they develop.