Davidson brings magic to Oz's Wizard

Just call him Mr. Wonderful , as in "Wizard of Oz." Television veteran John Davidson fills the classic role in Philly's version of "Wicked."

IF YOU'RE hoping to spot veteran entertainer John Davidson around town during his extended run in the Academy of Music's production of "Wicked," here's a hint: You might have a better chance running into him in the wilds of South Jersey.

Rather than stay in downtown hotels during his engagement as the Wizard in the 10-year-old blockbuster musical that runs through Aug. 4, Davidson and Rhonda, his wife of three-plus-decades, are spending the 40-week "Wicked" tour in an RV that, for their local visit, will be anchored at a Gloucester County campground.

"My wife and I had always wanted to try owning an RV," explained Davidson during a recent phone chat. "So we got a Fleetwood Bounder 35K - that's a 36-foot motor coach - and we're doing the whole tour that way.

"I can have my guitars with me. I still do a show with guitar and banjo and a rhythm section, so I have all those instruments with me. I can carry them in the motor coach. We have our cat with us, and my wife is an artist, and she can carry all her gear with her.

"We found a way to keep our marriage together, and that's to travel together."

This arrangement means Davidson, who commutes to and from the academy in a rented car, can't avail himself of much that Center City has to offer. But, as he noted, even if he were staying in town, his time would be limited.

"Remember, I'm doing eight shows a week," he said. "The only night I have off is Monday. But we've been to some nice restaurants. We love the restaurants in Philly. That's about the only nightlife I can handle."

Davidson likened his getting the "Wicked" gig to how Sally Field got the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in "Lincoln": by actively lobbying director Steven Spielberg.

"I don't think [the show's producers] would have thought of John Davidson for the part of the Wizard," he admitted. "At this point in my career, I'm not the hottest thing around.

"So my agent called and said, 'John Davidson wants to be the Wizard.' They said, 'That's interesting,' and a couple months later, they called me."

He described the character as "a wonderful part," because the Wizard is a con man.

" 'Wicked' is all about the witches, so the Wizard is not that big a part," he reasoned. "They talk about me a lot, but it isn't that large a part. But it's a special role. The plot revolves around the Wizard.

"When I first saw the show, I didn't understand it. It's a very complicated story. I think you have to see 'Wicked' a couple of times. It's a very complex story. It has so many things to say about truth . . . and friendship, and what is society really all about?

"It wasn't until I'd seen it a couple of times before I said, 'Yeah, I want to be the Wizard.' "

Davidson is likely best known to baby boomers and their elders through television. From the late-1960s through the early '90s, the 71-year-old White Plains, N.Y., native was a ubiquitous presence on the small screen. He was a singing guest star on a number of talk and variety shows, and hosted a syndicated, eponymous gabfest of his own. He also sat in for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" 87 times, and served as host of such game shows as "The $100,000 Pyramid" and "Hollywood Squares." Which is why it's surprising to learn he actually comes from a theater background.

The son of two Baptist ministers, Davidson claimed he never gave much thought to a career as a performer until he entered Dennison University in Ohio. He recalled it wasn't the glamour and excitement of show biz that lured him, but the people who populated that realm.

"In college, they wanted me to decide a major, and I took a [theater] course," he said. "It was the theater people I thought were so interesting and committed to social change. And they were liberal, and I was attracted to them. They were free people, they were theatrical."

He also liked the specificity of the field.

"All my friends were psych majors and sociology majors, they were just getting a liberal arts education. I wanted to do something specific. I wanted to learn how to do something," he offered. "Theater taught me that.

"I became a theater arts major so that I'd have a trade, almost like you learn carpentry or plumbing - in this case it's the art of storytelling. I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to learn how to do that, because I thought it would get me work - I'd forgotten that 90 percent of actors are out of work" at any given time.

It didn't take long before Davidson was an established Broadway presence, appearing as Curly, the protagonist in a mid-'60s revival of "Oklahoma!" and other prestigious productions, including the off-Broadway smash "The Fantasticks," in which he starred as the Boy.

Last year, Davidson joined the New York revival of "The Fantasticks," appearing first as Henry, the Old Actor, and then as Bellamy, the father of the heroine. Among those he impressed was the show's producer, Al Parinello.

"I've never worked with an actor who was present every second he was on stage," said Parinello via Facebook.

"It was always worthwhile to observe John's face and watch his body language when he wasn't the one talking. He owned the stage and never went easy when there was a facial expression or a simple expressive reaction to contribute for the betterment of the moment.

"John is one of most generous and professional actors I've ever met. I would work with him again at the drop of a hat."

If Davidson has his way, there will be plenty more chances for that. Well into his senior years, he exercises regularly (tennis and jogging are his main physical endeavors) and believes he is singing better than he ever has, thanks to his half-century as a performer.

"I'm lucky to be alive, and I'm lucky to still be able to work," he said. "I never want to have to retire."


Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, show times vary, $175-$40, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

Blog: philly.com/Casinotes