Lubbock native Mac Davis would turn down an opportunity to star in Broadway’s “The Will Rogers Follies” three times before his wife emphatically changed his mind. Prior to that, he already had succeeded in far more than crossover success in pop and country music.
At 32, he hosted his own network television show and, from there, would act in films and plays. With his biggest screen and stage successes arriving early, he assumed at the time he was a “natural actor.”
“What I am,” he now softly concludes, “is a songwriter.” In 2000, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the only surprise being voters waited that long.
More than anything, he enjoys headlining acoustic concerts.
“Just me and the basics,” said Davis. “After I opened for the Carpenters and the Fifth Dimension tours, I also did a ton of college dates. Sitting on a stool, singing my songs, telling people where some (songs) came from.
“After I recorded hit songs, I was told I had to tour with a band, that me sitting on a stool would not work anymore. I also got more theatrical, or as theatrical as a Lubbock boy could get. But even when I was in Las Vegas, people told me the parts they liked best were when it was just me, on my own, on stage.
“And man, I always wanted to eventually get back to that.”
Davis credits manager
Davis also earned raves for solo performances on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
Looking back, the entertainer gives a lot of credit to first manager Sandy Gallin, a former talent agent.
“I was Sandy’s first client,” said Davis. “He’d go on to manage Dolly Parton, Cher and Michael Jackson. But I was his first client and, after he got me on ‘The Tonight Show,’ networks began showing interest in me.
“I went over to NBC, sat on a stool and did a mini-concert for them. They presented that to the brass.”
And in 1974, “The Mac Davis Show” was born.
Davis became the summer replacement for Flip Wilson’s show.
His show lasted three years, yet never rose higher than second place in the ratings.
But the entertainer quickly pointed out that a No. 2 rating in 1972-1974 meant 15 to 25 million people were tuning in each week.
What he liked best about TV, he said, was “not having to travel.”
Hates silly skits
He continued. “But there were more things I didn’t like. I hated being stuck with a format where I’d sing, but also had to perform silly sketches and skits.
“My show was not a legitimate variety show, like Ed Sullivan’s. It was formula. Each week we would introduce a big-name guest star: a singer, actor or comedian. The guest and me would sing a duet, but then they’d be embarrassed, reading these silly sketches, which usually were not very funny.
“I felt the same way. I never was comfortable. So I figured I would just try to learn how to act.”
Gallin referred to a popular portion of Davis’ solo concerts, during which fans were encouraged to volunteer a phrase or idea, and Davis then would make up a song about those subjects.
“Mac, do you think you could do that live, in front of a TV audience?” Gallin asked.
When it worked, it was hilarious, Davis said.
He added, “When it did not work, we edited those out.”
No. 2 in ratings
His weekly show stood no chance of ever being the No. 1-rated show for its time slot. The first two years found Davis up against Michael Landon in “Little House on the Prairie.”
When Davis begged for his show to be moved to a different time or day, “The Mac Davis Show” instead would compete with season premieres of “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Barney Miller.”
Two years after his show was canceled, Davis was thrilled when considered for a role opposite Nick Nolte in the film adaptation of former Dallas Cowboy receiver Pete Gent’s semi-autobiographical “North Dallas 40.”
Davis, at the time working at Harrah’s at Lake Tahoe, was flown to Los Angeles for a screen test.
He could not have been more inexperienced. At one point, he spotted Nolte and actor Sam Elliott chatting. Davis said, “So I walked over and joked, ‘I’m ready for my close-up.’ ”
The next word he heard was, “Cut!”
He had stumbled into, and ruined, Elliott’s screen test.
Plays Cowboy Meredith
Competing with Elliott and Michael Parks to play a quarterback based on Dallas Cowboy Don Meredith, Davis said, “They had a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff) directing and, in my ignorance, I thought any co-star could re-write a script. So I scratched out some lines and wrote in some West Texas humor. For example, I had my character say, ‘Like a one-legged cat trying to bury crap on a tin roof.’
“Luckily, Ted laughed. His secretary laughed. But how I got that part, I’ll never know.”
Charisma shared by Davis and Nolte was undeniable, and the 1979 picture was a hit.
Davis said Nolte “got into his part and kind of stayed in it,” yet describes him as “a very generous actor.”
To this day, he regrets losing touch with his first cinematic co-star.
Davis eventually would learn, “I’m not a star who carries movies. I’m more a character actor.”
Despite that, he said, “When Hollywood threw a lot of money at me after ‘North Dallas 40,’ wanting me to star in a couple more movies, I wasn’t about to turn it down.”
Bad films followed
He referred to 1981’s “Cheaper to Keep Her” and 1983’s “The Sting II.” Both were awful.
“Cheaper to Keep Her,” its title taken from a near-forgotten song, saw Davis cast as a “swinger turned detective, tracking down men who dodged paying alimony.”
Davis co-starred with Tovah Feldshuh in what he describes as “a comedy that wasn’t funny.”
When “The Sting II” arrived, Davis was sure “every critic wrote, ‘Mac Davis is not Robert Redford.’ ”
Characters’ names were similar to those played by Redford, Paul Newman and Robert Shaw in the Oscar-winning “The Sting.” Original screenwriter David Ward even returned.
“Again, I grabbed the money and ran,” Davis said. “I put it all into savings and, in fact, it’s still there.”
Recognizing himself as a far better singer-songwriter than actor, Davis made more small TV contributions.
He was, for example, a balladeer for the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV movie in 2000 and, between 1999 and 2004, provided voices for characters Sheriff Buford and a sports talk deejay for the animated ”King of the Hill.” He acted the recurring role of Rodney Carrington’s father-in-law on the sitcom “Rodney.”
Turns down Broadway
Pierre Maurice Joseph Cossette was a television executive producer and Broadway producer who, in 1971, produced the first television broadcast of the Grammy Awards.
Twenty years later — which also was 49 years after Davis was born in Lubbock — the actor was Cossette’s first choice to star in Broadway’s “The Will Rogers Follies.”
Davis recalled, “Pierre walked in one day, threw a script down and said, ‘That’s yours if you want it.’
“I was still drinking, and did not see it as a Broadway musical. At first, I even thought it was a movie script. I also was certain it was the corniest, silliest, dumbest thing I’d read.
“I did ask my manager if he thought it would be worth me coming out of retirement for. He agreed that it was pretty corny. Then Buddy Killen, from Tree Music, also asked me to do this. And I turned it down again.
“Well, Tommy Tune didn’t agree with us.”
Tune would direct and choreograph the premiere in 1991, with David Carradine playing the role offered to Davis.
Among the honors won by “The Will Rogers Follies:” Tony and Drama Desk Awards as Best Musical.
Carradine later would leave Broadway and take the musical on the road, at which time Davis was asked a third time to play Will Rogers.
And a third time, he said no.
He recalled, “I had gotten sober. I’d quit drinking. I left the Betty Ford Center the month before. But I was a little afraid I could not face Broadway and New York City without drinking.”
‘Are you nuts?’
When Davis’ wife, Lise, discovered he had turned the role down not once, but three times, she was furious.
Davis paraphrased: “She pushed me down and said, ‘Are you nuts? Name one other person who has written hit songs for himself; written hit songs for others, including Elvis; hosted his own TV show; co-starred in a hit movie; headlined at the biggest hotels in the country; and played at Carnegie Hall. And now you turn down an opportunity to take over a hit musical on Broadway?’ ”
She did not buy his excuse about feeling fragile.
So Davis called producers back, asking, “Is it OK if I reconsider?”
Given the role, he learned he had only four weeks to learn every line of dialogue. “The hardest thing I’ve done,” said Davis, who also compared mastering Will Rogers’ rope tricks to “milking a cow upside down.”
Songs were indeed silly, but written in the style of the 1930s.
Davis concluded, “I should have done the play the first time I was asked.”
Earns positive review
Davis carried the role on Broadway for a year, then joined the touring company for an additional 18 months.
The New York Times absolutely loved him in the role.
Yes, Broadway was a challenge. Davis was “only off stage long enough to frantically rip off my clothes for a costume change. I was so nervous. I made my entrance from 40 feet above, from a hole in the ceiling. I would be lowered down to wave my hat, land on a big prop arrowhead, then go into a dance number.
“This was my first time singing someone else’s material.
“The first time I was lowered down, I faced the stage manager and said, “Six months ago, I would need a quart of vodka before I could do this.’
“He said, ‘Me, too. Don’t worry, Mac, I’ve got your back.’ ”
Davis paused. In fact, one could hear him take a deep breath over the telephone.
“But I did it,” he concluded. “I made Lise happy. I accomplished what she wanted me to accomplish.”
Next up for Davis: A homecoming concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Lubbock’s Cactus Theater, with no theatrics. He will sing his favorite songs and, occasionally, talk about where they came from.
Sure, he has accomplished far more, but said, “This time, I just plan to do what I do best.”
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Native son returns
■ Attraction: Acoustic concert by Lubbock native and singer-songwriter Mac Davis, Lubbock’s third West Texas Walk of Fame inductee. Accompanied on guitar by Mike Loudermilk.
■ When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
■ Where: Cactus Theater, 1812 Buddy Holly Ave.
■ Tickets: Near sellout status. All $100 seats sold out; approximately 14 $75 tickets on sale.
■ Meet-and-greet: Post-concert meet-and-greet tickets $35; available to those attending concert.
■ Information: 762-3233.Tags: actor, concert, dates, film, movie, music, producer, singer, television, tour, tv