Don S. Davis considers himself to be a very lucky guy. He's doing what he loves, and he couldn't be happier. After a four month hiatus, he's eager to be back at work on the sixth season of Stargate SG-1.
"It's been fun," he confides. "Mostly for me, it's good to get back. I miss this place when I'm not here. Four months is a long hiatus." The people who create Stargate are like a family, and the respect Don feels for his coworkers is evident. "I'm working with just genuinely nice people. I think the show reflects its leaders, and Richard Dean Anderson is a wonderful guy. I'm not brown nosing him or anything, he knows I feel that way. And the producers here, they're friends. I've known these guys, some of these producers I've worked with for over 20 years. I first worked with, or for, Rick during the MacGyver days, so this is like home to me."
This year, however, the family is missing one of its members. After five years of playing Dr. Daniel Jackson, Michael Shanks has chosen to leave the series, and Don wishes him only the best. "I hope that the fans will bear with it," he adds. "I know that with the leaving of Michael Shanks, there are a lot of people that are upset, but, you know, this happens in a lot of shows, and it was Michael's choice. He was the one that wanted to go. Michael is an exceptional actor and a genuinely lovely person, and the fans have every right to want to see him back in his part. But, he's a guy whose destiny is to go a different direction. So the fans need to honor his need to make his journey." His journey allows for the occasional return trip, however, as Michael has already been back to shoot the sixth episode of the season, entitled Abyss. The family reunion was a welcome one. "He's been back already, and he's going to be back several times. And we're very grateful that he is coming back."
As for what's in store for his own character, General George Hammond, Don admits, "He's just continuing along. They don't give me a bunch of advance warning, so I don't know what they have in mind." It is, after all, the role of the General to be the figure of stability on the home front, although Don has welcomed the opportunities the writers have given him to participate in off-world missions. "That's always fun," but he acknowledges, "The problem with that is we want to keep the experiences as real as possible, and in reality, a two star general wouldn't be going out into the field to do battle. The nature of Hammond's job is that he's a tactician, a planner, and an overseer. And because of the nature of the military, if he went on a mission with SG-1, the ranking officer has to be in charge of the mission. So you couldn't have a two star general being ordered to do something by a colonel or a major. So it simply would screw everything up in the mix." The writers have been creative in making this happen in the past, but there's a reason it won't happen often. "If you really look at it, each time that's happened in the past, the very man who keeps talking about people putting themselves into court martialable positions, has put himself into that, except for the time that was the diplomatic journey, where he went to the planet to argue SG-1's release." Still, there must be something he'd like to see happen for the General. Pressed for an ideal scenario, he chuckles, "Yes, I would like to see him have a love affair of some sort with a beautiful dark haired woman. I'm partial to dark hair."
Don had returned from a sort of "off-world" mission of his own recently. Last December, he and several members of his extended "family," Christopher Judge, Amanda Tapping, and Teryl Rothery, participated in a USO tour overseas. "It was a lot of fun. You know, I work with a group of really really fun people, and especially the two beautiful ladies, and Chris Judge. You couldn't find better traveling companions. And it was really a wonderful and emotionally packed experience. The troops were wonderful to us, and we were all really happy to be there, and proud of it. We were approached by the USO, and we all, without hesitation, said yes. In fact, by the end of the thing, unanimously, we let them know that we'll go anywhere any time. It was an amazing experience." The visit to Qatar came just before the Christmas holidays. "We met people, and shook hands, and listened to their stories, mostly, and gave our assurances that we appreciated what they were doing. It was right before Christmas, and we were just there for a week. And for us, as I said, it was just a magnificent experience. It was a holiday before the holiday. We were treated royally, just couldn't be treated better. And we partied like devils."
He was touched by the stories he heard repeatedly. "Any time that you're with military people during a holiday season, the stories that you hear over and over and over are how much they miss their families. And seeing a father who's got a two month old child that he hasn't gotten to meet yet, or a couple of mothers with children still not in elementary school, preschool aged children having to be looked after by husbands or family while they're over in uniform, that's pretty tough. You can't match those stories. It's not a fear that something's going to happen, or anything, it's just, when you're in a military situation, there's a sense, sometimes, of abandonment on your part, that you don't want your children to say, 'Where is Mommy? Where is Daddy? Why aren't they here?' because if they're very young children they can't understand why they're not there for their birthday, for Santa Claus, for Easter, or whatever. It's a hard thing to experience."
The visit touched off some memories of his own military experiences as a captain in the US Army, but he laughs at the suggestion of sharing those memories. "Most of mine shouldn't be shared. I did things that young people do when they're off across the world. And it was great fun. These people, their experience is of the moment. My experience is ancient history. But you form relationships in the military that last you a lifetime, I think more so than any other venue in life. I still have friends that I'm in contact with very frequently. We became friends when I was stationed in Korea from 1965 to '68. So these guys, they're like a brotherhood. I know that there are four or five guys that if anything really bad happened in my life, I could call them and they'd be there. And they know that about me. And at one time or another, in the last 30 years, we've all been there for each other."
The visit brought with it some firsts as well. Adds Don proudly, "Now I can say I've dune buggied down the same sand dunes that Lawrence of Arabia rode over, or the same kind of sand dunes. You know, I spent a lot of time in the southwest, and that's one kind of desert, but that's a totally different kind of desert."
How did a mountain boy from Missouri end up riding a dune buggy over sands familiar to Lawrence of Arabia? Don is grateful for the opportunities his life has offered. As a student, soldier, teacher, artist, performer, it seems that each new experience opens new doors. He smiles, "I'm a very fortunate man. I'm just a guy from the Ozarks who wandered out of the hills. My life's been a great journey."
Some of the preparation for that journey came at the university level. Very formally trained, Don holds a Ph.D. in theater. "The actual Ph.D. is in dramatic theory and criticism, with a concentration in the academic. I was a stage designer primarily, and a theater historian, though I acted throughout my education period. In fact, in 1964, before entering the army, I traveled with a USO tour performing as Luther Billis in a production of South Pacific. So, I've acted for many many years. My primary job experience was as a teacher, as a designer, and a theater historian." He taught for a number of years at the college level, but has no thoughts of returning to academia. "I haven't taught since '87. I'm strictly a performer. I've found something that is, to put it lightly, a magnificent obsession. That's what acting becomes. And as a result, the very people that as a teacher I was using as examples, are people that I've gotten to work with. I've gotten to meet the legends, and to meet the really superb craftsmen of American filmmaking, and there's really no comparison."
The list of those legends is a long one. "Dustin Hoffman, Max von Sydow, Charleton Heston, George C. Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sam Neill, Sam Elliott, wonderful people. They're just exceptionally gifted people. And directors, David Lynch, Spielberg, Penny Marshall, just a big list of those that goes on and on and on." As does the list of people with whom he'd love the opportunity to work. "Oh, there are a lot of people. Judi Dench, I met her when I was in London last fall. A friend of hers is also a friend of mine, and got us tickets to see The Royal Family at the Royal Haymarket Theater. We went up and met Judi in her dressing room. I guess there are hundreds of actors that I'd love to work with. The only thing, as an actor, is you want good people to work with. Primarily every actor is selfish enough to want a role that lets them create a character with depth, rather than just walking in for a few days, saying three lines, and walking out. I'm living in a time, and I think it's true of any age, where you denigrate the talent of your age, and yet I'm living in a time in which American film is studied with actors of amazing range and talent. There are hundreds of directors out there, but I probably won't get the chance to work with more than a fraction of them. That's the reality of my life. In the meantime, I'm thankful for those I have. I'm a very lucky guy."
It's the creative freedom that has drawn Don Davis to performing, but he recognizes that the industry is ultimately a business, and he has no interest in trying his hand at scriptwriting or directing where the limitations of that business are more keenly felt. "I don't have that mindset to write a role for myself. It's wearing two hats. Same thing for directing. I've directed theater, never directed film, and I'm not sure that I can handle directing film. I do believe that film is a director's medium, because the guy that directs the production is the guy that has the image in his head, or her head, man or woman. And by the way, I refer to 'guy' or 'man,' but I would say that some of the best directors I've ever worked with are women. One of them, certainly, is Penny Marshall. I'd stand her against any man working in the business, as far as I'm concerned. And many others. But unless you are someone like a Penny Marshall or a Steven Spielberg, or Stephen Frears, or David Lynch, and at times even those people, you're the one that dreams up the shot list, generally, and shoots the shot list, and you're doing it so that this image that's in your head, the story that's in your head, even though it's somebody else's written words, comes out to the audience.
"One of the finest directors that I've had the privilege of working with is not an internationally known director, named Lynne Stopkewich. She's headquartered in Vancouver, and she's done some amazing small films. They're fully fledged films in running time, and she's had some wonderful success in film festivals with these films. But because she's never had the opportunity to direct a $50 million budget, she has to go find money where it's available. She did a film that I was in a couple of years ago, which was just a brilliant job, a film called Suspicious River. And the people who she was trying to sell it to insisted that she change the ending. And even though she had written the project, she'd directed the project, she'd won awards as a director, she had no choice, because the money said change this, so we could pull in bigger numbers. To me, that's soul killing. I'm a painter and a sculptor, and if anyone had the audacity to take one of my paintings and say, 'I like this but I want you to paint out that tree and put in a bush,' I'd tell them to go to hell. As a film director, I'd have no choice but to paint out the tree and put in a bush. That's why I wouldn't want to be a director.
"I do believe you have to let an artist present their vision. And that's why television is so often called a wasteland, because you have a sponsor and a network, and whoever else is involved up the line, second-guessing the product and forcing you to change it to reach the largest possible audience. So what you do is, everything becomes more and more bland as you go along. You know, I was in a series called Twin Peaks, and when it first came out, it was the talk of television. But the network put its heavy hand to what was going on, and they didn't like what was going on, and they changed the scheduling so the audience couldn't find it. Pretty soon, it died a horrible death. That's the nature of this beast. You know, there are many directors, and many actors, many brilliant actors, like Johnny Depp, Peter Weller, Judy Davis, John Cassavetes, the list goes on and on, who are actors that no one would deny their ability, but they chose not to star in blockbusters, and to do little films that they love. And they got their recognition, and that's becoming harder and harder to do. It would be very difficult in the film market that we have today for another Ingmar Bergman to achieve what he did, because there'd be some money man saying, 'Well we have to make X number of dollars on our investment.' But that's the penalty of living in this age."
Don's fierce defense of creative freedom carries over into his artwork as well. An accomplished artist, painter, and sculptor, he had at one time sold much of his work. Today he offers a few samples of his work for sale at conventions or on his website, donsdavisart.com, but the majority of his work will not be seen by the public. "The only thing you see on the website is drawings that I sell prints of, and carvings. And the carvings, with the exception of the little chalice, are relief carvings. But I'm primarily a painter. I paint in oil, watercolor, and acrylics. And I carve in the round, mostly. But those things are for me. For years I augmented my income by selling paintings and carvings, and at this period in life I have very few. In fact, most of what I have, I've created in the last couple of years. And I've decided that that part of it is going to remain private. I may show a few paintings at some time in the future, but I'm painting and carving for me. You know, I'll be 60 in August. I don't know how many years I've got left. I've spent most of my life living to please others, and it's time that I spend some of the time directed inwardly."
Now his artwork decorates his home, and the styles are wide and varied. "It's funny, at the frame shop I've been using for the paintings that sort of accompany me, he said, 'You know, when I look at them carefully, I can see that one artist did these.' But he said, 'If you had brought them in and I didn't know they were your own work, I would have said they were done by different artists.' My goal is in the next couple of years to do at least 20 paintings that will be in many different styles. It's funny, when I tried to make a living as an artist, the galleries and the people that wanted to market me, insisted that I create a style that I could become identified by, so the potential buying public, would say, 'Oh, well that's a Don Davis.' I found that stifling. You know, if you like music, chances are if someone walked in and looked at your CD collection, you would find more than one band or singer there. And you would probably find a mix of pop and jazz and country and classical, and whatever, so that your music matched the mood you were in. The same thing is true. What you like about going out to restaurants is that you can have Japanese one day, and French cuisine the next, or Italian, or whatever it is that you like. And the mix is what brings the best to life. And yet, if you're an artist, a painter or a sculptor, they say, 'Well, do one style.' I'm not that kind of person. So, there are some paintings that I do that are just thrown paint and it's totally abstract, and there are other paintings that I do that are as tightly realistic as the drawings you see. And it depends on the subject and my frame of mind when I'm painting. And I'll be damned if something that personal, that is going to be the envelope that keeps me sane, that I'm going to let someone dictate that I must work in one style. So that in itself would inhibit the ability to actually make a living at it."
The "Don Davis style" that gallery owners favored was one of realism. "I have a facility for drawing. I have the ability to recreate what I look at. And so most gallery owners that I was dealing with wanted me to be realistic. But yet, I spent almost 20 years as a stage designer and scene painter. And you have to work in a variety of styles. You have to be free, sometimes abstract, and my favorite form of art is abstract art, abstract expression. I love to throw paint. So, even in my realistic paintings, at some point, if you look through the layers, you'll see thrown paint. And I love pure design. I like art nouveau form, art deco form. I like almost anything but photo-realism. I figure if you're going to try for photo-realism, you might as well buy a camera. But that's just me. I love color. That's what's most deceiving about the website, that I'm nothing if not a colorist. My paintings are very very colorful. And that's just a side of me that comes out."
Being able to pursue two of his passions, both art and performance, simultaneously is something for which Don is very grateful. He also appreciates his comfortable balance of public recognition and relative anonymity. "I'd say as an actor I'm recognized by the public, and basically have been since Twin Peaks. And I did a couple of films that were very well received, and Scully's dad on X-Files, and things. But that's just the nature of this game. I'm no more or less a celebrity than any character actor. Obviously you're more recognized when you're on a series that's currently popular. Probably whenever Stargate fervor dies down, no one will know who I am. You know, I've been around so long as a character actor that people, if they don't recognize me from one of those shows, think that I went to high school with them or something."
He enjoys the opportunities to interact with fans. He has attended several of the Stargate conventions, including Gatecon in Vancouver and the Wolfcons in the UK, and he looks forward to more of them in the future. "I do several of those things a year. I'm supposedly going to go to Paris in October, and London in November."
He tries to keep up with his fan mail too, but that's not always easy, given the volume. "I try to reply from time to time to the message board on my website. Sometimes I'm a little slow to reply to message boards simply because there are so many messages hitting me from there. I get a lot of fan mail which I try to answer. You know, you owe it to people if they're going to be nice enough to support you, to try to be at least polite and civil. I think it's just part of the game. Something happened here over the hiatus, though, and I got a load of stuff which has been just overpowering. I've got a stack about three inches tall of fan mail, some of which was dated as early as May of 2001 that I just received around the first of March this year. And it's odd, in fact, a couple of the other actors have talked to me and they're the same way. We know we've got to answer these things, and some people have sent postage asking for an autograph or a note or a question to be answered, but if it's already been sitting in a drawer or in somebody's corner for the last 8 or 10 months, you don't know how to start a reply, other than 'I'm sorry that somebody put this in a corner and forgot about it, and I'm really not an evil person who doesn't want to answer any letters.' So I'm going to get working my way through those, but normally I'm not overly late in replying to something."
Until the mail has caught up, does Don have a message he'd like to share with his fans? There is no hesitation. "Thank you. Thank you. This show has been one of the best experiences of my entire life. And I'm grateful that there's someone out there watching it so that they'll keep renewing us. If I had my way, this wouldn't be the last season. We'd go on and on until in one episode you'd see the burial of Hammond."
But of course no one ever dies in sci-fi.
Ritter, Kate. "My Life's Been a Great Journey." March 21, 2002.