Sailing the high seas with John Davidson, the superstar time forgot

The next-big-thing of ’70s TV was the ultimate Hollywood Square, always out of step with the era. At 80, he’s still working on his act — and aiming to please himself.

John Davidson, 80, plays guitar on his boat in La Paz, Mexico, on April 18.
John Davidson, 80, plays guitar on his boat in La Paz, Mexico, on April 18. (César Rodríguez/For The Washington Post)
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ON THE SEA OF CORTEZ, Mexico

It takes three flights to get to the airport at La Paz and then a 20-minute drive to reach the marina where John Davidson — the actor, singer, talk-show host, nightclub workhorse and all-around icon of American television’s three-channel glory days — is living on his boat.

I worried that he regretted allowing me to visit.

In January, days before I first planned to come, Davidson emailed because a storm threatened to shut down the harbor. As I tried to rebook my flights, he suggested that we just Zoom. “Wouldn’t this be a much simpler way, definitely less costly and save you all this trouble,” he wrote. After I had boarded Cantante (Spanish for “singer”), the 42-foot trawler he bought sight unseen last year, he came clean about the lingering concerns that had kept him up the previous night awaiting my arrival — that he wouldn’t be entertaining enough.

“You’re going to be stuck on a boat with me,” Davidson said. “What are we going to talk about?”

Seriously, man?

John Davidson is the superstar that time forgot. He starred in movies, sang on Broadway, headlined in Vegas, subbed more than 80 times for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” His dimpled smile and enviable mane of hair were inescapable through the 1970s and ’80s — just go to YouTube for the evidence. He’s duetting with Julie Andrews, straight-manning for George Carlin, battling through a talk-show chat with a drunk Ringo. He dated Karen Carpenter, harmonized with Mama Cass, hung out with Kenny Rogers, cut records on the same label as Janis Joplin and Simon & Garfunkel.

Imagine a Brad Pitt who could also sing, or a Jimmy Fallon who could act, or a Hugh Jackman with his own talk show, back when talk shows were cool. Jackman might be the best parallel, a ruggedly handsome multiplex star who remained at heart a song-and-dance man, craving nothing so much as a live audience.

That was John Davidson in the 1970s. Or could have been.

What is there not to talk about with John Davidson? His is the story of man both built for stardom and an awkward fit for his particular era, a wholesome multihyphenate who broke out in Disney musicals just in time for the advent of “Midnight Cowboy” and recorded smooth orchestral ballads while the girls were screaming for Led Zeppelin.

What were the 1970s really like? Davidson, the preacher’s kid from White Plains, N.Y., who got thrown into the fast lane, can tell us — and he does, in fact, three nights a week during the summer season, in the 44-seat club he opened last year in an old barn in Sandwich, N.H. An evening of songs and stories and nostalgia. He barely breaks even, but “he would do it for nothing,” says his longtime friend, comedian Jim Teter.

“He has to be singing,” Teter says. He once told Davidson: “You would follow a couple of guys into the men’s room with your guitar and say, ‘Hi, fellows! You want to hear some songs?’”

But the ultimate showbiz people-pleaser has another audience he is aiming to satisfy these days, at least during the offseason. It’s why he took stock of a looming birthday last year and explained to his second wife that after 38 years of marriage he would be decamping to a boat in Mexico for the winter, as a solo act.

“I said, f--- it,” Davidson recalled. “I’m 80, and I’m going to do what I want.”

Hearing John Davidson cuss is initially jarring. The son of Baptist ministers, he could be counted on during the days of Woodstock and Lenny Bruce to brighten screens with his perfect smile, G-rated jokes and face as smooth as a Roman sculpture. His speaking voice is not one that you’d expect to go blue: dignified, almost regal, a tone that in another era would have made him a radio star. His singing voice is still a booming, polished baritone — supple enough for a tender Everly Brothers song or slide into screwball for Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” but free of the grit or rasp you’ve come to expect with the folk songs he favors these days.

Onstage in Sandwich, he can get randy with a joke but never goes too far, understanding the line between playful and vulgar.

Davidson and I never really established the specifics of our voyage. I envisioned a cross between a boy’s night out and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Battling salty waves. Diving off the deck. Fishing. We’d drink canned beer and smoke cigars.

The Baja peninsula sparked still other associations. Puerto Vallarta is due south, the vacation hot spot whose name was burned onto the brain of every ’70s TV-watching kid as a prime stop for “The Love Boat,” and yes, of course, Davidson punched his ticket on the cheesy, fabulous ABC dramedy hit, appearing as a suntan-lotion exec searching for a special lady to be the company spokeswoman. (His fellow guest stars: Jack Klugman, Telly Savalas and teenage Janet Jackson.)

But it soon became clear that our time on Cantante would be scripted by neither Aaron Spelling nor Hemingway. There would certainly be no fishing. Earlier this year, Davidson caught a tuna with a friend.

“We made the mistake of trying to clean this fish to make two nice filets,” Davidson intoned. “To give to a restaurant owner. And it was the bloodiest mess. And I just looked in the eye of this fish. What the f---? Why did I take this guy’s life? Do I need to do this? And there was blood over the whole boat. I just felt like such an a--h---.”

He has a neighbor here in Mexico. Christine, who lives on the boat in the slip next to his. She moved down from California after her husband died. She remembers Davidson from his TV days and springs onto her sailboat’s deck whenever she hears his motor start. It’s not because she’s in awe. It’s his steering. When the wind is blowing, it can be easy to slide too far to the left. There have been some close calls.

“He’s learning,” Christine says. “He just needs to watch the wind and the tides and which way it blows.”

Thirty years ago, he did just that. It was 1991, and he was turning 50, a midlife crisis point for a performer who had spent more time than most in boyish roles — he starred as Curly in “Oklahoma!” in his 20s, 30s, 40s and even in his 50s — but whose next-big-thing momentum had petered out into hosting gigs on “The Hollywood Squares” and “The $100,000 Pyramid.” “I thought I was going to start drooling soon, that I had no time left,” Davidson says and laughs. That’s when he first hit the high seas, taking his wife, Rhonda, and two of his three children, John Jr., and Ashleigh (his other daughter, Jennifer, skipped the trip) out on his 96-footer, the Principia, a nine-month journey down the coast from Ventura, Calif., through the Panama Canal and up to the Florida Keys.

By the end he was sick of the sea — and ready to get back to work. He sold the boat and opened his own theater in Branson, Mo., the squeaky-clean Vegas of the Ozarks, and, after that, picked up $100,000 a year doing five cruises a year for Royal Caribbean.

The wanderlust kept recurring, in consort with the ever-nagging urge to perform. A few years ago, he hatched a plan to buy an RV so he could drive himself from town to town while on a national tour with “Wicked.” His business manager tried to dissuade him. Rent one first, Rebecca Ryder told him, and see if you like it.

But “he bought it,” says Ryder, “and got tired of driving every night from show to show. He sold it for a loss.”

There was also the time he decided to ride his bike across the country with his guitar, busking from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore. He set off on two wheels from his home in Massachusetts to reach his intended starting point.

“It was the most miserable few weeks of his life,” says Bart Briefstein, a longtime friend. “It rained like hell. He got to Portland, Maine, and he just threw in the towel.”

So I might reasonably have expected a choppy ride as Davidson turned Cantante north and piloted us up the bay. But it was a smooth journey — I’ve faced rougher seas in Boston Harbor — and a short one. After cruising for only about 90 minutes, Davidson pulled into a cove, where a half-dozen boats were anchored near a casual beachfront restaurant. “We’re here,” he said.

It was time to talk. And John Davidson has plenty to tell.

At his peak, through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Davidson earned $75,000 a week performing in Las Vegas — nearly half a million in today’s dollars. But he never felt like a star, never felt in sync. There was the time that his first wife, Jackie, a singer with the folk-pop act New Christy Minstrels, threw a party and invited Jim Morrison, the Lizard King himself, the legendary sex-god frontman of the Doors. Davidson missed it because of a gig but had no regrets. He was scared to mingle with that crowd.

There was the time Elvis Presley had his buddy, Red West, call to invite Davidson over to hang at Graceland. Again, he declined.

“I don’t know, Red,” Davidson recalled telling him. “I don’t know that I would fit in.” He made some other lame excuse when box-office champ Burt Reynolds wanted to go boating with him; feeling not cool enough, he suggested Burt borrow the boat instead.

In hindsight, you can’t help but wonder if a man of his talents might have been more discriminating to meet the moment. Should he have taken more creative risks? Should he have spoken out about Vietnam and the civil rights movement instead of crooning on variety shows? Should he have attached himself to hipper artists instead of setting up Bronson Pinchot’s punchlines on “The Hollywood Squares”?

“I was just too square,” Davidson says.

But being square came naturally. Back in White Plains, his parents, the ministers, had raised him right, parading him around as “the epitome of what a young man should be,” he says.

For a time, he even thought of becoming a minister. He changed his mind at Denison University, majoring in theater and getting cast promptly upon graduation as Bert Lahr’s son in the 1964 Broadway musical “Foxy.” Bob Banner, a pioneering producer of TV variety shows, discovered Davidson and got him a gig filling in for none other than Andy Williams on the star’s eponymous weekly hit show. Banner saw Davidson’s apple-pie image as a strength. There were enough chain-smoking Method guys on the rise in Hollywood.

“I stood out because I was like a Pat Boone coming to New York City,” says Davidson. “Squeaky clean.”

But critically, he had the chops, too — a Swiss Army knife combo of showbiz skills, as Banner, who became his manager, saw it. Davidson played banjo and harmonized with the Everly Brothers. He starred on the “Kraft Summer Music Hall” alongside the likes of Carlin and rising star Richard Pryor. He held his own opposite Sally Field in the “The Girl With Something Extra,” a short-lived sitcom from 1973. His ease and warmth before the camera made him a natural for the burgeoning talk-show scene, and not just as a guest: On 87 occasions, Davidson was entrusted with filling Johnny Carson’s shoes on his top-rated “Tonight Show.”

“He was just a gorgeous man,” says actress Lesley Ann Warren, who worked with Davidson in a pair of Disney musicals, 1967’s “The Happiest Millionaire” and 1968’s “The One And Only Genuine, Original, Family Band.” “He had a very strong, male presence, very old-school in that he was rugged and had a lot of charisma. But you know, I think his smile and his genuine warmth as a human shine through. He was so appealing.”

And yet Disney live-action romps, already a flagging genre, were no ladder to the 1970s A-list. Davidson’s leading-man peak years were bleak years for the Broadway musical; he might be the go-to guy for “Music Man” revival tours, but no one was writing the original work that could have lent him a signature song or teed him up for a Tony. He made eight albums between 1966 and 1970 for Columbia; but while label mates Bob Dylan and Paul Simon labored in the studio and wrote their own material, Davidson punched out records like sausages, almost entirely filled with covers. You could catch him on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in a tuxedo performing a big band version of George Harrison’s “Something.”

“He didn’t have a distinctive style,” said Rich Little, the impressionist, who worked with Davidson regularly. “If you heard a record of his on the radio, you wouldn’t know it was him.” Some called him “the poor man’s Glen Campbell.”

There was also growing sense, as the ’70s turned to the ’80s, that the things that once made him so marketable, so successful, were holding him back. He finally got his own daytime talk show, but the gentle celebrity-chat format was being eclipsed by the edgy social-issues fare of Donahue and Oprah.

He yearned to do a guest spot on David Letterman’s ascendant late-night show but could never get booked. Davidson pressed his manager for answers.

“They said I wasn’t square enough for him to make fun of me and I wasn’t hip enough to actually banter with,” says Davidson. “That says something about my career.”

There’s another chapter from John Davidson’s journey through the semi-superstardom, but it’s a story that doesn’t flow as freely.

On May 28, 1977, Davidson was the headliner at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a sprawling nightlife complex in Southgate, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Some 3,000 patrons had packed the place, twice as many as the fire code allowed.

“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” says Teter, who was also there, opening for his friend that night. “I didn’t mind. I thought it was good for me to talk about it.”

But on this day in the cove, after some turkey sandwiches and cold drinks and a shore break to play bocce, after hours of talk about life and career and loss, Davidson brings it up, unprompted. He’s talking about the challenges of teaching young people to perform, and an arts camp he founded, when it becomes necessary to broach this part of his bio.

“I was in a terrible fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club,” he says, by way of introduction.

He speaks about it sparingly, like someone who has had to learn a way to talk about this thing. In Davidson’s day, celebrities didn’t share their personal traumas. He was backstage when smoke began to fill the building. He got outside and waited.

“I decided, we’ll see how long we have to stay outside,” he remembers. “They’ll put out the fire, and we’ll come back in and do the show.”

But the fire spread fast. There were no sprinklers and too few exits. In the end, 165 people were killed, including Davidson’s music director and members of his band. It remains the third-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

Later, journalists wanted to interview him about the fire; companies tried to get him to promote smoke detectors. Davidson waved them all off. Instead of talking about the tragedy, Davidson started the arts camp. He taught and brought in other VIP instructors — Florence Henderson, Tony Orlando, Kenny Rogers — who got his boat for a weekend in exchange for their time. It was not a moneymaker. Davidson lost $75,000 the first year, $25,000 the next.

“I just had no idea of doing a business plan,” he says. “I just thought, what am I doing with my life? What am I? I just wanted to give something back.”

Davidson bought Cantante for $60,000 from a retired college professor. “I told him he should see the boat first,” says Ryder, his manager. Davidson assured her it would be fine.

Of course, it needed at least $5,000 of engine work to get it running. And now, as with every other Davidson journey, the trip hasn’t quite played out like he imagined. He diligently trained his dog Calle how to go potty on AstroTurf, but she just couldn’t get proper exercise on a boat. Now she’s staying with John Jr., a business coach who lives on shore nearby with his family. Davidson also envisioned that it would feel liberating to go naked on his boat. He neglected to apply sunscreen to one typically private and particularly sensitive body part.

“The whole area was red,” he says, “because it had never seen the sun before.”

Then there is the subject we dance around. He and Rhonda moved to a big house in New Hampshire four years ago, aiming to settle down. But things changed, and when they sold the place last year, Davidson moved into a space above the nightclub. Obviously, Rhonda isn’t here on Cantante.

Davidson feels guilty about discussing it. He wants to respect her privacy. But he feels strongly about the example he’s living. That there is something to be said about taking chances and being alone. He shares a quote from the poet Marianne Moore.

“ ‘The cure for loneliness is solitude,’ ” he says and pauses. “It’s an amazing concept. I’m alone now for the first time in my life.”

We sit on the back of the boat as the sun goes down. Talk turns back to his nightclub, which he dubbed Club Sandwich (get it?). He’s excited about the new season, which begins June 24. He’s got a sponsor this year — thank you, Graystone Builders! — so he can bring in a few bigger acts, including singer-songwriter Patty Larkin. He’s bumped his own performing schedule up from two to three nights a week. And to freshen up his act, he’s constantly writing new songs — exactly what he neglected to do during his major-label heyday circa 1970.

Here’s one, he says, picking up the cheap guitar he keeps on the boat. It’s a slow, ragtimey song, packed with 7th chords.

Spend one night with an old guy, it begins, and you’ll never go back to the boy.

The song references Johnny Mathis, eight-tracks and lava lamps.

He’ll say you’re the prettiest girl in the world.

Of course, he’s probably losing his sight.

But who cares if he makes you feel special.

Just don’t let it go to your head.

Because he’s never going to ask you to come on home to meet his parents.

There’s a pretty good chance they’re dead.

It’s a perfectly Davidsonian blend of musicality and comedy, built for his kind of fans. And for that, he’s not about to apologize.

“It is corny,” he says. “But I’m corny.” And then he slides back into another verse.

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