Mention the name John Davidson to anyone under the age of 40 and chances are they will likely give you that deer-in-the-headlights “who?” blank-stare response. Say the name John Davidson to anyone over the age of 50 and they may recall his time on television. Whether it was filling in on The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson in the 1970’s, That’s Incredible or Hollywood Squares or moderating his own self-titled and short-lived syndicated talk show in the 1980’s, Davidson was a television fixture.
For Disney fans, the name John Davidson resonates back to a time when Walt Disney Pictures was producing family-friendly musicals under the leadership of the Old Maestro himself, Walt Disney.
“Walt insisted that I call him Walt,” Davidson fondly recalls with a sparkle in his eyes, “and he called me John.” The actor remembers his short tenure on the Disney Studios lot as if it was yesterday but, it was more than 50 years ago when this then-young entertainer first was signed by Disney to star in three live-action musicals.
“Regardless of where you were on the lot, Walt would call you by your first name and wave,” the 77-year-old actor and singer reflects, “especially in the commissary where Walt would visit frequently.”
But when word spread that Walt was on his way to the set, Davidson remembers everyone’s nerves were on edge because the boss wanted to check on the progress of the latest movie in production at the studio.
Davidson, currently starring as Captain Hook in the National Tour of the musical Finding Neverland, took some time out of his hectic schedule to reminisce on the 50th anniversary of the movie that catapulted him to his five-decade career in show business. Fresh from a run in 1964 on Broadway in Foxy the star was cast in The Happiest Millionaire, the follow-up Disney musical to the hugely successful and Academy Award-winning film Mary Poppins.
“They just had this huge hit Mary Poppins and so here I come along and made The Happiest Millionaire, which wasn’t a bomb but it wasn’t Mary Poppins.” Davidson says he believes the reason The Happiest Millionaire fell short of box office and audience expectations was because it missed the fantasy element of live action and animation in Mary Poppins and that Walt Disney passed away prior to the 1967 release of the film.
Davidson went from Broadway where he starred with Burt Lahr to Los Angeles where his co-stars included Hollywood quintessential and Disney iconic actors. In the so-called “Happiest Musical of the Year,” the song and dance man found himself alongside Fred MacMurray as eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Greer Garson as the matriarch of the family, Geraldine Paige as Mrs. Duke, Tommy Steele as butler John Lawless and Lesley Ann Warren as Cordy the daughter of the Drexel Biddle high society family.
When Davidson auditioned for the role of Angie Duke, Cordy’s suitor, he screen-tested with Shelly Fabares. He didn’t learn that Warren got the role until he showed up on the set for the first day of filming. “I came into this movie as an entertainer,” Davidson reflects. “Lesley was approaching this more as an actress and had much more training,” the actor recalls.
As for co-star Steele, JD says he remembers watching Steele “steal the movie. He was so magnetic. He was a showman the minute he got to the studio.”
The Happiest Millionaire was the first of a three-film deal that Davidson signed with Disney. His second film was The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band, where he also starred opposite Warren. Davidson credits both films with launching him into a career in movies.
“What was the third movie you were supposed to do for Disney?” I asked. “We never made it. No, they dropped me,” the actor adding the studio “ripped up the contract.” He believes his time at the Disney lot was short-lived because of the changing tide in Hollywood and with audiences who seemed to be tiring of and moving away from family movie musicals.
The Happiest Millionaire was released in 1967 and received an Oscar nomination for Costume Design and featured a musical score by Mary Poppins collaborators Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman.
With two Disney films on his acting resume, Davidson says he is always elated to talk about his time at the Mouse House. He adds that Disney, the man and the studio he founded were iconic and beloved. “The Disney lot was not like being in Hollywood. It was set aside. It was different.” He adds the atmosphere at the studio was positive where “people smiled at you, it was wonderful.”
“The minute you came on the lot in the morning, everyone is smiling. The Disney world is a different world,” the actor adding that his tenure at the studio was “a life-changing experience.”
Davidson remembers how organized the production team was for his first film. “It was so well prepared with the storyboards. There was never anything improvised, and everything was so planned out. It was a very secure feeling working at Disney.”
Besides a benefit concert in New York City at Joe’s Pub on December 3rd, days short of the actual 50th anniversary of the film, there was nothing planned by either the Disney studios or Drexel University in Philadelphia to mark the occasion. It would have been nice at least for Drexel to mark the milestone or work in conjunction with D23 to host a special screening of the film. The event could have been capped with a special appearance by Davidson while he was in town with Finding Neverland.
As my time with Davidson was winding down, he said he would like to work again with Warren with a special staging of On Golden Pond. But for now, it is time for make-up and wardrobe as he once again takes on the role of Captain Hook. When not touring in a Broadway production, Davidson still appears around the country in small intimate venues where he can get to share his love of music with fans and perhaps indulge in an enjoyable recollection about an amazing career and his days on the Disney lot.