The A.V. Club: William B. Davis
The A.V. Club Toronto
William B. Davis
[Original article here]
The actor: There are few villains—in television or in fiction, writ large—as compelling as the Cigarette Smoking Man (a.k.a. Cancer Man, a.k.a. CGB Spender), the primary antagonist for the first six seasons of The X-Files. Played by Toronto-born character actor William B. Davis, Cigarette Smoking Man pulled the strings on a vast conspiracy that motivated the show’s gripping, if at times unfocussed, “mythology” arc. Though primarily associated with “Smokey,” Davis has had a broad career across film, television, and theatre. And it’s all detailed in his new autobiography, Where There’s Smoke…: Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man, which Davis launched last night at the Gladstone. We spoke with him before the launch about his career, his signature role, and his emergence as a spokesperson for skepticism.
The Dead Zone (1983)—Ambulance Driver
William B. Davis: Have you seen that film?
The A.V. Club: Yes, but I can’t recall seeing you in it, not that I can remember offhand anyways.
WD: Not that you can remember! That’s right. You’ll see my name in the credits. But you will not see me in the picture. I still have fans who will read my IMDB and send me fan mail saying, “Loved your role in Dead Zone.” Well, my role ended up on the cutting room floor. Yes, I worked on that film, but I did not appear in it. … I’d been a theatre director for 20 years. But I actually had not acted in about 20 years since my first year of university, until about the late ’70s and early ’80s. And that’s when I did Dead Zone.
SCTV (1984)—Man On Phone
WD: Was I on that? Okay…
AVC: Well it’s listed on IMDB that you appeared on an episode of SCTV.
WD: By God, you’re right! I had totally forgotten about that. I have the dimmest memory now that you mention it. As I remember, it was quite a good time!
AVC: You should revisit your own IMDB profile more often, to shake loose more of these memories.
WD: I should really look at it. If only to make sure it’s accurate. I remember last time I looked at it, there was something that I didn’t do, and I corrected it. One needs to keep on top of these things. I remember I was reading—who was it? I think it was Maggie Smith’s entry, or Albert Finney’s. I can’t remember. But this was on Wikipedia. And they had stage credits and left out completely this production of Miss Julie at the National Theatre of Great Britain, on which I was the assistant director. And it wasn’t mentioned at all, so I put it in. And of course, while I was putting it in, I mentioned that William B. Davis was the assistant director.
Beyond the Stars (1989)—Hal Simon
WD: I used to equate the work we did in those earlier years as being like “studio actors.” Kind of like studio musicians who are called in to put together music for a piece, and they lay it down, and they go home. We come in, we do our piece, we do the best we can, and we go home, until we get called for a different one. It’s a workmanlike part of the job. At the time, as I say, I was a theatre director and running my own acting school, so [acting] was just another string to my bow, rather than my whole career.
AVC: What spurred your move from theatre to acting, where acting became not just a string to your bow, but a larger part of the bow? If not the bow itself…
WD: Well, it was not planned. It’s just what happened. I started doing more and more work. But really it was The X-Files that did it. And it took two or three years for The X-Files to do it. But once that part blossomed, I started getting more and more roles. Finally, at age 57, or whatever it was, I could put down my profession as just “actor.” And I didn’t sell my theatre school, but I handed it over to people I trusted.
The X-Files (1993-2002)—Cigarette Smoking Man/Cancer Man/CGB Spender
AVC: Is it true that even this role was meant to be just a cameo in the first episode, where you’re just sitting in the background smoking?
WD: I don’t think it would be fair to say about The X-Files that anything was “supposed” to be anything. I don’t think they had any plans or any idea what they were going to do. But in spirit, yes, you’re right. Apparently someone in Los Angeles hard turned it down, apparently because there were no lines, but I don’t know if that’s a true story or not. But yes, I was just a figure in the background. And it got a little more prominent and a little more prominent.
Finally one of the writers said, “Let’s do something with that!” The fans were interested in that character, so they started to give him more episodes. I think the producers were a little bit unnerved about that, because they didn’t know if I could act. I love Bob Goodwin’s comment on the back of my book. He was one of the executive producers who was assigned to direct the first major episode [the character] did. And he said that within the first five minutes he was thrilled. It reminded him of working with Donald Sutherland, and he just thought I was great.
AVC: Is the title of your book borrowed from the episode of the show, “Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man”?
WD: Well, the subtitle at least. The main title is Where There’s Smoke…, which is about the fact that the character smoked a lot, but also a metaphor for the fire that burned within me, going all the way back to my early life. But yes, the subtitle is a play on that episode, except these are my musings on my life.
AVC: For this role, you were required to constantly smoke cigarettes…
WD: Yes, but I had given them up years before.
AVC: So how did you work around that?
WD: I think it had been like 17 years since I’d last smoked, so I wasn’t really worried about becoming addicted. They offered me these herbal cigarettes, as well as real tobacco cigarettes. I said, “Oh no, I’m an actor. I’ll take the real cigarettes.” And we used those for the first two episodes. Then I found myself thinking, “Hmm. Well I sure would love to do some more of those X-Files episodes, just so I can smoke.” So, after that, we switched to the herbal cigarettes and used them throughout the run of the show.
AVC: You mentioned that this was the role that allowed you to work just as an actor. But was there ever a worry about the character being too iconic that you’d be too closely associated with him?
WD: It’s a double-edged sword. The visibility is great, and the attention is great. But there are terrific shows that did not use me, specifically because of that association. A great show shot out in Vancouver, Da Vinci’s Inquest, which ran for years, did not want to have me on the show. It was a very truth-oriented show, and they did not want the referential thing of, “Oh, there’s the Cigarette Smoking Man.” So I never so much as auditioned for that show.
AVC: Even based on the title of your book, though, it seems as if you’ve always embraced the role. Or at least come to embrace it.
WD: Oh absolutely. And I still go to fan conventions and deal with fan mail, and all this stuff that’s still associated with [The X-Files].
AVC: Do you get a lot of fans stopping you on the street and offering you cigarettes?
WD: [Laughs.] Not as much as I used to! It used to be that I could hardly walk down my street without someone leaning out their window and saying, “Hey you got a smoke?” It still happens, but not nearly as often. Now more often it’s, “Gosh, you look familiar? Are you from Kitchener-Waterloo?”
Robson Arms (2005)—Dr. Carlisle Wainwright
WD: They contacted me and wanted me attached. They thought it would give it some help with the funding and so on. And it sounded like a terrific concept. When the scripts came, there were some minor issues—there seemed to be a bit of ageism in there—but we worked through these. I had Lois Lane, Margot Kidder, as my wife. But eventually she ran off with some young man, and there wasn’t much left to do with my character. But it was fun.
AVC: What was it like returning to Canadian television after working on a major series in the United States?
WD: Well, I had never left Canada. I was always based here, and would just go down to Los Angeles to shoot. And the first five seasons of The X-Files was shot in Vancouver, so even most of what I did on that was based in Canada. I’ve done such a range of things, from the big X-Files feature film to smaller shorts for my friends in Vancouver. And Robson Arms sort of falls in the middle somewhere. It was a little friendlier, more low-key. In the end, it’s not that different, one shoot from the other. Some are more money, and some move faster, but the process is always similar.
Amazon Falls (2010)—Calvin
WD: That was really fun. Again, I was in on it from the beginning. I wanted to be part of it, so I was involved through casting. That was filmed in 12 days, so that’s a different rhythm.
AVC: After the film premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival, it screened in a few places in one-week runs, but never really got a proper release. Is this frustrating, especially after working on a film like X-Files: Fight The Future, which opened nationwide on hundreds of screens?
WD: Yeah, and that’s frustrating not just on a personal level, but for Canadian film in general. There’s a hurdle that seems impossible to get over. I’ve seen many fascinating low-budget films that don’t get seen. I mean, when you compare it to the marketing of Fight The Future, never mind the cost of making the picture, it’s hard to imagine how these smaller films can get seen. But Amazon Falls has had a light. It’s won a number of awards, and people seem to really, really like it.
Critical Eye (2002)—Host/Narrator
AVC: Here’s another show, although nonfiction, which deals with the paranormal and the unexplained. Working on The X-Files, did you develop an interest in these topics?
WD: I did, in a kind of curious way. I was never a believer in aliens or UFOs, or whatever. And people who don’t really understand how the film business works assumed I had chosen to be in this series because I believed in these things. And they’d come up to me with glee, excited to tell me about a new sighting or something like this, and I’d tell them that I don’t actually believe in these things. They’d say, “You don’t?! Why not?” Well, the onus is on them to prove that these things exist, not on me to prove that they don’t. I don’t have to prove why Santa Claus doesn’t exist or why fairies don’t exist or why UFOs don’t exist. And they’d say, “Well, we have!”
AVC: So you’re a skeptic?
WD: Well, yes. One time I was listening to an interview on the radio with Barry Beyerstein, who’s a professor at Simon Fraser University and a member of something [formerly] called CSICOP—the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal [now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry —ed.]. This is a very reputable organization, with many scientists on the masthead. So I contacted him and became very interested in how they had examined so many of these issues, and tested them with scientific rigour to see if there was anything to them or not. I ended up becoming a kind of spokesman for the skeptic community. Because of The X-Files, I had the notability, and now I had some knowledge. So I did some talks on the subject at various places, and then Discovery Channel grabbed me to host a couple different shows, where I’d look at paranormal events and see what the science behind them is.
AVC: It’s interesting that you’re a skeptic. Because in one sense, you’re so associated with a seminal television series about the supernatural that it’d seem like something would rub off. But at the same time, The X-Files was obviously just a fictional TV show, and all these paranormal events were scripted, which would naturally make you more wary of them.
WD: I mean, there’s no relationship between me being an actor working on a show. Nobody thinks that if I play Macbeth that I’m going to go around killing kings. These are fictional stories.
The Tall Man (forthcoming)—Sherriff Chestnut
WD: That’s still in post-production. I just did the [additional dialogue recording] for it just last week. I think they’re trying to get it ready for Sundance, so maybe it will première there.
AVC: And you play a sheriff in this film? What’s the role exactly?
WD: It’s an interesting plot. There are children disappearing in this small town. And everybody assumes that they’ve been murdered. Without giving a spoiler—well, I am giving a spoiler—but it turns out that they’re actually being kidnapped from poor families and sent to rich families, where they can get a better childhood. It’s someone’s perverse idea of how to make a better a world.
AVC: That’s interesting. Pascal Laugier’s previous film, Martyrs, has a similar plot. But Martyrs seems much grislier than this.
WD: Does it? I haven’t seen that. Maybe I will. The Tall Man is beautifully shot, though. It looks great.
AVC: And you star opposite another great Canadian actor, Stephen McHattie.
WD: Yes! And he did a great job in that.
AVC: Had you two worked together before? It seems that, in this industry, you’re bound to cross paths eventually.
WD: You know I’m trying to think … I feel like we might have rubbed shoulders in something, but I can’t remember from what. When we got on a set we had the feeling that we knew each other before.