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FOLLY ALMOST KEPT DAVIS FROM `WILL ROGERS’ SUCCESS

SHARE FOLLY ALMOST KEPT DAVIS FROM `WILL ROGERS’ SUCCESS

Songwriter. Recording artist. Film actor. Television host.

Mac Davis, the Texas-born entertainer, had done it all before he was invited to replace Keith Carradine in "The Will Rogers Follies." He then added another credit to his career: Broadway star.Davis is playing Rogers in the touring production of the award-winning musical, which is playing here as a Theater League production at the Music Hall. But his association with the show almost ended as soon as it began, a circumstance he attributes to - well, poor judgment.

A few years ago he was sitting in a Los Angeles country club when the show's main producer approached him.

"I was sitting there after a golf round one day and having a drink, I'm sure, and Pierre Cossette walks by," Davis said in a telephone interview from Tucson, Ariz. "He's just a down-to-earth guy, you know - you'd never believe he was in the business - and he comes walking by and just drops this script - it had a little chicken grease on it - he just dropped it on the table and he says, `Here, this is yours if you want it.' "

Davis looked at the title and his eyes opened wide. Early in his career his manager had promoted him as the guy who could be "the next Will Rogers," and here was a chance to play the man himself.

"I took it home and read about 10 or 11 pages of it and thought, `This is the corniest thing I have ever seen in my life,' " Davis said. "I didn't have the vision. Not ever having done Broadway or even a play, much less a musical, I didn't see it on paper. I couldn't picture it. I had only seen one or two plays in my life I just turned it down."

There were other factors, too. Davis, 51, was four years into retirement, for one thing. For another, his increasing dependence on alcohol needed attention.

"I was realizing at that point that I had become an alcoholic," he said, "and was having that daily macho hassle about, `Well, I'm gonna quit tomorrow,' and, `No, you can't quit,' and, `Oh, you have to,' and going through that thing that everybody does. I thought I couldn't handle New York going through this day-to-day kind of existence."

Eventually the show opened on Broadway with Keith Carradine and scooped up several Tony Awards. Then Davis got another chance. But he almost passed on it a second time.

"It was a couple of years later, four months into sobriety, they offered it to me again," he recalled. "That's the real miracle. It was the same place, the country club, but this time I was having a cup of coffee. And this was the way he did it, too, he said, `I don't suppose you'd want to take over for Keith on Broadway, would you?' And I said, `No,' and he said, `That's what I thought you'd say,' and walked away."

Davis went home and told his wife, Lise, what had transpired.

"She went bananas," Davis recalled. "She started doing this laundry list. She said, `Mac, you've done everything there is to do in show business and you've conquered it in one way or another. You've got to do this.' "

She went on, telling him to think of it as an adventure.

"That's one thing I hate for her to say," he said. "That's what you usually get when you're lost, you know, and you're about to run out of gas or you're in a dark alley somewhere. She says, `Think of it as an adventure.' "

Her arguments were persuasive. He made a phone call, met director and choreographer Tommy Tune in Hollywood and a week later he was in New York. Davis performed the show on Broadway for a year and was succeeded by Larry Gatlin.

His good notices in "Will Rogers" have led to television offers for Davis. It all signals a new direction in a career that has taken many unpredictable turns. Many thought he was headed for a long-term movie career after his impressive performance in the 1979 football drama "North Dallas Forty," but his next two movies, "The Sting II" and "Cheaper to Keep Her," failed to please critics or audiences. Producers dismissed him as a fluke and his acting career came to an abrupt halt.

So his success with "The Will Rogers Follies" marks a comeback in every sense. But it all started one afternoon in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Davis saw something that day that inspired him to find out where music could take him.

He was sitting on his front porch and saw a gleaming new Pontiac convertible cruising down the street with the top down and beautiful girls in front and back. Behind the wheel was Lubbock's' native son, Buddy Holly, who for a brief shining moment in the late '50s was the king of rock 'n' roll.

"And my eyes bugged out of my head," he said. "And all of a sudden I went, `Man, there's something to this rock 'n' roll.' And the next thing you know I'd bought me a pair of bongos and I was rockin' and rollin'."

Davis said he had nothing but good wishes for the people of Lubbock, but the success of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and their ability to get out and explore the world fired the imagination of others who followed in his footsteps.

Davis moved to Atlanta, where he played bongos in a local band and eventually ended up in Los Angeles, where he managed a music publishing company and spent as much time as possible writing songs. Eventually, in the late '60s, one of them got to Elvis.

"I had a couple of little things recorded along the way," he said. "Sam the Sham cut one of my records and I was all excited. I think I got a royalty statement for $3.12."

But his association with Presley led to considerably larger paydays. His first tune for Elvis, "A Little Less Conversation," was used on the soundtrack of one of the King's movies and became a Top 40 hit.

"That was just when he was getting restless," Davis said. "He was tired of using the same old formula writers and the same old formula songs in his movies."

The movie was "The Trouble With Girls," released in 1969, when the King's movie career was in the home stretch. After that Davis was tapped for other songs, which led to Presley's recording of "In the Ghetto," a monster hit.

"All of a sudden people were knocking down my doors, people I'd been trying to sell the same songs to for ages who all of sudden wanted to do everything I wrote," he said.

Davis said he always performed his own demos, accompanying himself on guitar, and somebody along the way decided he was a pretty good singer. The result was a successful recording career, gold records and, eventually, a television variety show that ran for three seasons in the '70s.

"I've always said if I had to make it on my voice alone I'd be living in a one-bedroom apartment," he said. "I just never have felt I had a fantastic voice. I've got a passable voice but I've always been able to tell a joke and tell a story."

Indeed, his ability to ad lib with an audience and run his own show required a major adjustment when he took over "The Will Rogers Follies."

"It's tough," he said. "On Broadway there's a discipline I've never had to deal with. You've basically got to go by the book and you've got a stage manager and a director right in your face saying, `You can't do that, you gotta go by the book, you can't change that.' "

Every night the show opens with Will reading a headline or two from that day's newspaper and then launching into a written monologue, but Davis eventually won the approval of author Peter Stone to ad lib.

"Sometimes I'll get one joke that works pretty good and I'll just hang with it for a while," he said. "But there's always something popping up. Sometimes I'll use a joke for a week or 10 days or maybe even a month, but then all of a sudden here comes Senator Packwood. It's a lot of fun and it keeps it fresh."