The Play’s the Thing: Life and Career of Daniel Davis
By Emily Beirne // Photos courtesy of Daniel Davis
The name Daniel Davis may ring a bell for those who have been around the entertainment industry for a while. His British accent and witty comebacks captured America’s hearts on the set of The Nanny, but beneath the character of Niles the butler is an Arkansas native whose soul has thrived on the theater stage.
In the year 1945, a television and theater legend was born in an Arkadelphia hospital. Daniel Davis spent the first half of his adolescent years in the little town of Gurdon, where some of his most vivid memories include television.
“I guess I’m a television baby because when television first came around, I was fascinated by it,” Davis tells AY About You. “My aunt and uncle were the first people [in my family] to buy a television, and they put it in their living room. The box was about as big as a dining table, and the picture was about 8 inches wide. My aunt was fussy and wouldn’t let people inside her house. So, on Sunday nights, when The Ed Sullivan Show came on, they would open the picture window in the living room, and people would stand in their yard, including me, and watch their television. We couldn’t hear the sound, but we were content with just watching.”
His father eventually broke down and bought the family their own television, and Betty Fowler’s Betty’s Little Rascals instantly became one of Davis’ favorite shows to watch after school. When Davis was 11 years old, his father accepted a job in Little Rock, and the family prepared to move to the big city. Davis saw this move as his chance to start his acting career.
“When I found out we were moving to Little Rock, I sat down and wrote a letter to Betty Fowler and said, ‘My father is moving our family to Little Rock. I watch your show every day, and I want to be on it. I can sing, I can dance, and I can do impersonations of movie stars.’” Davis pauses to laugh fondly at the memory. “She wrote me back and told me to have my mother call the studio when we arrived in Little Rock, and they would arrange for me to meet with [the show].”
Davis and his mother set up a time to go to the studio where he sang, performed a tap dance number, and did impersonations of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis. “Once I was done, she asked, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’” he recalls. “For three or four years, I would leave school early and head over to the studio for the show. We never had a script or rehearsed; they would tell us what we were doing, and we would do it. We were too young to be scared; we just did random things and had fun doing it.”
A director on the show also worked with a community theater in Little Rock and would occasionally pull kids from Betty’s Little Rascals to fill children’s roles in different shows the theater was doing. “I would get chosen for those roles a lot, and I was good at memorizing parts because I would recite long chapters of the Bible on Sunday mornings in front of the congregation,” Davis says. “[You] start getting all kinds of praise and adoration from strangers in these settings, and it starts feeding an ego need. From there, it grew.”
In high school, Davis found a shift in status after performing in a school play. Going from just another kid in the crowd, he remembers becoming as popular as the captain of the football team. “I could make [the students] laugh when I was on stage, and I kept that up as being the class clown. I think otherwise I would have been bullied and pushed around,” he says.
An alumnus of Hall High School (now Hall STEAM Magnet High School), Davis opted out of attending Central High School in favor of pursuing his dreams. “The emphasis at Central was entirely on sports, and I didn’t even want to take gym class,” Davis explains. “I remember a woman named Marguerite Metcalf who played a major role in promoting arts in the school district during that time, especially speech and theater. I begged the school board to let me go to Hall. They didn’t understand why I wanted to go there, but it was purely for the arts.” He was in the choir, a member of the drama club, in the speech and debate clubs and eventually found parts in the school plays. “There was an attitude at the time that if you did the arts you were weak, which doesn’t make any sense because you have to be strong as an ox to survive in show business.”
Following high school, Davis pursued drama at Baylor University. Before he enrolled, Paul Baker, the founder of the Dallas Theater Center in Dallas, Texas, was over the theater department at Baylor. Baker was a major reason Davis chose Baylor as his college choice. But upon arrival, he learned that Baker, along with other faculty members in the drama department, had resigned.
“I was stuck at Baylor for a year in the department without Paul Baker, and I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t like Waco, and there were a lot of things going on that I wasn’t happy about,” Davis explains.
During this time, the Rockefellers in Arkansas were funneling money into different cultural endeavors to try to establish a stronger arts presence in the state. An arts school that focused on drama, art and dance was put together under the direction of Dugald MacArthur, a man who worked closely with Baker at Baylor University.
“[Directors of the school] started going around offering scholarships to Arkansas students to go to this school and study. I had come back to Arkansas and was taking classes at Little Rock University (now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) in their drama department. MacArthur came to see a couple of productions, and he offered me one of those scholarships for the first class of students to go through the arts school — Arkansas Arts Center.”
This first class of students went to the school for four years and were about to receive accreditation when the Rockefeller regime in the Arkansas government passed, the Rockefellers moved out and the funds stopped coming to the school. “The Arkansas legislature decided we were just a bunch of ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos,’ so they didn’t want to support us. We graduated one class with no accredited degree and a nonexistent school, but it didn’t stop me. I received great training there under a talented staff, and our students were wonderful.”
When the school officially closed its doors, the second class of students at the Arkansas Arts Center was accepted to the drama division of The Juilliard School, and Davis was planning his next move. “Those students made the big move from Arkansas to New York, but I had already graduated and accepted a job at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in December of 1968.”
He has fond memories of the roles he played starting out in this company before he was picked up by a Broadway producer who put him in an off-Broadway show. While there, another casting director, looking to reopen the Stratford Festival in Connecticut, recruited Davis.
“I worked with that company for a couple of years, and it seemed like it was just one thing after another,” Davis says. “I had a very good beginning as a professional actor.”
His break, he believes, happened while replacing an actor for a play in New York. He rehearsed for a mere week before he performed. “Another actor in the show had his agent attending the production, and the agent met me backstage after the show and asked if I had representation. When he heard that I didn’t, he handed me a card and told me to call his agency to set up an appointment. Well, I did, and I signed on with the agency. They were great representation with a small client list, and the client list included names like Holland Taylor and John Travolta. It usually takes actors years to get this kind of representation, but I was lucky from the start.”
The connections Davis formed through the years at Stratford, New York City and other regional theaters here and there eventually led him to where the small-town boy from Arkansas had always had an ambition to go: the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“We would rehearse for nine months every year, and toward the last three months of the year, we had nine productions in rotation,” Davis says. “So I would be a spear-carrier one night and Hamlet the next. It was the ideal situation for me.”
He estimates that he spent the first 20 years of his career doing regional theater productions.
He stayed in San Francisco seven years before he saw a shift in his career, sending him back to New York. After being a standby for Sir Ian McKellen and not receiving the role once he had left, Davis and his agents had a conversation about a “TV quotient,” or the need for actors to be in front of the audience in film or on shows so that their faces become recognizable, and casting directors for theater can use that popularity to the production’s advantage.
“I had never wanted to go to Hollywood and be on film — it was just something I never saw myself doing,” Davis explains. “I had classical training to be on the stage, and I loved being in front of people in a live audience. That’s what I really wanted to do.”
Nonetheless, in order to keep advancing in his theater career, Davis went to Hollywood and found parts in pilots that were never picked up for shows — a soap opera and odd-end cops-and-robbers shows until the fateful day he would audition to play a butler with a British accent. “I thought this show had the least chance of being picked up, but it ran for six years, and I was proven wrong once again. I guess I have no taste where the American public is concerned,” Davis laughs.
The Nanny, a beloved ’90s sitcom that earned a Rose d’Or and an Emmy, ultimately became the show that gave Davis — or Niles the butler — that TV quotient.
“I mean, people are still watching the show. We went off air in 1999, and they’re still watching it. HBO Max is streaming it for heaven’s sake,” Davis says with a laugh.
The main difference Davis felt between performing on the stage and on the screen was something that he enjoyed most about the theater. “When you’re on stage performing, that’s the only chance you get to show the audience what you can do. You get one take to be that character for that crowd, and then it’s done and finished until the next audience. There’s nobody to edit you or take control of your performance — it’s only you and your fellow actors from start to middle to end. On a show, however, the director might want six or seven takes of one scene, and the take that you thought was your best may not be used in the final cut; and you don’t know that until the show airs, and you watch it. I feel at home on the stage.”
The Nanny was, however, filmed in front of a live audience, giving Davis that connection to theater he missed. “We would rehearse all week long, like we were rehearsing a play, and then a young audience came in on Friday night, and suddenly, it actually was a play for me because there were people sitting there, and I would forget that we were on TV,” he says.
On hiatus at the end of seasons, Davis would fly back and forth between California and New York to do theater productions. Between The Nanny and his other famous role as Professor Moriarty on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Davis became an iconic face and voice in the industry and to fans.
“It’s kind of funny to me, because 60 million people know me from these shows, but those same 60 million people don’t know me for the 300 plays I’ve been in,” he says. “Yes, I’m proud of the effect that I had on the audience and how much people love to still watch and talk about [the shows], and yes I’m happy to have done these roles, but when people say, ‘Those must be the two best parts of my career,’ no, [you] didn’t see this other part of my career. [You] weren’t there.”
From the roles Davis is most proud of reigns the part of Hamlet. Four different times Davis played the character, and he believes that each time was better than the last.
“I played Hamlet almost once or twice a decade since my 20s — the first time at 23 and the last when I was close to 40,” Davis says. “Each time I played him, I was in a different stage of my life, and that life experience allowed me to bring more to the role than previously. When I finally performed Hamlet the last time, I felt that that was as good as I could ever do the performance, and I was too old to play him again.”
Another standout part was as the lead in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a four-and-a-half-hour-long production.
“My mentor was an Ibsen scholar and translator, and he really wanted to do Peer Gynt because it’s seldom produced. The length of the show is usually a lot to ask of an audience to sit through, and the cast has almost 50 people. I played the title character who goes from age 17 to 80 in the span of four hours — the complete life story of a man.” Davis takes a breath before he continues, excitement still in his voice after all these years. “This production was one of the most awesome undertakings that I ever did, and it was such an enormous success that we kept it in our repertory for three seasons.”
The third role Davis ranks as one of his greatest accomplishments is the part of Alceste in Molière’s The Misanthrope. After running into a director he had gotten to know throughout the years, Davis was offered a part on the spot.
“The director, Garland Wright, and I were longtime friends, and we never got to work together very often,” Davis says. “I went to Seattle to do the show, and it was a huge success — one of the most beautiful productions I think I’ve ever done. I played opposite Kate Mulgrew, who at that moment became a lifetime friend and still is to this day.” Wright then took an artistic director position at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and planned to open his tenure with another iteration of The Misanthrope. “He reached out to me and asked if I would come and do the part again, and I, of course, jumped on it. The show was even more successful there than it had been in Seattle.”
Davis has invested decades into producing art and making audiences feel the entire spectrum of emotions. At this point in his life, 65 years since his first television appearance on KATV-Channel 7, Davis has thoroughly enjoyed the break 2020 gave him.
“To be completely honest, I have not missed the grind,” he says. “I don’t want to audition for somebody who wasn’t even alive when I was doing my important work, and I don’t want to go in and prove to some 25-year-old studio head that I know how to act. I learned through the lockdown that I don’t have to jump through hoops anymore to work.”
One of his favorite things to do now is sit in his “big comfy chair” at home and read the books he hasn’t had a chance to read in the last few decades.
“It’s nice to not have to do a damn thing but pick up a book, make myself lunch and dinner, and watch an old movie on the TV,” he says. “I want a whole bunch of nothing right now.”
He doesn’t want to use the word “retired” because he says if someone were to dangle a big part in front of him, he wouldn’t say no.
“I have a friend that has a phrase I love he says applies to me: ‘I’m picky and not in demand,’” Davis laughs. “I love performing, and I love putting on a show, but I’ve found that I’ve been missing out on some much-needed rest.”
Since he left Arkansas, Davis has always been on the move. Thinking back to what life in the Natural State was like for him, Davis realizes that nothing is the same.
“It’s so funny to me, the things that I remember from downtown Little Rock, because I know nothing that I remember is still there, and it really makes me sad. The places I worked at, like Kepner’s Shoe [Store], and the movie theaters we would go to; Franke’s Cafeteria is gone, where we used to have our lunch every day,” Davis says. He attended a few high school reunions in the past, with the last being his 30th reunion. His 60th class reunion is coming up soon. “This is one of the reasons why I stopped coming to the reunions, because I would just be nostalgic all the time. Would I be happy with what’s left?”
A memory from growing up he wants to hang on to forever is attending the Robinson Auditorium with his aunt.
“She was the person who kind of helped me fall in love with the theater. The first show I ever saw was with a touring company from the Fourteenth Street Repertory Theater, with productions starring actress Eva Le Gallienne and actor Richard Eastham. I saw those plays when I couldn’t have been much older than 12 or 13 years old. Fast forward to my own acting career, and I had the opportunity to act alongside Eva in my first acting company and Richard on a separate occasion. The longer you’re in theater, the smaller the theater world gets.”
Arkansas gave Davis the opportunities he needed at those points in his life, but he knew that in order to fulfill his dreams he needed to leave.
“When I left for New York to start my career, my father bought me a return ticket for the Greyhound bus because he thought that I would fail,” Davis shares. Obviously, Davis proved him wrong. “My family didn’t understand my dreams or really support me, save for a few family members that believed in me. I didn’t really have any objections to living in Arkansas; I just knew that for the specific dreams I had, I needed to go somewhere else.”
He urges Arkansans to continue supporting the arts and the talent that is in the state. He’s met many people over the years from his home state in the theater world and film world.
“A lot of talent comes from Arkansas,” Davis says. “I can remember selling out shows when I was performing at the Arkansas Arts Center, so I know there are very bright cultural people in the state that want to see the arts thrive. It’s been a few years since the days I was performing in the state, but I’m sure a trip downtown is still all it takes to find the talent.”
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