'No one has loved me like this since my mother'

Blue seas, blue skies, blue eyes. Yup. John Davidson, on a day more cerulean than even California deserves, is at the helm of his 96-foot pleasure craft, Principia, leaving Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island for the 38-mile run back to L.A.'s Marina Del Rey. As he does most weekends, John has been hosting the Salt Water Circus, a summer carnival, which mixes acrobatic slapstick with salty banter. He founded the troupe this year. "Our humor is what you might call semi-deviant," deadpans ringmaster Larry Wilson about the corny gags and circus parody routines. But deviance from John Davidson? The dimpled darling whose 19-year TV and singing career has been about as risqué as Muzak? Now That's Incredible!

At 40, though, Davidson is trying new sea legs—and regaining his bearings after the passage of a tempestuous year. His syndicated TV talk show was recently canceled after two mildly successful seasons, which earned him some $3 million. His ABC series That's Incredible! is still seen weekly, though Davidson spends only four days a month taping and admits that "it hasn't exactly taxed my creative juices." Most disruptive, however, has been the end of his once idyllic 11-year marriage to Jackie Miller, 45. "Jackie and I were just not getting along," he confesses. "She didn't want to be Mrs. John Davidson." It has been two years since Davidson moved out of the $600,000 Hidden Hills ranch estate he shared with her and their two children, and into a temporary setup some 20 miles away in Toluca Lake. The divorce is expected to be final this month. Meanwhile he has been living with Rhonda Rivera, 26, a singer in his on-tour backup group, Blush. Unlike his marriage to independent-minded Jackie, "Our relationship makes me the driving force," says John of Rhonda. "We have a wonderful dialogue, but it's the taking care of her I like. She makes me feel like a man."

The caretaking, however, has its limits. "We've just signed palimony papers. To get realistic about it," he confides, "if our love should die, I don't think Rhonda is entitled to half my income through all these years." And Davidson is equally businesslike about other emotion-laden issues. He plans to move with Rhonda into a home down the block from Jackie, and he refuses to be fazed by the prospect of friction between the two women. Says Davidson: "No woman is going to get in the way of me and my children. They're my No. 1 priority."

Another high priority these days is his Salt Water Circus, which he conceived after visiting the Monte Carlo Circus with Prince Rainier last year. Davidson assembled his troupe at Avalon last March, including ringmaster Wilson, a comedian-magician who was a semiregular on John's talk show, juggler Daniel Rosen, tightroper Jim Ridgley and a trio of klutzy acrobats called the Flying Cavettis. They all constructed the stage, ticket booths and props. "It felt just like summer stock," John recalls. "Everyone was really enthusiastic and a little crazy." He hopes the circus and other activities will restore some of the glamour that Catalina enjoyed 50 years ago. Says Davidson happily: "As you turn 40, you get bored with the run of things in your life. You want to push things to the limit a little more."

Davidson's new sense of mid-life direction is best in evidence as he skippers his $400,000 yacht. Ten years' experience has made him an accomplished sailor in all weather. Principia is a floating wonder: a 1928 craft equipped with staterooms for 12, a galley, a formal dining room, a lounge furnished with color TV and electric piano, and an exercise bicycle, Jet Skis and scuba equipment stowed on the boat deck. "If I know I have four days off in a row, this is where you'll find me," says John. He's toying with taking a six-month cruise early next year down the Mexican coast and through the Panama Canal to Florida.

Davidson says he has no regrets about steaming into middle age. "The dimples are turning into creases, and my hair's starting to gray," he says. "But I welcome it. It's more of a character look." Still, John allows realistically that neither his years nor his divorce will erase his Mr. Vanilla image. "I don't see myself being given character parts in movies," he says. "There's a mystery about Brando. About Pacino. There's no mystery about John Davidson."