In the sun-dappled opening scene of director Oliver Stone's new movie, Born on the Fourth of July, a group of bright-eyed boys chase one another through autumn woods in a lively game of make-believe war. That sequence is only a brief prelude to Stone's ambitious film biography of Ron Kovic, the disabled Vietnam veteran turned activist portrayed by Tom Cruise
. But to Lane Davis, 13, the young actor who plays one of Kovic's boyhood pals, those moments in the woods seemed to herald the start of a blossoming career.
Within months of finishing Born, Lane, who had previously acted in commercials and regional theater, won a coveted role in Tyne Daly's Gypsy on Broadway and was being considered for the part of Roseanne Barr's son in the film She-Devil. As he flew home to Miami last March after New York City auditions, Lane was understandably elated. But the very next day, his dream of being an actor was snatched away. While riding his bike near his house, Lane was hit by a car, and he suffered severe head injuries. "We went from the absolute top to the absolute bottom in 24 hours," says his mother, Donna. While Lane lay in a coma, his agent phoned to say that he had won the She-Devil part. His parents, distraught, had no choice but to refuse it.
Today, after two craniotomies and nine painstaking months of therapy, Lane can walk and play again, but his right arm remains partially paralyzed and—particularly devastating for an actor—his speech is severely impaired. Able to piece together only short sentences, he channels his natural gregariousness into miming. Of Oliver Stone, Lane speaks the word "nice." Pointing to a snapshot of himself mugging with Kovic, he says, "I love him."
"Lane's whole drive was to be a star," says his father, Bob, a Dade County firefighter. As a toddler, Lane built a pint-size TV-news set, complete with a hand-drawn weather map. At 7, he discovered the stage at a local summer camp. "He started taking tap and jazz and singing," remembers Donna, and after being picked up by a Miami talent agency, he was soon hawking McDonald's hamburgers and Eastern Airlines on TV.
In the summer of 1988, when he was 12, a determined Lane dragged his mother up to New York City. "I figured, let's go up there for two weeks and just get it out of our system. I thought he was going to get blown away," says Donna. "But the first commercial he went on, he got." He also landed a top agent, Nancy Carson, who remembers meeting the boy. "He had it," she says. "He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos." By the end of the summer, Lane had won the part in Born.
Since the accident (because of their pending lawsuit, the Davises cannot discuss the case), Lane attends four hours of daily speech, occupational and physical therapy, straining to learn new words and move his right arm. In the swimming pool, his therapist pushes him to use his damaged limb, but Lane flails awkwardly in the water. At noon Donna picks him up and asks if his day went well. "Yes," he answers, but, "I hate pool."
Lane will return to school at least part-time next year but now feels "isolated and lonely," says Donna, especially since his show business buddies are miles away in New York City. In December he enjoyed a glimmer of limelight when he attended a private New York City screening of Born with Oliver Stone and some of the cast and crew. "It was like a reunion," says Donna. And what of the movie? "It had a lot of sex," replies Lane with a laugh.
Although he has been offered a handful of local theater parts, including Tiny Tim in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Lane has refused. "He's a perfectionist," explains Bob. "If he can't do it perfectly, he won't do it at all." In New York City last month, Lane's agent sent him for an interview at ABC, which features an actor with Down syndrome in its series Life Goes On. "If they could hire someone like Chris Burke, then maybe they could hire someone like Lane," says Carson.
But if that doesn't happen, Lane says that, like his hero Ron Kovic, he will turn his skills in another direction. Perhaps he will create monsters for horror flicks, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. "I love Freddy and Jason," he says, with a grin. The words are spoken, albeit with a struggle, like a true 13-year-old.
—Jeannie Park, Cindy Smith Dumpier in Miami