A Role as a Gay Companion Brings Bruce Davison An Oscar Buzz

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is the one scene everyone remembers: David, the rock-solid, middle-aged homosexual, gently urging his AIDS-ravaged lover to "let go" of life in the widely praised new movie Longtime Companion. But for actor Bruce Davison the pain of that deathbed farewell ran deeper. "I had lived the scene before," says Davison, in a voice breaking with emotion, as he explains how, to play it, he called upon memories of his own bedside vigil when his mother died of breast cancer in 1984.

Along with his sister, her husband and a family friend, he gathered by her bed. "My mother's friend said, 'Go for the light, Marion,' " he recalls. "Just before my mother went under the heavy dose of morphine she knew would put her out, she turned to me and said, 'Do good work.' And now I have. This is one time that has come around and tied a perfect knot."

The work is so good that Davison is being touted for an Oscar. Yet despite his gifts, the actor's two-decade career has been checkered. Although he made a big splash at 23 in the controversial 1969 movie Last Summer (which featured a graphic teenage rape scene) and showed early promise in that quintessentially '60s effort The Strawberry Statement, he had only one hit, Willard (1971), a horror movie about a weirdo and his rats. ("For the audition, they dumped two handfuls of rat on me. He ran up my shoulder and they said, 'He likes you! You've got the part!' ") Willard's success didn't translate into star power for Davison, and he was relegated to quickly forgotten films (Ulzana's Raid), supporting roles (Crimes of Passion) and prestigious failures (Short Eyes).

Today, Davison, 44, his blond hair streaked with gray, sits with his wife, actress Lisa Pelikan, in the sunny living room of their Los Angeles home and ponders his erratic career. "I didn't understand 'commercial'...I've always gone to what has interested me," he explains.

But it wasn't just a case of smart actor, dumb career choices. In the '70s, an era dominated by the likes of Pacino, Hoffman and De Niro, Davison's cool, Waspy persona was the wrong ethnic type. Celebrity may have tripped him up too. "Success came too quickly, and I simply couldn't handle it," Davison has mused. Temptation was everywhere. There were the women—co-stars like Kim Darby and Sarah Miles—and the early, two-week marriage to Jess Walton (now Jill Foster Abbott on CBS's The Young and the Restless) that he describes as "more of a train wreck than a marriage—it was one of those things we decided to do over three bottles of champagne." And, yes, there was the wine. "In Hollywood it's easy to opt out—there's drink, drugs, etc. I went straight for the booze—for years I was pretty messed up," Davison says.

Which isn't surprising, considering his stormy family history. By the time he was 3, his parents had divorced. He grew up in Philadelphia with his mother, a onetime personal secretary to Grace Kelly's father. When he was 14, his maternal grandfather, with whom he shared a room, committed suicide by hurling himself under an oil truck. For years Davison tormented himself with the thought that he could have prevented the death, which he now attributes to his grandfather's chronic depression. Then, in April 1972, Davison's father, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, died of alcohol-related complications. "I went through five years of rage," says Davison. "It seemed like such a damned waste." Perhaps not entirely. In 1981, after acknowledging his own drinking problem, Davison entered a recovery program and has been sober ever since.

He has also been productive, managing to nurture a theatrical life that includes impressive appearances on Broadway in The Glass Menagerie and The Elephant Man and on both coasts in The Cocktail Hour. "Director Robert Aldrich once told me, 'Kid, you don't want to be a leading man. Be a character actor, and you'll work forever.' " Maybe. Following Longtime Companion, Davison has just finished Steel and Lace, a science-fiction adventure film, and this time not only is he the star, but his name will go above the title.

These days Davison says he has also found personal serenity, thanks to his marriage. The couple met in 1985 at an opening-night party for the L.A. production of Larry Kramer's AIDS drama, The Normal Heart, in which Davison was appearing. Bruce, Lisa recalls, got her attention fast: "He came up and told me, 'We have something in common. We both played killer nurses on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.' " If Pelikan was merely taken aback, Davison was so knocked out by the young woman with the luxuriant red hair and alabaster skin that two mornings later he showed up at her door with a dozen red roses, croissants, strawberries and a marriage proposal.

"Of course I said no," she reports. She was, however, sufficiently persuaded by Davison and his "generosity of spirit" that three weeks later they moved in together. On July 4, 1986, they were married in their own backyard, where they have since built a Japanese-style teahouse designed by Davison and overlooking the valley below.

Though another woman might find it unsettling to watch her husband in a gay relationship onscreen, Pelikan denies any such concern. "We've both played so many characters," she says. "I feel very comfortable with our love and sexuality." On the other hand, she remembers her reaction to his stage part in The Normal Heart. "I felt more queasy about that," she says, laughing. "He and Richard Dreyfuss really went at it!"

Pelikan recently flew off to Fiji, where she's filming Return to the Blue Lagoon; Davison plans to join her there for a belated celebration of their fourth wedding anniversary. Such exotic outings aside, the couple say they lead a quiet life. They share such activities as rock climbing, scuba diving and painting, but tackle them in emphatically different ways. "He'll sit down and do a painting, and it's finished," Pelikan explains. "I'll spend weeks looking at the canvas, figuring out what I want." The dynamic holds true domestically as well. "I cook and take a long time cooking. And he does the dishes—very fast," she says.

Yet vive la différence! For the first time, Davison feels secure enough to turn his thoughts toward children, although, true to form, he wants them yesterday, while Pelikan would like to think about it. In the meantime they are parents to Jennie, a 14-year-old Samoyed mix who, they claim, can sing "Blue Moon." Bruce is also planning to return to another pet, of sorts: He has optioned rights to make The Return of Willard and is developing a script John Landis will produce.

"Now I realize that life has a continuity," the actor says contentedly. "I wasn't happy when I was younger—I was always on my way to somewhere, like the title of a book on my grandmother's shelves, Someday, Boy. That was my theme song—'Someday, boy, I'll prove it to all of you.' " This year, he has.

—Marjorie Rosen, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles

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