The boy-next-door at 76: John Davidson's still cute, still busy

Sitting in the audience one night, I spotted the name "John Davidson" in the program for a touring production of the "Finding Neverland" musical.

That's odd, I thought. I wonder if he's related to the famous John Davidson; maybe he's a son or a grandson or ...

Actually, this was THE Davidson, the classic leading-man of a previous TV generation. He's still busy at 76, doing strong work in "Neverland," while also taping some bits for the Game Show Network. The latter may be his ideal niche; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Game shows seem to
be eternal. So do game-show stars.

“I can still look
cute when you clean me up,” John Davidson, 76, said after a Game
Show Network gig.

He said that
whimsically; Davidson has had a mixed relationship with his
cute-choirboy look.

“In my mind, I was
a rebel,” he said. Other people only saw the handsome
boy-next-door, a perpetually polite guy who was the son of two
ordained Baptist ministers. (Yes, two.) That made him perfect for
musicals and game shows ... both of which he's still doing.

Most 76-year-olds
are readily available for employment. But when GSN wanted him to tape
some appearances, he had to squeeze it into his regular job –
touring in the “Finding Neverland” musical.

“I shot it all on
a day off,” Davidson said. “Then I flew back on the the red-eye.”

During his GSN day,
he taped bits for a couple “Classic Saturday” nights -- one aired
Feb. 10, the other is pending -- and for “Daily Draw.” He also
pitched ideas to the network's development people.

“I thought they'd
want some young guy to host,” Davidson said. “But they said, 'You
have to realize, our target audience is over 50 ... I guess that
explains Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak.”

Sajak, 71, and
Trbek, 77, still dominate early-evening ratings with “Wheel of
Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” The games – like the stars – seem
to go on forever.

CBS' “The Price is
Right” and ABC's “To Tell the Truth” started 61 years ago. At
least four ongoing games are in their 50s, three in their 40s. That's
in TV, where five years is considered a triumph.

The games have
thrived by filling the variety-show void, Davidson said. “This is
the new variety.”

His mentor, Bob
Banner, first spotted him in a stage musical. “He said, 'I want to
fashion your career as a variety star. I think you could be the male
version of Carol Burnett.'”

Banner starred
Davidson in the TV version of the “Fantasticks” musical and even
created a summer show (“The Entertainers”) around Burnett and
Davidson. From there, Davidson guested on lots of variety shows and
did some acting – co-starring in the Sally Field series “The Girl
With Something Extra” and with Lesley Ann Warren in two Disney

“I had a crush on
(Field) and on Lesley Ann Warren,” Davidson said. “I was married
at the time, but they were both challenging and intellectual women.”

Meanwhile, variety
shows were fading. A few (Burnett, “Saturday Night Live,” “In
Living Color”) survived with great sketch comedy; the others ended.

Davidson did talk
shows – his own in the daytime, guest-hosting for Johnny Carson at
night – and games. On “Hollywood Squares,” he was both a master
bluffer and then the host; he also hosted “$25,000 Pyramid,”
“That's Incredible” and “Time Machine.”

Increasingly, stars
were glad to do games. “You can be seen with your name right below
your face.”

It's been a busy
life for Davidson and for people close to him. (His dad performed
weddings for Dick Clark, Kenny Rogers and other celebrities.) By all
logic, he would have retired long ago.

Instead, he's done
nightclub shows and musical tours – first “Wicked” and now
“Finding Neverland,” with “just the best role I've ever had.”

In strong voice,
Davidson does the double role that Kelsey Grammer tackled on Broadway
– a producer discouraging J.M. Barrie from writing “Peter Pan,”
Captain Hook telling him to write it.

This isn't just
gimmick casting: In some cities, “Neverland” doesn't even promote
the fact that he'll be there. “People open up their programs and
see my name and say, 'Wow, what's he doing here?'”

Occasionally, he
asks that himself. Traveling with his wife, Davidson is working six
days a week.

“A year can be a
long run,” he said. “You start to look forward to the end ....
I'm looking forward to being back home (in New Hampshire) and playing
Scrabble with my wife by the fireplace.”

Or, to doing a Game
Show Network show. By game standards, he's sort of in his mid-life.

Finding Davidson

-- On stage:
“Finding Neverland” is in Detroit though Sunday, then Milwaukee,
Kansas City, more

-- On video:
Musicals “Fantasticks” (1964), “The Happiest Millionaire”
(1967), “The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band” (1968).

-- Also: Albums (see,
occasional reruns on the Game Show Network.