August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

It is the unlikeliest and unkindest cut in John Davidson’s long-playing career that at the peak of his success he is suddenly singing the blues. For 17 years, Davidson, 38, wore a rut in the middle of the road—both in music and reputation. The farthest he ever strayed was to pose with a skimpy towel for a 1974 Cosmo centerfold, yet his romantic balladeering became a nightclub draw worth $2.5 million annually and set up an even more phenomenal breakthrough in TV this year. Davidson became co-host of ABC’s surprise smash That’s Incredible! and signed a $7.5 million five-year talk show deal when the Westinghouse broadcasting empire cruelly decided that Mike Douglas was too old, at 55, to be its syndicated flag-bearer. That made Davidson the dimpled darling of all television. It also played hell with a homelife that once seemed idyllic.

“My wife and I are having trouble with our marriage,” confesses John of his 11-year union with Jackie Miller, 43, a former singer with the New Christy Minstrels. “It’s the only thing that keeps me from being totally happy. To fail at my marriage when everything else is going so well would really hurt.” Nevertheless, he has moved out of the $600,000 Hidden Hills ranch estate he shared with Jackie, son John Jr., 10, and daughter Jennifer, 7, and into a temporary place some 20 miles away in Toluca Lake.

“We’ve been toying with the idea of separating for two years,” says John. “We’ve even gone to a marriage counselor, who pointed out that each person has to give 50 percent. I don’t feel that Jackie gives 50 percent to me, and she doesn’t feel I give that support to her.” Davidson flatly denies persistent rumors that his attentions to young lovelies contributed to the split. He has buddily dated singer Karen Carpenter, who soon will marry wealthy California industrialist Thomas Burris, but he is cozier with petite brunette Rhonda Rivera, a member of his TV backup trio, Blush. “I’ve escorted other women,” he admits. “Karen is a friend and we’ve gone around together. I’ve also escorted singers from my backup group. I’ve always felt it was silly to be alone.” But as for romance, Davidson is evasive, saying only, “There is no other one woman in my life. I am not in love with anyone else. I don’t believe in so-called open marriage. You are either married or you’re not.”

Those traditional values, however, can sometimes confine as well as bind. A year after meeting Jackie in the summer of 1965, Davidson said that he hoped his future wife would be “second only to my career—a close second,” and the wish came all too true. The fact that Jackie was five years older was an apparent plus to the naive, awestruck John. “She seemed to be the epitome of sophistication,” he recalls. “I was crazy about her.” After their marriage, though, Jackie gave up her own promising singing career at Davidson’s urging. “Maybe it sounds chauvinistic,” John allows, “but I wanted my wife at home. I needed a base. I always figured that being my wife was a full-time job for Jackie. She was always a part of my decisions. At least I felt she was.”

For a while Jackie followed John on the road, and she even brought the kids along until they started school. “Then it just got too difficult,” recalls John, who was away up to 200 nights a year. “Jackie hated the road. Actually, I didn’t like it any better. I drink too much wine, hate hotels, don’t take to night life. I hate going to bed late, waking up late and thinking half the day is gone,” he complains. “I just get crazy. But that was the way I made money. I love performing live. I’m not a good studio singer and I think that’s why I never had a hit record. So it was a trade-off. I enjoyed the live audiences, made good and missed my wife, family and home.”

The problems compounded over the years, says Davidson. “With Jackie at home as the head of the household so much, she resented it when I would come back and take over. She was doing the day-to-day coping and I’d sort of drop by once in a while and be boss,” admits John. “We also developed different friends. She has a lot of close friends, both men and women. Sometimes she would go places with a man friend, and it would be all over town. Then she’d hear stories about me escorting young women to clubs and get very angry. I’d be lonesome and angry with her for not being with me. It was really very difficult.”

Fights were inevitable. There were some nights, John remembers, “when our discussions got so heated I slept in John Jr.’s other bunk bed. My parents have been married for more than 40 years, and I don’t remember them ever having an argument. I thought that if you never argued, you had a good marriage. Jackie believes in airing her opinions and getting things out in the open.” Since the split last month, though, Jackie has refused to comment. “I think she’s going through an identity crisis,” blurts John.

As he sees it, “Jackie doesn’t want to be just Mrs. John Davidson anymore, to feel forced into my lifestyle. I guess I have been a better father than a husband.” Davidson feels that he has been “very candid” with his son about the separation. “I’ve told John Jr. my side of things, and Jackie has told hers. He’s been very supportive of us both,” says Dad. As for his daughter, John says, “Jennifer’s attention span for adult problems is limited, but she knows what’s going on.” John, in sum, thinks he has legitimate grievances, but insists that he isn’t bitter over the breach. “Being married to an emotional, expressive woman has helped me come out of my shell,” he admits. “Jackie has forced me to come to terms with myself and be more open and responsive. I used to be all personality and dimples on stage and aloof and diffident in my personal life.”

Two tragedies in Davidson’s past illustrate the point. “When I was 26, starring in a Disney film in Hollywood, my brother Porter [then 31]—a Yale graduate and math genius—committed suicide. He just couldn’t stand to be alive. I was so locked in at the time that I didn’t show any emotion. Later it hit.” Then in 1977 a fire broke out at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., where Davidson was performing, and 164 people (including his music director and five members of the band) were killed. “Again, I just went numb,” John recalls. “A couple of weeks later I couldn’t stop crying. But for a while I didn’t show any emotion.”

The dutiful son of a Baptist minister, John was taught early to repress his feelings. Born in Pittsburgh, John and his three brothers moved with their father, the Rev. James Davidson, and mother, Elizabeth, to Brockton, Mass., then to White Plains, N.Y. in 1954. John describes himself as a “boringly nice, shy” boy who did some TV commercials in high school, modeled undershorts in both the 1959 Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues and sang with a local pop group called the Kool Kords.

At Ohio’s Denison University, he studied philosophy for two years, got involved in a few panty raids and thought of following in his father’s footsteps—before deciding he’d rather sing about love than preach it. Two months after his 1963 graduation he lucked into the juvenile lead in Broadway’s Foxy with Bert Lahr. Bob Banner, producer of TV’s Kraft Summer Music Hall, caught the show, signed Davidson to a long-term contract and put him into a TV series, The Entertainers, with Carol Burnett. Numerous variety shows and specials followed, plus two Disney movies—1967’s The Happiest Millionaire and 1968’s The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band—and a short-lived 1973 TV series, The Girl with Something Extra, opposite Sally Field. He later memorably played a transvestite in a 1976 episode of The Streets of San Franciso and appeared in The Concorde…Airport ’79, but his public has always preferred him singing.

The Mr. Vanilla jokes continue, of course, but Davidson is showing a new assertiveness. “I matured late,” he says. “I never had any street sense.” Last year he took himself out of the running as Bert Parks’ replacement on the Miss America Pageant with a flip “I wouldn’t sing that lousy song for a million dollars.” More recently on his own talk show, he stopped the tape and walked out on guest Ringo Starr when the ex-Beatle started answering his questions in childish gibberish. “I got angry. I’m not interested in doing a nonsense show,” declared Davidson.

Today John prefers “making contact with my audiences and my guests, not pretending to be some kind of perfect person.” He recounts how he asked premiere-week guest host Linda (Dallas) Gray what made her most proud, and she responded: “Me. I’m proud of what I’ve become.” Says John: “It was one of the most poignant moments of television that I’ve ever been involved with. When we went to the commercial, she just burst into tears, and I hugged her, I was so moved.”

Davidson’s frenetic new schedule leaves him little time for his sports: tennis, scuba diving and sailing his 96-foot, $1 million yacht. He left his six Arabians at his Hidden Hills ranch, but often rides with the kids during his frequent visits. “You know,” John now reflects on his mixed success, “if all this had happened to me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I still had a lot of growing up to do. My problems with my marriage have made me a much more caring person.”

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