By Gail Buchalter
May 26, 1980 12:00 PM

Back in the mid-1970s singer-songwriter Mac Davis was beginning to wonder if he was destined to live out the cheatin’-and-weepin’ lyrics of one of his country ballads. He had, to be sure, pulled off one of the first country-casino crossovers, lighting up the Vegas strip for everyone from John Denver to Kenny Rogers. Critics were not universally enthralled, however, using words like “sellout.” The Rolling Stone Record Guide described Davis’ records as “sententious Muzak.”

Then came the bad news. Mac’s second wife of five years, Sarah, whom he’d married when she was 18, left him not merely for another man but, gallingly, for his former friend, golf buddy and musical ally Glen Campbell. (Davis wrote several of Campbell’s hits, including 1970’s “Everything a Man Could Ever Need.”) The split created the most titillating triangle in showbiz and plunged Mac into “ugliness and bitterness.” What kept him together, he now says, was his faith that “all good things come in time and I was going to come out a winner.”

That’s just what happened. Last year Davis, 38, scored the critical hit of his career not at Caesars Palace or the Sahara but in Hollywood in North Dallas Forty, a raw indictment of professional football. Mac’s portrayal of an easygoing Don Meredith-style quarterback all but stole the movie from Nick Nolte in one of the most auspicious debuts of 1979. This year, moreover, Mac has his first country hit in six years, “It’s Hard to Be Humble”, and can afford to shrug off offers such as one to replace Bert Parks as crooner-in-residence at the Miss America Pageant. Instead, Davis is concentrating on his own series of NBC variety specials, the tenth of which is being aired on NBC this week.

Perhaps the final vindication came in February when Mac’s ex-wife Sarah, who married Campbell in 1976, left him three weeks after giving birth to their son, Dylan. “I was surprised their marriage lasted as long as it did,” says Mac, an affable and relaxed man who apparently bears few grudges. “I’ve made my peace with Sarah. We didn’t talk for a long time, but you have to outgrow that stuff. She’s going through a real tough time now and I’ve seen her and talked to her. I remember how I felt when I went through it. There were times when I really needed to talk to somebody.” There will be no reconciliation, however. “I want Sarah to know I don’t hate her and that I have good feelings for her,” he says. “But I am not in love with her either.”

Mac likewise refuses to knock Campbell, though he notes that when Glen and his second wife, Billie, split up in 1975, “I felt for him and tried to be his friend. I guess he didn’t have the same feeling for me.” Glen, who has lately emerged with singer Tanya Tucker, retorts, “It’s absolutely untrue I stole Sarah from Mac. They had split up before we started seeing each other.” Besides, adds Campbell, “We weren’t that great friends. We just played golf together.”

So even if Davis does not receive an invitation to the Glen Campbell Open (he has a credible seven handicap), Mac hardly lacks diversions. Since his divorce he’s played bachelor-about-town with women like Liza Minnelli’s half sister, Lorna Luft, and Valerie Perrine. “But I’m anything but a playboy,” Mac says. “I’ve met some nice girls on the road, but I run from one-nighters.” He often dates out of show business, including a recent series with a 22-year-old Ohio nurse. “She is loving, honest and sweet,” he says. But he’s not planning another wedding. “I have a very comfortable life and plenty of time to fall in love.”

His life began in the West Texas town of Lubbock, where he grew up Morris Mac Davis, the middle of three children of T.J. (for nothing) Davis, a building contractor. When Mac was 9 his parents divorced and his mother, Edith, moved to Atlanta. Mac stayed in Lubbock, “because that’s how they wanted it,” and sang in his Presbyterian church choir. One Christmas, Mac remembers, his father “saved up, bless his heart, and bought me a Hawaiian steel guitar, the exact opposite of what I wanted. I tried to act like I loved it, but I almost cried.”

In school Mac started hanging out “with the wrong crowd” and dressing like his idol James Dean. When Lubbock’s own Buddy Holly played at the local skating rink, Mac “thought it was sissy to sing.” Later one of Holly’s group, the Crickets, came back to town with three girls in a white Bonneville convertible, and Mac “started seriously considering music.”

He graduated from high school at 15 and, after moving in with his mother and her husband in Atlanta, he enrolled at Emory University. A year later poor grades and worse finances ended his college career. He got a job clerking with the city probation department and was playing “high school sock hops and fraternity pukeouts” at night in a rock band. He married a Georgian, Fran Cook, at 21, and when their son, Scott, was born a year later, Mac quit the rock grind for good. “I didn’t want to be playing local dives the rest of my life.” He tried writing songs, “but never got anywhere.” Instead, he learned the music business from the inside, first as a promotion man for Vee Jay records and then in Liberty Records’ publishing division. The Liberty job got him to L.A. and made it easier to “pitch my own tunes” to record producers. But the move West “was a tough transition,” he remembers. “One day Fran decided to do her own thing, and she wanted me to do mine.” They divorced, and she returned to Atlanta, where she still lives with Scott. Mac next met Sarah Barg, then 16 and living in his L.A. apartment building with her mother. Two years later they were married. “We talked about having a family, but I was waiting for her to grow up,” he says. “Obviously, I was right.”

In the late ’60s Mac’s songwriting career finally took off when he wrote two hits for Elvis Presley, “In the Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.” His songs were also snapped up by Lou Rawls, Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro and Kenny Rogers. His “I Believe in Music” has been recorded by more than 50 artists. When Mac finally cut his own debut album in 1971 and hit No. 1 with “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me” in 1972, he says, “It was just like gravy.”

The gravy has bought him a three-bedroom brick Tudor home in L.A.’s Bel Air, where he lives with a caretaker couple. Poolside is a guest house equipped with a whirlpool, sauna, fancy stereo setup and large-screen television. “But the two real luxuries in my life,” he says, “are flying first-class and having fresh-cut flowers brought in every Thursday for the weekend.”

In his spare time in winter and spring, Mac skis at Heavenly Valley (near Lake Tahoe) “because I can’t sit around and become a pale-skinned little weirdo,” but he avoids tennis. “I have a hard time finding someone bad enough to play with me.” To meet North Dallas Forty‘s specifications, Mac had fattened up by 25 pounds, thanks to weight training and a special high-protein breakfast. Later he dieted to get his six-foot frame back to 160 pounds. As he confesses, “I like meat and potatoes and corn fritters with honey and butter on them.”

Now that Forty has given his acting career a shot of steroids, Davis is moving fast. Later this year he opens in his first lead role in a detective comedy, Cheaper to Keep Her. After that he’ll film a remake of Andy Griffith’s A Face in the Crowd. He’s recording now with Kenny Rogers’ producer, Larry Butler (“It’s put me back in the business; it’s like starting over”), and is planning a concert tour this summer. As he’s done before, Mac will take along his son Scott, now 16, as a working roadie. “I try to instill in him the same basic feelings my daddy gave me—but by long-distance telephone,” he explains. “I’m not close enough to see if it’s working.” What will have to wait, though, is for Mac to take the advice he gave the world in his 1974 hit: It was called “Stop and Smell the Roses.”