Everyone knows that Los Angeles is a TV and movie town. But serious American theater flourishes only in New York, right? Not if Gordon Davidson can help it. In his 14 years as artistic director of L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, Davidson has not only turned it into one of the country’s preeminent regional theaters (he has 35,000 loyal subscribers) but has also become a vastly successful hit-maker on Broadway itself. His original productions have won six Tonys, five Obies (off-Broadway) and a Pulitzer Prize. “Of course, to my way of thinking,” he says with a sly wink, “New York is just one stop on our national tours.”
This fall Davidson had no less than four of the six plays from his 1979-80 season running simultaneously on Broadway: the Tony-winning Children of a Lesser God, Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures, Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, and Division Street, the first script by Steve Tesich since his Oscar-winning screenplay for Breaking A way. (A fifth Davidson play, Wilson’s 5th of July, opens next week.)
“He’s a genius,” praises Davidson’s frequent New York partner, producer Emanuel (Ain’t Misbehavin’) Azenberg. “The man never stops.” “He’s unique,” agrees actress Joyce Van Patten, until recently a star in I Ought to Be in Pictures. “He cares about people. Besides that, he’s cute.” Yet Davidson is still resented as an outsider by some of New York’s xenophobic theatrical community. This year, for example, Davidson was not awarded a directing Tony for Children of a Lesser God, even though the show swept Best Play, Best Actor and Best Actress honors. When actress Phyllis Frelich accepted her award on network TV, she pointedly said, “I share this award with Gordon Davidson for his sensitivity and courage.”
Davidson, 47, takes it all in stride. He has been too busy to do otherwise—reading and casting plays on both coasts, overseeing several experimental and educational projects in L.A., preparing to film Zoot Suit (one of his few Mark Taper hits that bombed in New York) and overseeing his most recent production, The Lady and the Clarinet by Michael (The Shadow Box) Cristofer. For his shows, Davidson has cast some of the biggest names in Hollywood—Jack Lemmon, Carroll O’Connor, Judd Hirsch, Sandy Duncan, Valerie Harper and Walter Matthau. This spring he will direct Neil Simon’s comedy The Curse of Kulyenchikov.
For a kid from Brooklyn who hammed it up even at his stage debut—his bar mitzvah—it’s not bad. “I stood up in front of all those people,” Gordon remembers of that solemn occasion when he was 13, “and looked down at my brother Robert, who was scratching his nose, and burst out laughing.” His father, Joe, taught theater for 46 years at Brooklyn College. His mother, Alice, was a concert pianist who gave up her career to raise her children. A high school valedictorian, Gordon entered Cornell on an engineering scholarship but lost interest and switched to drama. There he also met a Vassar student named Judith Swiller, now his wife of 22 years and an independent publicist who often represents L.A.’s rival Shubert Theatre. She jokingly recalls their first date: “He was an hour late and he lived around the corner. I should have known.” After the wedding and a honeymoon in Puerto Rico (Judi went on a game show and won $500 for the trip), the couple settled in New York, where Gordon had a temporary job as an off-Broadway stage manager and Judi worked full-time at Charm magazine for $45 a week. “We didn’t know we were starving,” she explains. “We were just two kids from Brooklyn who thought we had it made—we lived in Manhattan.” In 1964 Davidson got his first break when John Houseman invited him to UCLA to work on a production of King Lear. Three years later the Taper opened and Gordon was named director.
Today the Davidsons live in a comfortable four-bedroom hillside house in Santa Monica with their children, Rachel, 14, and Adam, 16. A former garage is now divided into Gordon’s office and a guest room, which the kids refer to as the “Hotel Davidson.” Mark Medoff, author of Children of a Lesser God, stayed so long they forgot he was just visiting. “Gordon is a driven man,” says Judi. “But for him it’s fun. He’s a kid who doesn’t know what ‘enough’ means.” But when Gordon suggests that his family is just like any other, Adam laughs, “How many dads do you know who come home with three guys and say, ‘I’d like you to meet Hank Fonda, Chuck Heston and Greg Peck’?”