By Arthur Lubow
March 29, 1982 12:00 PM

At a distance, Peter Davis has the clean-cut look of an Eagle Scout. Close up, the brown hair is flecked with gray and the ingenuous smile cannot conceal his intensity, but that boyish first impression remains. “In his sort of journalism, you have to get people to trust you,” says TV writer Marilyn Nissenson. “Peter is able to do that better than anyone else I know.” A documentary filmmaker who won an Oscar in 1975 for Hearts and Minds, an indictment of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Davis devoted the next six years to exploring America. The result is a six-part television series, Middletown, and his first book, Hometown (Simon and Schuster, $14.95), both of which make their appearance this week. Although Middletown is set in Muncie, Ind. and Hometown in Hamilton, Ohio, their purpose is the same: to depict in intimate detail the drama of ordinary lives. “I wanted to find people about to enter an important stage, because in a crisis your emotions are closer to the surface and jump off you more clearly,” explains Davis, 45. “I’m far more interested in feelings than I am in the dry facts of the town.”

Like Davis himself, Middletown and Hometown reveal a surprising force beneath a homespun appearance. By closely observing commonplace situations, such as a family business threatened with bankruptcy, Middletown promises an unflinching scrutiny of real people doing and saying things rarely seen on television. After viewing one episode, director Mike Nichols called it “a masterpiece.” John Sharnik, senior executive producer of documentaries at CBS, agrees. “I think it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen of its kind,” he says. “Most cinema verité is chaotic, but Peter has created non-fiction drama to a degree I don’t think any other documentary makers have done.”

Not all the previewers have been so admiring. Xerox, which as corporate underwriter appropriated $600,000 for Middletown, distanced itself from the project and canceled an advertising campaign because of foul language in Seventeen, an episode focusing on high school seniors. “It is like bringing specimens back from the deep,” says Davis, defending Seventeen. “You can’t believe you’re seeing it. And then you remember, ‘Yeah, we went to parties back then, and people threw up—we called it barf.’ But to have a camera there? It’s incredible.” Lawrence Grossman, president of PBS, wanted Davis to cut a four-minute scene of two boys trading sex stories that he found “tasteless and grotesque” and Davis characterizes as “raw.” Davis eventually agreed, after insisting that each station be allowed to choose between the two versions. Despite his mild demeanor, Davis is a tough bureaucratic infighter. “Peter’s inner sense of discipline carries him through,” says his friend Anne Rogin, an art dealer. “He’s not mush in there. He is always a survivor.”

Peter’s first wife, Josie, loved to tell of an incident on Martha’s Vineyard in 1964, when a crowded terrace collapsed during a party. Josie was bruised, and others broke bones, but Peter landed on his feet, still holding his unspilled drink. To some of Davis’ friends, that anecdote has the truth of a parable. “Behind Peter’s disarming charm is a really quite ruthless drive to get where he wants and what he wants,” notes a friend. Says another, author Brooke Hayward: “He seemed at first just a very sweet person. It took a long time to realize he was made of that kind of tempered steel.”

The tempering began early. The older child of screenwriters Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger, Peter was raised with his sister, Jane, on a ranch in Upland, Calif. “The desire to return to a place where you have a sense of where you are, as I did in Upland, led me to do the book on Hamilton,” he reflects. “There was something about wanting to understand my own background.” Peter’s childhood idyll was shattered in 1945 when his mother, a legendary wit, died of cancer. She was 39, Peter was 8. Two years later his father remarried and moved the family to Beverly Hills. There Peter established a strong bond with stepmother Isabelle, who, he says, “is deeply implicated in the formation of what passes for my character.”

Later, at Harvard, Peter became friendly with a fellow Hollywood brat, Johanna “Josie” Mankiewicz. A Wellesley girl, she was the daughter of Herman Mankiewicz, who collaborated with Orson Welles to write Citizen Kane. In 1959 they married in New York, where Peter began both a television career and, with the birth of sons Tim and Nick, a family. In Josie, he had found a woman strikingly like his natural mother. She was the adored youngest child of a high-powered Jewish family, a writer who, as Peter says, “captured a room with her wit.” “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life,” says Anne Rogin. “She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.” But in some ways Josie was the satellite, stabilized by Peter’s force of gravity. Before the 1973 publication of her novel Life Signs, when Josie felt overwhelmed for a time as a mother and a writer, Peter steadfastly filled the breach. “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children,” Hayward remembers. “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”

Peter’s professional reputation was growing along with his family. After an apprenticeship in documentaries, he wrote and produced The Selling of the Pentagon for CBS in 1971—and found himself at the center of a national uproar. Vice-President Spiro Agnew denounced the film, which explored the Defense Department’s multimillion-dollar efforts to polish its image. The Pentagon tried unsuccessfully to stop CBS from rebroadcasting it. Though Selling won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award, Davis’ future at CBS seemed unpromising. “I had done about as much as I could do there,” Davis says. “I felt they wouldn’t be very likely to commission another direct confrontation with the federal government very soon.” When producer Bert Schneider offered him the chance to direct an independent documentary on Vietnam, Davis quit the network and never looked back.

Hearts and Minds was conceived as a study of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers trial. “Then I realized I could look at the whole enchilada,” says Davis. “Why did we go to Vietnam, what was our effect there, and what was the effect on us?” Hearts and Minds provoked as much clamor and acclaim as Davis’ previous work. Columbia Pictures, which had financed the movie, decided not to distribute it, and one of the interview subjects, former presidential adviser Walt Rostow, tried to block its release. When the movie won the Oscar for best feature-length documentary, producer Schneider fanned the flames by reading a message from the Vietcong as part of his acceptance speech. Davis disarmingly thanked his colleagues and family, then reminded his two young sons that it was past their bedtime.

For Davis, the joy of winning his industry’s top honor was overshadowed by an irrevocable loss. Nine months earlier, Josie had been struck and killed by a taxi that mounted a Greenwich Village sidewalk as she was walking with Tim. “All during the night that Josie died, Peter was terribly controlled,” his friend writer Richard Meryman recalls. “With one hand he held my wrist as tight as he could—so tight his hand was shaking—as he called Josie’s mother and brothers.” Compounding his grief was his painfully intimate knowledge of how his sons were feeling; at 36, Josie was three years younger than his own mother had been when she died. Determined to keep the boys active, Peter took them to Anne Rogin’s beach house on Long Island for the remainder of the summer. Recalls Brooke Hayward: “It was typical of Peter that he would say, ‘Are you all right?’ He was a soldier. I don’t know how he got through it.”

One way was by devoting himself to his sons and his work. Planning a book and film that would “explore America in one community,” he asked a Census Bureau expert for a list of typical small American cities. After visiting several of them, he settled on Hamilton, Ohio. Unable then to finance a movie, he proceeded with the book. He rented an apartment in Hamilton, spent his summers there and visited whenever he could. His plan was to take work, leisure, education, religion, marriage and politics—the six categories selected by Robert and Helen Lynd in Middle-town, their pioneering sociological study of Muncie, Ind. in 1929. Then he would personalize each with a human story. He found, among others, a basketball game that served as a ritual battle of class conflict, a murder that defined the strengths and strains of working-class family life, and an ambiguous homosexual scandal that polarized the community.

After three years of work on his book, Davis was persuaded by three Muncie professors to undertake his original film project. Davis agreed to be executive producer of a six-part series called Middletown, with Muncie as its focus. The startling power and pathos of his pilot film, The Campaign, which deals with the mayoral race between an old-style Irish Democratic pol and a colorless Republican lawyer, brought him the backing he needed to finish the project. The series opens this week on PBS with that episode.

The people of Hamilton and Muncie would have been surprised to learn what the soft-spoken Davis was up to when he was not charming his way into their lives. On Labor Day 1978, after meeting him at two New York dinner parties, Jackie Onassis invited Peter to Hyannis Port for a weekend that inaugurated a year-long romance. Peter offers only one circumspect comment about it: “There is some gossip that is so complimentary you’d be a braggart to confirm it and a fool to deny it.” Less discreet friends observe that the relationship created some problems. Once Peter took Jackie as his date to a small dinner party hosted by Richard Meryman. “All the people in that room had spent years dealing with celebrities,” Meryman recalls. “Yet when Jackie walked in, everyone became catatonic. It was a disaster.” Davis’ friend writer Hugh Nissenson believes that “Peter was living in a fairy tale, but he knew it wouldn’t last forever.”

When it ended, he landed as always on his feet. He had first met Karen Zehring, a business-directory publisher, at a Manhattan dinner party in 1975, and had happily assumed she was single. Forty-five minutes later in walked her husband, restaurateur George Lang. “I’ve never been so disappointed,” says Peter. In 1979 he met Karen again, at a party given by Tom and Meredith Brokaw. By then she was divorced and Peter had stopped seeing Jackie. Six months later they were married. They now have two children: Jesse, 20 months, and Antonia, 6 months.

Although Karen physically resembles Josie, she is in personality quite different—more practical and less theatrical. “People only marry the same sort of woman after an unhappy marriage, because they are locked into marrying someone who will provide them with the same torment,” Peter says. “I think the way you’re faithful to a happy marriage is to have another happy marriage. It’s dangerous to keep a chapel in your heart.” Along with two adolescent sons—Tim, 18, a senior and co-captain of the baseball team at Choate, and Nick, 16, a junior at New York’s Collegiate School—Karen, 36, found herself living with the legend of Josie Davis which many of Peter’s friends still cherish. With warmth and tact, she has won most of them over. “I didn’t know Josie,” says Karen, “but it’s not an issue for Peter and me. The feedback I care about comes from only a couple of people, and those are the ones that I live with.”

As for Peter, time has brought a new perspective on living. Two years ago he was walking home through Central Park when he fainted, hemorrhaging dangerously from a bleeding ulcer. “I resolved during my wonderful rest in the hospital—10 days that shook my soul—to live differently,” he says. “Before that happened I was working on my film whenever I wasn’t working on my book. Now I think that isn’t so important. What’s important is my wife, my babies, my older boys and my health.” Davis insists he has no plans beyond a long summer vacation in Majorca, and he thinks he has become less judgmental of other people’s hearts and minds. “I used to feel you’re either right or wrong,” he says. “Now I feel you’re either alive or dead, and if you’re alive, I’m interested.”