TV's most beloved bad guy

By Jonathan McDonald,
Province Television Writer

Vancouver Province
Sunday, 7 February 1999

The X-Files actor is head of the William Davis Centre for Actors' Studies.

Canadian Bill Davis, known around the world as Cancer Man, doesn't look like he's about to go up in smoke..

Someone's about to die on The X-Files. It's true. Entertainment Weekly says one of the Canadian actors will bite the dust tonight or in next week's episode.

Odds are, the dead man's either Krycek or Spender -- Vancouver actors Nicholas Lea or Chris Owens, both of whom have relocated to Los Angeles.

But what if it's Bill Davis who's doomed? Davis, 61, is one of the most loathed -- and beloved -- baddies on TV today. The man who's made cigarette smoking the embodiment of evil. The man who stands in shadows, gazing on impassively, certainly plotting.

So you watch Davis in action here in his hometown, far from the new home of the X-Files in Los Angeles. You watch him teach an acting class, where he

bounces up from his frayed leather armchair to shout instructions to a pair rehearsing a scene; you watch him on the street, where a beefy construction-crew bully snaps at Davis and you half expect that brute's days to be numbered; and you watch him in a Robson Street cafe, where an employee asks him if he's "that Cancer guy" and he finally admits it.

Nothing. Not a hint that Cancer Man's about to succumb. Not a single, solitary clue that Scully and Mulder's nemesis is set to croak any day.

So you come out and ask: "Bill, are you the one who's toast?"

"What am I allowed to say?" says Davis, who's clearly in on any conspiracy, in his distinctive sing-song voice. "Chris Carter left it mysterious as to who it was.

"Maybe it's David. Except David would say, 'Great! I'm outta here!'"

David, of course, is David Duchovny, who's made no secret of his desire to ditch his daily Mulder gig in favour of a movie career. And Davis, who's appeared on The X-Files since the September 1993 pilot episode, has never really been heard to complain.

A classically trained actor -- Davis was born in Ontario but worked with Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier at Britain's National Theatre -- Davis appeared in all sorts of films and TV series but never really caught on in the public consciousness until he was hired to appear in the pilot for some weird series being pitched to the young Fox network.

"I remember simple things," says Davis about the series' opening moments, when Cancer Man watched Gillian Anderson's Scully take orders to keep an eye on Mulder. "They told me, 'Stand over there by the filing cabinet, smoking.' Well, I if were standing by a filing cabinet smoking, I don't think I'd just stand there. I would sprawl across the filing cabinet. I'd lean against it. So I did that.

"It made it much more me and gave it a dimension that just standing there wouldn't have done. They go to that shot all the time, in flashbacks. It was my first moment."

Davis didn't harbour any illusions. Cast and crew joked about the show getting picked up but to him it seemed even less than a joke.

"I'm glad I don't invest in television entertainment," he says, "because I would have thought a show about the paranormal had about as much chance of surviving as a show about my grandmother.

"I didn't have high hopes, from that point of view. From a personal point of view, if it was picked up, would it be shot in Vancouver? Would my character survive and would I play it? There were so many questions that you couldn't go into it thinking, 'Ah, I have an opportunity here.'"

That opportunity has grown into a monster. Cancer Man, arguably The X-Files' most complex character, is still an enigma in the middle of his sixth season. But it appears that some of those burning questions will be answered during a two-part mythology episode, beginning tonight: Is he Mulder's dad? How does he feel about his progeny? Does the fate of The X-Files rest in his hands? Where is he going?

Where Davis is going is a bit clearer. He's the head of the William Davis Centre for Actors' Studies on Hornby Street.

"I owe Bill and his staff so much," says Xena star Lucy Lawless, a graduate of the full-time program.

Davis wonders aloud about the golden opportunities he's had to pass up because of conflicts with The X-Files shooting schedule and would like to be more involved, as an actor or director, on the stage and in Canadian film once the series ends in the spring of 2000.

Until then, Davis will play the part when the part comes calling. He hasn't actually smoked in years -- "it's a terrible habit," he tells his admirer in the cafe -- and would choose a sweatshirt and jeans to those dark, drab suits. Davis spends time racing competitively on both downhill and water skis.

To that end, the divorced father of two also prefers being at home -- in equal parts, Vancouver, Blaine in Washington and Whistler -- to those weeks where he's beckoned to Los Angeles to shoot his scenes. It doesn't look like his trips there are about to end. Cancer Man is an immensely powerful character with an immensely devoted following. Carter, who created the series and is now preparing a Vancouver-shot pilot called Harsh Realm, once said of Cancer Man: "You can't kill the Devil."

Says Davis: "Well, I am booked for a couple more shows."