Before Fox’s revival of The X-Files premièred last Sunday, it was no secret that the reboot would include the Cigarette Smoking Man.
While details surrounding the new six-episode season were kept quiet during filming in Vancouver last year, it was just a matter of time before producers would tease the shadowy supervillain’s return.
“It was very confusing,” recalled William B. Davis, the Vancouver-based actor whose iconic character was apparently killed off in the original series’ finale in 2002.
“They didn’t want me to have any billing in the first [new] episode because they wanted it to be a surprise, and then I see it in all the publicity,” he said, adding with a laugh: “That’s not going to fool anybody.”
Davis was referring to the new X-Files poster featuring his enigmatic, cigarette-clutching character that suggested the Smoking Man hadn’t kicked the habit just yet.
Davis, 78, admits it was surreal facing the cameras in Vancouver again for the legendary science-fiction series that reunited David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.
“What is strange is doing a character you haven’t done in, gosh, 10 years, but it comes back remarkably quickly,” he said.
So has the fame the Toronto-born, classically trained stage and screen actor grew accustomed to in the 1990s.
“I’ve signed quite a number of actual cigarettes. I’ve gotten quite good at that,” said Davis, who puffed herbal cigarettes on camera to portray C.G.B. Spender.
Like Trailer Park Boys star John Paul Tremblay, whose fans often try to buy him a rum-and-Coke, Davis graciously embraced the fan fever.
“Of course, we’re not supposed to smoke nowadays,” said the actor and climate-change activist. Davis quit smoking in the 1970s and used his X-Files fame to support Canadian Cancer Society campaigns.
“But people will often come up and say: ‘Hey, you’ve gotta smoke,’ or want me to sign a cigarette package.”
While the Smoking Man is what he’s most famous for, it’s just one of hundreds of characters Davis has played.
The veteran actor and director, who first set foot onstage at age 11, got his start doing stage and radio work, and graduated from University of Toronto in 1959 with a degree in philosophy.
He trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and spent years directing British repertory theatre.
Davis worked with Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier and Albert Finney at Britain’s National Theatre in 1964 and was artistic director at Dundee Repertory Theatre, where he met actor Maurice Podbrey.
“I brought Maurice to Canada to be my assistant at the National Theatre School, and he went on to start Centaur Theatre,” said Davis, recalling his years in Montreal. “It was a good place to be a hockey fan.”
After directing in Canadian regional theatres, Davis became founding artistic director of Festival Lennoxville. He returned to acting in the 1970s in Toronto and moved to Vancouver in 1985.
Four years later, he opened the William Davis Centre for Actors’ Study there and has since performed extensively in movies and TV series. His credits include roles in The Beachcombers, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy, MacGyver, The Commish, The Outer Limits, Smallville, Stargate SG-1, Supernatural and Continuum.
Even though his X-Files character prompted TV Guide readers to name him Television’s Favourite Villain, David didn’t treat it differently than any other, he said.
“As an actor, you embrace any role you’re doing, and I had a fine time doing this particular role,” said Davis, who found a kindred spirit in John Neville, who played Well-Manicured Man for three seasons. “John also has a huge background in theatre. We take it all seriously and want to do the best we can.”
The Smoking Man is much different than the last character David played in a Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel movie filmed in Victoria last year — a kindly grandfather in Signed Sealed Delivered 2.
Davis played a lighthouse keeper when Jason Bourque shot his disaster movie Stonados here.
Now, Davis is directing again, including a recent production of A Man For All Seasons for United Players in Vancouver.
Davis loves being able to balance directing with whatever acting roles come his way.
“John Gielgud once said: ‘Actors don’t retire, the parts just get smaller,’ ” Davis said. “There is some of that as you get to a certain age. The field narrows, but I’m having a great time because I’m still directing.”