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X-FILES: The Cigarette Smoking Man Speaks!
Actor William B. Davis insists he's the real hero of the show--and he can prove it (sort of).
By Jason Henderson
August 01, 2000
William B. Davis is making an argument, laying out his analysis. He's comparing his own character on Fox' The X-Files
, the minimally-named Cigarette Smoking Man (or 'CSM,') to David Duchovny's hero, Fox Mulder. 'Let's start with outcomes,' he says, hands thrust in suit pockets, smiling wryly. His hair is lighter than we are accustomed to seeing it, light gray as his character appeared before tumbling down a flight of stairs. 'Let's suppose Mulder gets what he wants. Let's suppose he finds the truth. What do you think he'll do with it? Does Mulder strike you as a thoughtful, responsible man who will disseminate this information delicately? No. I think he'll go on Larry King live. And then what? We'll have panic. All those things in Independence Day
with everyone rushing from the city, widespread chaos.
'Now, CSM wants to cover the truth up. Let's suppose he does cover it up: what will happen?' Davis shrugs to make his point. 'Nothing! You won't know. Things will go on just as they are.'
Davis, speaking and answering questions at the Hollywood Expo and Toy Fair in Dallas, Texas, is making as convincing an argument as he can muster that Cigarette Smoking Man, and not Mulder, is in fact the true hero of The X-Files
. His argument continues down through a host of virtues: 'Personal sacrifice?' Mulder 'already has the job he wants,' while 'CSM makes great sacrifices,' in that he is forced to kill almost everyone he's close to. 'Aptitude for love?' It's CSM who saved both Dana Scully and Mrs. Mulder. Finally Davis gets personal. 'I hesitate to mention this, but it must be faced. I think Mulder is a virgin.' The audience howls. Whereas CSM could be anyone's
Davis is kidding, of coursesort of. The rant Davis delivers is all a way of 'getting behind the character, to understand what he believes.' And it's a gentle rant, because Davis comes across as a gentleman, sharing his observations with a casual glee. He started the Argument as his own method of researching the part of Cigarette Smoking Man, who has been a recurring character on X-Files
since the very first episode, appearing to die in at least two season's end cliff-hangers.
'My own experience has been poor in researching for parts... I find myself as an actor copying the manners of that person, and the result is kind of stiff. I prefer to imagine that it's me in these imaginative circumstances. That's why I wrote the piece.'
Early on in the series, 'getting behind' the character extended to the props that gave the Cigarette Smoking Man his name: his cigarettes. These days on the show, Davis explains, 'I smoke herbal cigarettes. They are awful, but they're not addictive.' But that took a decision. 'I used to be a smoker. I used to smoke a lot. And when they offered me the part they offered me the real cigarettes and the herbal cigarettes. And I said 'Ha! I'm an actor; gimme the real cigarettes.' So for the first episode, I actually smoked real cigarettes. And the next episode, I smoked real cigarettes. And then I found myself sitting at home thinking, 'Boy, I sure wish they'd call me for another episode.' That's when I figured I'd better go with those herbal cigarettes.'
Davis, 62, is free with his thoughts about his character and the show, coming across as a pleasant, easy-going journeyman actor who's landed in a plum role that's turned into much more than it appeared to be in the beginning. 'Nobody ever said anything to me, in the early years, about whether the part would last.' When the first casting notices came in for the pilot, Davis says, 'It was a show going on in Vancouver, a pilot on the paranormal'he smiles'and a show on the paranormal is obviously not gonna get picked up. I auditioned for the senior FBI agent, who had three lines. I didn't get it; I got the part with no lines.' If you watch the X-FILES pilot, there he is, smoking those real cigarettes in the background. 'My friend Ken Cameron got the part with three lines. We've laughed about that a lot since. I've laughed more than Ken.'
The character is mysterious enough that even his reported past might be a complete fabrication. At least, that's Davis' understanding of 'Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,' in which we watch CSM grow through his role as an agent in charge of apparently every dastardly American deed in the latter half of the 20th century. According to that episodea sort-of-flashback tale told by Lone Gunman Frohike (Tom Braidwood)CSM even killed JFK. 'I didn't have to ask whether it was real, because I wasn't playing Frohike. I didn't find that idea odd because these guys have their noses in everything. But I don't think the writers fully intended that the way we would ultimately take it. That was Frohike's conception of the story of CSM. That was a very strange story. In retrospect, I like it better than I did. It was whimsical, fanciful, and yet kept asking real questions. 'Oh, you shot Kennedy!' No, no, no. Frohike says I did.' This interpretation is buttressed by the title change instigated by series creator Chris Carter; Glen Morgan and James Wong, the men behind the episode, had wanted to call it 'Memoirs of a Cigarette-Smoking Man,' which would have implied more strongly that the events were real.
In applying his own personality to the role, Davis has tried to stretch the boundaries of the X-FILES' gloomy feel, with mixed success. For instance, Davis is a competitive water skier, a sport the mind boggles to imagine CSM enjoying. 'When Chris found out I was a competitive water skier, he said, 'This would be terrific! We gotta get this into an episode.' I'd been thinking about this for quite a while. And then the talk sort of petered out. I asked Chris, 'What's happened with the water skiing?' and the other writers wouldn't let him do it!'
So he tried again, when working on the one episode so far to bear Davis' name as a writer, 'En Ami,' in which CSM tries to seduce Scully to his side in order to get information from her. 'In one version of my scriptand I really did think it would workwe start one act driving in the car. Scully is laughing to find out I can water ski, and she says, 'You're kidding! What do you do with your cigarette?' She says she never could ski, and I say, 'Maybe you need a good coach.' We're driving in the desert. I say, 'Would you like to learn?' She says, 'I don't see any water anywhere.' Next scene, we're still in the desert, actually driving into a water ski park in the desert; we get her into water ski clothes, and I teach her.'
Davis shakes his head. 'They didn't let me do that.'
Writing the episode 'En Ami' presented new challenges in which Davis got to see the inner workings of the X-FILES story process. 'The original idea,' Davis reports, was from Shakespeare's Richard III
. There's a scene early in the play where Richard comes across Lady Anne, who is mourning her father. And she's also still in mourning for her husband, and both of these two men were killed by Richard. And Richard comes to her and finds her on the street. He needs her to move up to get closer to the throne. At first she's furious to see him; she hates him, and within fifteen or twenty minutes he's charmed the pants off her and has her virtually agreeing to marry him. So that was kind of my idea, bearing in mind that Scully would be a considerably tougher nut to crack.
'So the original idea I pitched would have Mulder in a terrible accident, and he seems to have been killed. CSM comes to Scully in a funeral parlor and says, 'Yes, I killed him. But I did it for love of you.' And it goes from there. And he tries to win her over to his side. It turned out that it was all a setup, a test to see about Scully's loyalty to Mulder. It got a little crazy. It turned out all in the end to be Scully's bad dream. But they didn't want to do it that way because we'd done too many dreams, and we'd done too many false deaths. So we set out to do it more realCSM really trying to win over her affection for his own purposes.'
Originally 'En Ami' would have fit into the early part of the past season, when Agent Fox Mulder 'was still in his brain-fried state, which would have worked rather well,' he says. 'Then they decided to put it later. And the process is: there's the idea with some guts to it, and then there's the script conference, which I thought went on interminably, for three days, with the scenes on a board on cards. But the staff writers said, after we'd done it and finished it in three days, 'You're done already? That must be record time!' So obviously it often lasts longer, thrashing out what actually is going to happen from scene to scene in the show. Then you go from the boards to the script. In my case we already had one script I wrote,' which may have moved the process along.
Season 7 of THE X-FILES ended less than fortuitously for Davis' character, who already looked like death warmed over before being tossed down a flight of stairs. Fans were a little shocked by the rapid decline in health of the once-robust smoker. But Davis says it wasn't as immediate as it appeared to some.
'In truth,' Davis explains, 'CSM was been getting worse through the season. I don't know that this is clear to everybody, but in Episode Two [of Season 7], 'Amor Fati,' what was going on was I was getting a transfer of brain DNA from Mulder to me, because Mulder has the immunity from the alien holocaust. And if I make this transfer, I'll get it also. So in the interest of being able to survive I do the transplant.' Davis has a surprising theory about why it didn't work. 'Now, although they haven't said this, my assumption is that the mistake I made was thinking he was my sonbecause if he was, the DNA would match, and I would absorb the immunity. If he wasn't, the DNA would not match and my body would degenerate. That's only my theory. They may still think I'm his father.' He grows conspiratorial. 'But it's funny: they haven't mentioned it since. So I started to get sick.
'First episode you see me in after that, I show up in Scully's apartment and she says, 'You look ill.' And I say 'I am.' And in 'En Ami' I look more sick, and I say I'm dying. But I would have said that anywayin the original version, I tell her I'm dying and it's a lie, just to get her. After that, in just a few weeks, it was a very sudden decline,' Davis says, referring to his final appearance as a wheelchair bound, tracheotomized, dying CSM. 'But the reason they did that I think was, they didn't know if that was the last episode.' Meaning the last episode everlast-minute negotiations between the show's producers and David Duchovny kept the X-FILES in virtual limbo before Duchovny finally signed a unique, light-load deal. 'But it did seem to me a rather serious decline. I hope that Brian Thompson, the actor who plays the alien bounty hunter comes alonghe's my only hope, I think.'
Davis ponders the roller coaster that has been the X-FILES. 'It's settled down now. It's certainly not the phenomenon it was. I mean, X-FILES certainly struck a nerve that I don't think anyone knew it would, including Chris. It hit a particular nerve of the '90s, as people turned to new kinds of information, the Internet, pixels on screen rather than in print. And it became a very unique phenomenon. I think creating a show that captures the imagination is challengingI think the mistake they made in Harsh Realm
[Chris Carter's third, abortive, attempt at a series] was that there wasn't anybody we really liked. We like Mulder and Scully; we get involved in their quest.'
Will it go on? X-FILES will be back, but right now, Davis isn't sure whether CSM will go on. 'This series is having a hard time finishing! It was going to be ended at Season 5, and now it's going to be 8, and I heard something about 9 and 10!' He registers disbelief. His character's 'death' was shot just so there remained the slightest possibility he could survive. 'But I don't know if I'm in the next season. They know the character's popular, but if there's a new story arcwell, I'm tied to Mulder's story. I keep trying to show them ways they could use the character, not necessarily as part of that arc but just as a story.'
Davis continues, 'The other reason I don't know is we didn't know there was even going to be a new season until the very end of this one, and when the end came we all went off on holiday. Now they're just getting back and figuring it all out.'
But it was always thus. 'They tend to be very last-minute [at the X-FILES.] They'll call me and say, 'Hey! We need you next week!'' Davis ponders the future, but he says he 'has always sort of taken what came along next. When I was in college and then a young director, I told myself, 'You need to make a decision about your future.'' He shakes his head again. 'I still haven't made that decision.'