Saturday, December 19, 2015

Belated Obituary & Tribute to Phyllis Davis (1940-2013)

Just over two years ago, I started reading things on the internet that indicated actress Phyllis Davis had passed away.  The first inkling I learned about it was a posting on Davis's IMDB Message Board from a family friend who had heard from her brother that she had passed.  Later, I found a brief online funeral home obituary notice for a Phyllis Davis with the same birth date as the one listed for her on IMDB, which would further confirm that she had died.  However, the funeral home obituary made no mention of her as the Phyllis Davis who had acted in films and television from the 1960s into the early 1990s, so there remained a bit of doubt for awhile as to whether she had indeed passed away.  This doubt was further compounded by the fact that neither major industry trade publications, Variety and Hollywood Reporter, have ever reported her death in the last two years, nor have any major or minor newspapers made mention of her passing as well.  Her death was briefly noted in the obituary section of a Spring 2014 Screen Actors Guild newsletter, but the mention merely consisted of her stage name Phyllis Elizabeth Davis being listed among dozens of other actors who had also died recently.  In fact, it took awhile before Davis's actual IMDB page, which lists her career accomplishments and credits, was updated to make mention that she had passed away, helping to remove any lingering doubt about the issue.  Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment could be due to Davis and her family not wanting to prepare a public statement concerning her death, which is completely understandable given how emotional and complicated the aftermath of a family member's passing can be.  However, an actress as accomplished as Phyllis Davis, who contributed many entertaining performances during her career, deserves some sort of acknowledgement.  She was a good actress capable of both comedy and drama, as well as playing villains and sympathetic parts.  Because I think it is unfortunate for Variety and Hollywood Reporter, the publications who purport to represent the industry that she worked in for over a quarter of a century, to have not paid her the proper respect after all this time, here's my belated tribute and obituary to Phyllis Davis.

Film and television actress Phyllis Davis died of cancer on September 27, 2013 in Henderson, Nevada.  She was 73 years old.  She was born Phyllis Ann Davis on July 17, 1940 in Port Arthur, Texas.  (She was purportedly billed as "Phyllis Elizabeth Davis" in some of her acting appearances as a tribute to her idol Elizabeth Taylor.)  The oldest of three siblings, Davis's parents ran a mortuary business in Nederland, Texas where she grew up.  While her two younger brothers reportedly followed in their parents' footsteps and also became morticians, Davis aspired to become an actress from an early age and studied acting at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas for one semester before moving to Los Angeles to study at the Pasadena Playhouse.  After a brief stint as a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, Davis's show business career began after her roommate, choreographer Toni Basil, helped her land appearances in theatrical variety shows as well as some small roles in feature films.  By the time her career was underway, Davis was already in her mid-20s.  Her deep voice and comparatively earthy maturity allowed Davis to standout from her conventionally youthful peers.  Davis's big-screen appearances throughout the 1960s included parts in "Lord Love a Duck" (1966), "The Oscar" (1966), "The Last of the Secret Agents" (1966), "Spinout" (1966), "The Swinger" (1966), "Live a Little, Love a Little" (1968), and "The Big Bounce" (1968).  She also appeared in numerous guest roles on popular television shows like "Petticoat Junction," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Wild, Wild West," "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E." and "Adam-12."

Davis's career prospects took a turn for the better when she landed a major role in Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), playing fashion editor Susan Lake, a role that was originally meant to be a continuation of the Anne Welles role played by Barbara Parkins in the original "Valley of the Dolls" (1967) back when the film was planned as a direct sequel to the earlier film.  Despite Davis's disappointment that the role had been modified, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" allowed Davis an opportunity to play a mature, intelligent character that she was not always given an opportunity to essay in her earlier decorative parts in the 1960s.  During this time, Davis also landed a recurring role as one of the repertory of actors used in the "blackout" sections of the popular "Love American Style" anthology sitcom.  Davis appeared regularly on the show for about four seasons, and even landed featured roles in several of the actual scripted vignettes during her time on the series.  Phyllis Davis's participation in "Love American Style" allowed her to demonstrate her talents in light comedy, which helped further distinguish her from her peers and contemporaries.

Phyllis Davis reportedly was originally cast as Bond Girl Plenty O'Toole in "Diamonds are Forever" (1971).  However, sometime after she had signed the contracts, but before she was to report for work in Las Vegas, she was replaced by Lana Wood.  Davis mentioned in a 1992 interview for "Femme Fatales" magazine that she was deeply disappointed in missing out on the Bond movie, but maintained that she still received residual checks whenever the film airs on television or cable due to having signed the contracts before being replaced.  Instead of appearing in the Bond movie, Davis made a memorable lead in the Costa Rica-shot women's prison film "Sweet Sugar" (1972), playing a sassy, quick witted prostitute named Sugar who has been railroaded into working on a corrupt banana republic sugar cane plantation prison run by a psychotic doctor.  Despite the abundance of nudity required, Davis maintains her dignity throughout by projecting qualities of wit, intelligence and decency in the title role.  Sugar continually stands up to the amoral, corrupt men running the prison plantation both for herself and for her fellow inmates.  In one of Davis's most impressive scenes, she comes to the defense of a fellow inmate too sick to cut cane and volunteers to cover her workload while maintaining her own quota.  The scene allows the audience to recognize that Sugar isn't out for herself.  Davis's unusually deep voice, which always distinguished her from her contemporaries, allows her to project confidence and authority throughout the film, particularly in the finale where the machine gun-brandishing Sugar leads a revolt and breakout among her fellow inmates.  As the trailer narrator memorably and accurately intones, Davis and her accomplices were ".38 caliber kittens spitting death as they claw their way to freedom!"  In fact, Davis's performance in "Sweet Sugar" is so good, it makes one sense that she should have been considered for the Tiffany Case, and not Plenty O'Toole, role in "Diamonds are Forever," which was ultimately played by the unimpressive Jill St. John.

Davis continued in the women-in-prison genre the next year with the futuristic drama "Terminal Island" (1973), directed by Stephanie Rothman.  In "Terminal Island," Davis plays one of four female prisoners condemned to live out her existence on an island, after the death penalty has been abolished, along with other death row prisoners, both male and female, where there are no guards and no law and the prisoners are free to do as they wish except leave.  As with "Sweet Sugar," Davis's character actively participates in a civil war revolt against the tyrannical prisoners who intimidate and enslave the more docile prisoners on the island.  However, Davis was purportedly later forced to bring legal action against the producers of a compilation video, called "Famous T & A" (1982), comprised of well-known actresses' nude scenes.  To her dismay, Davis learned that those producers had used, without obtaining her consent, unedited footage of Davis in her skinny dipping scene that was much more graphic than what ended up in the final cut of "Terminal Island."  On a happier note, the other lasting legacy of "Terminal Island" was that it established a lifelong friendship with co-star Tom Selleck, who later cast her in a recurring role in "Magnum P.I." in the late 1980s.

Throughout the 1970s, Davis appeared in other feature films including "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973), the quirky period musical comedy "Train Ride to Hollywood (1975) where she humorously spoofed Vivien Leigh's role as Scarlett O'Hara, and Robert Aldrich's "The Choirboys" (1977), based on Joseph Wambaugh's novel.  In the latter part of the decade, Davis landed her most notable role as Bea Travis, the assistant to Robert Urich's Dan Tanna, on the Aaron Spelling detective series "Vega$" (1978-81).  A former showgirl and single mother, the character of Bea, Tanna's Girl Friday, allowed Davis an opportunity to demonstrate a maternal, sympathetic warmth, as well as qualities of loyalty and courage in the episodes that allowed Bea to get in on the action, that made her an appealing presence on the series.  What was notable about Davis's work on "Vega$" was the seemingly effortless chemistry that underscored the platonic, caring friendship between Dan Tanna and Bea.  Urich and Davis both did good work to sell that friendship with TV audiences and it became one of the human elements that made "Vega$" an entertaining series.

After "Vega$" was unexpectedly cancelled after three seasons, Davis continued working in prime time television throughout the 1980s.  In addition to her aforementioned recurring role on "Magnum P.I.," she became a favorite of "Vega$" producer Aaron Spelling, for whom she appeared eight times on "Fantasy Island," four times on "The Love Boat," as well as the Spelling produced "Finders of Lost Loves," "Matt Houston," and "Hotel."  "Fantasy Island" in particular allowed Davis an opportunity to essay a variety of different kinds of characters.  In one episode, she played a plain-looking woman whose fantasy of becoming glamorous and attractive has unintended consequences.  In another episode, her character has her fantasy fulfilled of becoming Mata Hari.  In yet another episode, her character has an opportunity of becoming the singer/stage actress Lillian Russell.  Davis also made a memorable guest appearance in the 2-hour pilot movie for "Knight Rider" (1982), playing the villainous Tanya Walker, an industrial spy whose wounding and disfigurement of police officer Michael Long leads to his new identity as crime fighter Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff).  She appeared on the December 1980 "Battle of the Network Stars" special and became a staple on game shows throughout the decade including "The Hollywood Squares," "Match Game PM" and "Family Feud."  She wrapped up her career in the early 1990s with appearances in the Andy Sidaris action film "Guns" (1990), as well as small roles in "Exit to Eden" (1994), "Beverly Hills Cop III" (1994), and "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" (1995) before calling it a day and retiring from acting for good.

Phyllis Davis, who never married, was in a long term relationship with legendary actor/entertainer Dean Martin in the late 1970s.  Martin's daughter Deana wrote warmly about Davis in her 2010 memoir "Memories Are Made of This: Dean Martin Through His Daughter's Eyes."  In the book, Ms. Martin recalled how the Martin family liked Davis very much and that she became good friends with the actress, who she described as "funny, beautiful, and down to earth."  Years later, in the late 1980s, Davis was in another long term relationship with flat racing jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr.  While doing a rare radio interview on actor Larry Manetti's CRN network radio show on May 15, 2012, Davis shared that her retirement years in her post-acting life were filled with extensive travel where she lived in countries like Thailand for periods of time, as well as fostering and finding forever homes for animals.  As she explained on air"I enjoyed my life being away from acting, I think, better than acting...Afterwards, I don't know, I think I grew as a person because I went to Asia by myself and went up into the jungle by myself and learned about other people, instead of just thinking about yourself."  Survivors include Davis's brother Weldon Davis of Austin, Texas.