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‘Wicked’ actor John Davidson back on Boston stage

John Davidson and his wife, Rhonda, enjoy an evening outside their RV in Foxborough.
John Davidson and his wife, Rhonda, enjoy an evening outside their RV in Foxborough.John Davidson

Veteran actor John Davidson, The Wizard of Oz in the national tour of the smash hit musical “Wicked,” is back in his old stomping grounds.

The show opened at the Boston Opera House on Wednesday and runs through Sept. 15, and the 71-year-old, who grew up in Brockton and West Bridgewater, will be ensconced at the Normandy Farms Campground in Foxborough for the duration of the six-week production.

For the entire 10 months of the tour, home for Davidson, wife Rhonda, and their cat is a 36-foot Fleetwood Bounder 35K RV. The vehicle has space for his musical instruments and his artist wife’s gear as well. He’ll commute back and forth to Boston, probably via train, he says.

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“It’s a chance to kick back and relax, start a campfire and have a glass of wine, and see what the New England Patriots are up to if I get a chance,” said Davidson, famed for his enduring, boyish good looks. “I love the Patriots and Tom Brady.”

Davidson’s professional career encompasses a half-century of work on Broadway and regional stages, film, and TV. A recording artist and a performer in Las Vegas showrooms and performing arts centers across the country, he has recorded 13 albums and even had his own theater in Branson, Mo., for three years.

Davidson’s family moved to Brockton from Pittsburgh when he was 4 and his father, the Rev. James Davidson, presided over the First Baptist Church of Brockton. The Rev. Davidson had his own show on WHDH radio; his wife, Elizabeth, was also an ordained minister. A year later, the Davidsons moved to West Bridgewater, where they spent about eight years.

Davidson said he had heard the town still has the same small-town feel as when he grew up.

“Two ninety-four East Street in West Bridgewater,” he said. “I’ll be kicking around the old neighborhood while I’m here.”

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He said he used to help his brother Porter deliver the Brockton Enterprise and has fond memories of visits to the Brockton Fair.

The family moved to White Plains, N.Y., just before he started eighth grade, but it took a while for him to lose his accent.

“What’s my mahk?” he recalled asking a teacher, to laughter from his classmates.

Davidson has other ties to the area. His daughter Ashleigh, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, is a master’s degree candidate at Harvard, majoring in voice and speech, but may choose the world of academia instead of performing, he said. He has made frequent visits to Boston to visit his daughter and see productions at the Cambridge-based American Repertory Theatre.

Davidson, who last appeared on the Boston stage in a tour of “State Fair” with Kathryn Crosby, Bing Crosby’s widow, raves about the talent he is working alongside in “Wicked.”

The musical, with music by Stephen Schwartz, is based on Gregory Maguire’s best-selling novel about the unlikely friendship between two of The Wizard of Oz’s major characters: Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

“I grew up singing Rodgers & Hammerstein, but ‘Wicked’ has taken the musical to a whole new level,” he said. “I’m proud to be a part of this production.”

Davidson said he is fine with the smaller part of the Wizard instead of being the leading man he was for so many years. “I’m realistic about where I am in life right now. But I love playing the con man,” he said.

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He said he is happy still to be involved in his first love, live theater, although he believes all the media are related.

“In a way, it’s all storytelling,“ he said. “Whether you’re an actor in film, TV, theater, a singer, whatever. But live theater is in the moment, making it happen. You can’t control it. I love the feeling — no two shows are alike. It’s scary and thrilling at the same time. Live theater is what all other things are based on.”

Davidson did some TV commercials in high school, modeled undershorts in both the 1959 Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues, and sang with a local pop group called the Kool Kords, but Denison University in Ohio was where he “learned a trade” — honing his talents and coming to believe he could make a living as a performer. He got his first big break on Broadway in “Foxy” with Bert Lahr in 1964.

But it was television that gave Davidson his greatest exposure. Starting in the late 1960s for about a quarter-century, Davidson was all over the medium — as a singer on a number of talk and variety shows, hosting his own talk show, filling in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” 87 times, and hosting game shows such as “The $100,000 Pyramid” and “Hollywood Squares.”

He is sanguine about returning to television at this point in his career. “There’s only one role for the grandpa, and everyone else is 25,” he said.

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Davidson, who enjoys biking and tennis, said at one point he thought about retiring to Florida and playing with his grandchildren — he even tried it for a while — but now has put the thought of retirement out of his mind.

“I never thought I’d still be working at 71, but there’s really no reason to retire,” he said. “I’m singing as well as ever. I’m grateful for what I have, and I still love performing.”


Rich Fahey can be reached at fahey.rich@@gmail.com.