At the age of 19, she finally found her freedom from the family, the scent of formaldehyde, and the dead people. Arriving in Los Angeles, Phyllis Davis intended to hone her acting skills at the Hollywood Pasadena Playhouse. “But I was just too shy,” she recalls, “so I took a job as a dancer/extra and people would see me on the set and just give me jobs. That’s how I got started.” Her earliest credit has been traced to THE LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS (1966), the sole screen vehicle developed for nightclub comedians Marty Allen and Steve Rossi. “I remember going around in a bikini, having to hold some dog which got into a fight with a chicken,” laughs Davis. “I had the dog and someone was carrying the chicken, and we had to sit next to each other. There was a lot of feathers all over the place.” Work was also accessible in Elvis Presley vehicles. But Davis performed a function no different from other aspirant starlets, including Teri Garr and Raquel Welch, who were cast in The King’s movies: serve only as window dressing. “I met Elvis, and he thought I looked like Priscilla at the time, so I got into every film he did. I worked as a dancer, an extra, anything I just sat there and collected a check.” Graduating to a minor role, her appearance as a secretary earned Davis a screen credit in Presley’s 1968 musical, Live a Little, Love a Little.
The following year, Davis was offered THE ARRANGEMENT, a film that could have been a turning point in her career. But she denied herself the opportunity to work with legendary director Elia Kazan and a prestigious cast that included Kirk Douglas and Faye Dunaway. “I held up shooting on it,” Davis admits. “Kazan had to stop production I didn’t show up. I said, ‘Oh no, they’re going to show my breasts.’ I had been living with somebody [Bill Harmon] for years, and he kept saying that it was horrible that I was going to show my breasts. He had killed himself in an accident a few days before production. We had broken up, but he had dropped his gun and it killed him. Valerie Perrine was dating him, she was a nude showgirl at the time. She called me and I took her to the funeral. Anyway, I used that as an excuse. I should have done THE ARRANGEMENT and gone for it.”
She later landed a gig, as a repertory player, on the weekly TV series LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE (1970-74). “I walked into Paramount to have lunch with somebody,” recounts Davis. “They had already looked at 200 girls, and I didn’t even have an interview. I walked in, and somebody saw me and said, ‘Do you have a bikini? Can you do lines?’ They gave me a few lines to do in front of the network people and the producers, and I got it that day. It was a fluke and it lasted for years.”
Concurrent with her stretch on the series, Davis was cast in movies that earned her adulation as a drive-in diva. Her film career got off to an auspicious start when a feud with Russ Meyer later erupted into a bitter showdown, even reported but unresolved in the pages of TV Guide. “It was while I was doing LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE,” explains Davis. “I tested for BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970), and no one could see the script. We thought it was like 1967’s VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, that it was a sequel. I thought I was doing Barbara Parkins’ role from the original, and I had no idea who Russ Meyer was. I screen tested and I got it on the first day I got the script and it was not the Barbara Parkins role. Meyer and I didn’t care for one another. I wasn’t the type he was exactly looking for. I had to go out in the desert and, all of a sudden, they couldn’t find my clothes and they wanted me to go nude. It was not a happy situation. I can’t say it was Russ Meyer’s fault. I just wasn’t what he wanted. I was the best on the test as an actress, but I wasn’t good at what he portrayed. I went to see it and I quit show business for a while after I saw myself, I was so bad. Afterward, the producers from LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE had dinner with me, calming me down and telling me, ‘No, don’t quit. OK, you were bad but so was everyone else.””
Though SWEET SUGAR (1972) endeared her to B-film addicts, Davis’ recollections about the tropical “women-in-prison” quickie are less than pleasant. “Like the Russ Meyer picture,” she sighs, “I was just thrilled to do any movie. At the time I was living in New York, and I would fly back and forth to do LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. I was modeling in New York and making more money doing that, but I came out to test for another part and wound up with SWEET SUGAR. I had signed a ‘no frontal nudity’ agreement and when I got to Costa Rica, all of a sudden I had to go nude. So I called the union and said I refused, and they said I’d get sued. They weren’t helpful at all, I’ll always remember that. I had to hire a lawyer, myself, and I was only making scale starring in this film. He went down there, so I wouldn’t have to do full-frontal nudity. It was kind of sad because one girl jumped out of a building, and it was just one mishap after mishap. I think it was one of the director’s [Michael Levesque] only directing jobs.”
Sugar Bowman agrees to serve two years working on a sugar-cane plantation rather than go to jail on a trumped-up drug charge. She arrives with new inmate Simone and encounters brutal guard Burgos and a maniacal plantation owner known only as Dr. John. Along with using a machete in the field to cut cane sugar all day, Sugar and the other inmates are forced to undergo Dr. John’s medical experiments, who is testing drugs. He also rapes the 17-year-old prisoner, Dolores. After being caught in an intimate situation with Carlos, a guard, Sugar is to be whipped, but when Carlos refuses, he is shot by Burgos.
The female inmates attempt to hide and protect Mojo, Simone’s love interest who has vague voodoo powers, but the Burgos catches him and Dr. John burns him at the stake. After setting fire to the sugar cane fields and stealing guns and vehicles, Sugar, Simone, and Dolores team-up with two more guards to take Dr. John hostage and attempt to escape. While fleeing, Simone is shot and crashes her jeep with Dr. John. He maniacally claims to be immortal, to which she responds by shooting him and blowing up the jeep, killing them both and blocking the exit so the rest can escape in a truck. After ditching the two guards who helped her, the final shot is Sugar walking down a street in town with two men, apparently making good her escape. – Sweet Sugar Summary
Davis experienced similar problems with the following year’s Terminal Island (1973), another “penal colony” film that later earned notoriety as one of co-star Tom Selleck’s closet B’s. “I was still living in New York,” explains Davis, “and I remember they didn’t want me to be blonde for the picture. TERMINAL ISLAND was fun except, again, I had signed a ‘no-frontal nudity’ contract. No big deal…I mean, it was just a low budget film. I wouldn’t mind being nude in a good film. So I jumped in a river nude, and they were supposed to shut the camera off when I came out. Seven or eight years later, it shows up in a magazine me, standing naked. They had sold the rights. I wouldn’t have complained, but it was a terrible picture. I sued ’em but after so many years, your contracts aren’t good anymore. The production company had gone bankrupt, and I just dropped it. Tom Selleck didn’t want anyone to know about the film, he hardly had any dialogue. Roger E. Mosley was in it too, and that’s how Roger got his co-starring role on MAGNUM P.I. Tom was helping cast the show, and he brought Roger in.”
A TV news program does a segment on Terminal Island, an off-shore island established after the abolition of the death penalty. First degree murderers are shipped off to the island to spend the rest of their days fending for themselves. Carmen is dropped off at Terminal Island. The first prisoner she meets is a former doctor. She comes to realize that there are two main factions on the island. A civil war breaks out. – Terminal Island Summary
Between B-movies, Davis was cast in The Day of the Dolphin (1973), an A-film that shifted into another lost opportunity. “DOLPHIN was just a little part. Actually, before I’d been a brunette, I had long hair to my waist. Someone gave me the wrong message about the part, that I had to be blonde, so I walked in with short, blonde hair and they gave me this little bimbo part. We shot it in Miami. I was sorry I had bleached my hair because I wanted the other part, so I could play with the dolphins. The director, Mike Nichols, called me back for another movie, Bogart Slept Here (1975) that I shot for Warner Brothers and it was never released.
“In the film, I played a Marilyn Monroe-bimbo again. It was like I was on Johnny Carson’s show, and I had to pretend I was some movie star and he had me ad lib. I was really disappointed. It was written by Neil Simon. Robert DeNiro and Neil Simon’s then-wife [Marsha Mason] starred in it. ‘Creative differences,’ you know, and they closed the whole thing down.” It was later disclosed that Nichols fired DeNiro during the first week of filming. The project later evolved into THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977).
Davis was subsequently cast in Train Ride to Hollywood (1975) a “lost” film that prompts only dim memories. “I don’t remember the story too well,” she claims. “I think it was all a dream sequence, I think they get knocked out in the train station. I played Scarlett O’Hara and I really had a ball. I loved the director, Charlie Rondeau, who did almost all of the comedy blackouts on LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. He was a madman, but he was really good.” The supporting cast included Roberta Collins, a B-Queen who performed in her own share of woman-in-prison epics (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. CAGED HEAT). “She was very sweet,” smiles Davis. “Roberta played Harlow, with a cigarette holder in her mouth and a white satin dress.”
The obscure film was eventually released by Billy Jack Enterprises. “I thought it would be successful, it seemed cute,” explains Davis. “I brought the president of Avco-Embassy, who was a friend of a friend, to the set to see if he would distribute the film. And the producers, these two kids… One of them said, ‘I don’t know, he looks like a greasy meatball to me.’ I remember thinking, I can’t believe he’s being rude to this guy.’ The guy had gone out of his way to come on to the set and, at the time, Avco was a big company.”
But it was The Choirboys (1977) that drew Davis closer to the mainstream. Though critically lambasted, the movie coasted on Davis’ risque role as a dominatrix. “I tested for that and I was great in the test,” she recalls, “…except there were two parts to it. The first was talking, and I was real good. But the second part was me beating somebody and it was a joke. I’m going [in a thin, high voice], ‘Now, take that!’ They said, ‘Phyllis, do you want the part? You can’t do it like that. You’ve got something to learn.’ I knew nothing about that type of life. So I got one of those newspapers, I think the Free Press was out at that time, and I called every S&M place and every woman who answered to Queen-this or Mistress-that and I hired them. I hired some girl, and found out she was a guy. She had a sex change, and now decided she was gay and liked girls.
“The others I would talk to actually thought they were the normal ones, they really did. They were beating these guys. That was okay, I guess. I mean, whatever turns you on. It doesn’t turn me on, but the problem was I had just had an interview with this other director and he walked in to be beaten. I thought I would die. He wanted to be beaten with high-heeled shoes. I decided I learned enough.”
Davis won the role over a couple of statuesque contenders. ”I tested for it with Julie Newmar, that really big girl who played Cat- woman. I thought for sure that she would get it. And Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister, tested for it. Lana Wood had earlier gotten a movie from me that I already had been offered. It was a James Bond movie, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. I was the only one they tested and I was told I had it when, all of a sudden, they gave it to her! I don’t know what happened, I was so disappointed. I still get residuals from it, even though I never did the role.”
The actress fondly remembers THE CHOIRBOYS as “one of James Woods’ first movies. The director, Robert Aldrich, would get mad at him because he was always putting his face toward the camera. Every time he’d walk out the door, he’d turn around and back out. What- ever he did, he did right I guess. But Aldrich would get so mad. ‘CUT!’” Davis’ laughter fades. “Although the picture ended up a comedy, I didn’t want to be the one who made it a comedy. Unfortunately, it bombed. They didn’t know which way to go with it.” But her exclusion from major league film-making can’t solely be blamed on the box-office failure of THE CHOIRBOYS. There were other problems…
Davis admits the amount of times she didn’t show up for an assignment exceeds her actual film credits. “I was scared all of the time. I was always finding excuses. I still get stressed out, but not usually in front of the camera. A while ago, I did something with David Hasselhoff (the KNIGHT RIDER TV pilot). I was so stressed out, because my dad was dying, that they had to loop-in my voice I was shaking that much! I knew I wouldn’t be able to get off to the funeral and I got so stressed, I couldn’t talk. They picked a beautiful voice, but I would have preferred to have done it myself. Stress just gets me sick. I have lupus, so I really have to avoid that.”
Her debilitating stage fright may be attributed to a friendless childhood in Port Arthur, Texas. “My parents owned a mortuary, and I had to go through the embalming room to get to my bedroom. All my life, there was not being allowed to talk because there was a funeral every day. I was very shy. My parents had such a weird sense of humor. It wasn’t even a sense of humor, they couldn’t understand why I would get upset. I would come back from the beach and my mother would holler from the house, ‘Phyllis! Your best friend just died!’ and it would be true. And then they’d say, ‘What are you crying about?’ At 19, and out of college, I finally left for L.A. My parents came after me because they thought all actresses were whores, and I should be a mortician.
“I went back home for a class reunion. I was washing my hair and I said, ‘Mother, where’s the hair dryer?’ I had to go down to the embalming room and lay on a slab to dry my hair, because the hair dryer was attached to the slab. And I’m lying there and there’s this corpse next to me, and it’s my ex-boyfriend’s brother. And my mother’s going, ‘Boy, he’s a hippie, look at that long hair.’ I got into a big fight with my mother: ‘How dare you talk about him!’ It should have been a sitcom.
“I’m not scared of dead people, or anything like that, but I’ve been scared of people. I’m more comfortable around the dead, to be honest with you. I’m so afraid of everything. It’s held me back.”
The chronic fear continues to plague the actress. “I went to acting class last week,” Davis relates, “and told them I couldn’t do it because I forgot my glasses, though I had three pair in my purse. I drove around the block three times before going to acting class, yet, in front of the camera, ‘You want me to take my clothes off? Okay.’ Because it’s somebody else. I become the character, so I’m fine. It’s a mental thing. Anyway, my acting coach wouldn’t let me get away with it. He said, You’re doing it.’ I need people to just say, ‘Oh shut up, Phyllis.’ That’s why I like Aaron Spelling so well. He’d say, “No excuses, just do it.’ I felt very secure with him.”
Spelling, whose production ensemble turned into Davis’ surrogate family, cast the actress in his television shows (“about ten episodes of LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND”) and made-for-TV movies, including Sizzle (1981) and The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch (1982). “I worked so much for Spelling,” smiles Davis, “that I never had to work for anyone else at the time. It’s bad to get that secure, because you don’t meet anybody else or expand. But it was so easy and fun.”
Davis earned a regular role on the VEGA$ TV series (1978-1981) via a very impromptu meeting with Spelling’s wife. “I was in a beauty shop, crying,” explains Davis. “I was a brunette again, I was living with Dean Martin and he wanted me to bleach my hair and look like [his ex-wife] Jeanne. I was very upset, he kept telling me that I looked too young. So I was cutting my hair and bleaching it blonde, and some woman was sitting at the shampoo bowl. It ended up being Candy Spelling. She said, ‘You’re doing this for Dean Martin, aren’t you? Well, you’re stupid because he only likes people who take advantage of him. And you’re doing everything for him. I know Dean and you can’t treat him nice.’
“She was tearing into me, and she had never met me. She left and I forgot about it. Then I get this call from my agent about VEGA$. He says, “You’ve got an interview for a blonde bimbo.” Candy did it as a joke. She called me ‘dummy,’ then she got me an interview for a dumb broad. But I didn’t get that part, Judy Landers got it. I got the secretary, thank God, because they fired Judy Landers after a few weeks when they decided not to go in that direction.”
Appearing on the final season of MAGNUM, P.I. Davis was reunited with TERMINAL ISLAND co-stars Tom Selleck and Roger E. Mosley. “First, I was a hooker, then I was Tom’s secretary in a dream sequence, and for some reason in the last show I married his sidekick, Larry Manetti,” laughs Davis. “I loved doing that show. The crew was absolutely wonderful, no bickering, no jealousy. Tom’s a gentle, nice person.”
In fact, Davis’ affection for Selleck prompted a rare conflict with Spelling. “He got mad at me because I went to Yugoslavia two weeks before shooting one of his TV movies. For some reason, he thought I wasn’t going to show up for the show… I can’t imagine why, I went to Yugoslavia to see Tom, who was doing a film there (HIGH ROAD TO CHINA). I guess there was an airline strike because I ended up in Venice. I didn’t know where I was, just went out in the street and said, ‘Taxi’
“I slept in the cab and, when I woke up, I was in Yugoslavia, except for the time they pulled me out of the cab at the border. Tom had said he wanted some magazines like Newsweek; and stuff like that ’cause we’re friends, there was no romantic thing there and I brought girlie magazines as a joke, not thinking it was against the law. They opened my suitcases, ripped me out of the cab and put the lights on me.
Davis was back on familiar turf in Guns (1990), a shoot’em up starring a repertory of Playboy Playmates. She describes the producers. Andy and Arlene Sidaris, as “fun. They even say about their movies, ‘Well, it’s not going to be any big award winner.’ But they’re fun to work with. That’s what’s more important.” If GUNS is more memorable than past Sidaris films, it may be because to date it commemorates Davis’ last appearance in a feature-length movie.
Davis recalls another time that she deflected the fear by shielding herself behind a scripted character. “I remember one time on FANTASY ISLAND, I had to play this person that was dating a married man and was madly in love with him. All of a sudden, I became the character and the next scene I meet the wife and she’s in a wheelchair, and he had lied to me all this time and now I feel like a whore. I was supposed to have on a red negligee, and I had a temper tantrum that I wasn’t going to be a whore and be put in some red negligee. And they had to wrap me up, and put me in a long gown that you couldn’t see through.”
One more thing. She’s perpetually played secretaries, from her Elvis ingenue days through her lucrative TV years. Ever feel typecast? “I don’t know,” she grins. “I’ve done more hookers than secretaries. On FANTASY ISLAND I’d get a lot of those roles. They said it was because I had a look so that, whatever I’d say or do, it would come off innocent. I have very innocent-looking eyes.”
“Davis died of cancer on September 27, 2013, in Henderson, Nevada, where she had made her home. She was 73.”
Phyllis Davis FROM WOMEN-IN-PRISON FILMS TO PRIME TIME By Ari Bass
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