Family & Companions
Through the run of one of the biggest cult hits in television history, William B. Davis put a new face on villainy, an institutional, eerily real incarnation of evil identified ominously by wafting smoke and the glow of a cigarette. A native Ontarian, Davis trained as an actor in esteemed company in the U.K. during the 1960s before returning to Canada to work as a theatrical director and drama teacher, eventually relocating to Hollywood North, Vancouver, BC. The 1980s saw him garnering small parts in inauspicious Canadian-shot television and movie projects, but he would establish a regular imprint in 1993 with a new science fiction series, "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002). Davis played the shadowy, stoic intelligence operative predominantly known only by his credited billing, Cigarette Smoking Man. The show became a cultural phenomenon, with CSM ending up one of the most speculated-over villains in the buzz-happy realm of sci-fi fandom. It also made him a frequent guest star on a flurry of sci-fi and horror TV shows and movies through the 1990s and early 2000s. He would remain one of Canada's best-renowned thespian talents, both under the lights and behind them, yet be irrevocably identified as one of the creepiest personas in TV history, a gray-suited archetype of cold-blooded Machiavellianism.
He was born William Bruce Davis on Jan. 13, 1938, in Toronto, Ontario to Bruce and Carroll Davis, an attorney and child psychologist, respectively. The family spent their summers in the resort community of Muskoka and their winters in suburban Toronto and, later, a rural estate near King City. Two older cousins, Donald and Murray Davis, started a resort repertory company, The Straw Hat Players, and lured Bill to play a juvenile role when he was 11. It spurred an interest in the craft that led him to acting lessons in Toronto, whereupon he quickly began landing kid parts in radio dramas broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He went on to attend the University of Toronto, majoring in philosophy but also continuing to hone his dramatic chops in college productions, some alongside classmates Donald Sutherland and Catherine Cragg - the latter being the first of Davis' wives. He graduated in 1959 and the next year traveled to the U.K. to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He went on to serve as artistic director at the Dundee Repertory Theatre and, in 1964, landed a spot with the National Theatre of Great Britain, then under the helm of Laurence Olivier.
With his impressive CV, Davis returned to Canada and a job as assistant artistic director of Montreal's National Theatre School of Canada, rising to the AD post at age 28. The next two decades would find him toiling in behind-the-scenes work and teaching jobs. In 1971, he joined the faculty of Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and later returned to Toronto to teach at Humber College. He began picking up theatrical acting work again in the late 1970s and TV and film work by the mid-1980s. In 1985, he took a job with the Vancouver Playhouse Acting School, just as the provincial film office was increasingly luring ever more Hollywood productions to the city on the cheap. He scored guest roles on Vancouver-shot features, TV movies and series, among them "Airwolf" (1987), a syndicated low-budget reprise to the CBS series of the same name; the critically lauded 1988-89 BC arc of the crime series "Wise Guy" (NBC, 1987-1990), the CBC/Disney Channel show "Danger Bay" (1984-89), and a prominent supporting role in an NBC adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Match Girl" (1987). In 1989, Davis hung out his own shingle, starting the William Davis Centre for Actors' Study.
In 1993, producer Chris Carter arrived in Vancouver with a U.S. production for the Fox network. "The X-Files" would follow two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully (David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson), as they investigated different paranormal cases each week. Carter conceived a more Byzantine arc that would run the agents periodically afoul of a powerful shadow-government cabal. Davis was selected to play its menacing point-man, Cancer Smoking Man. As he recalled in his 2011 memoir Where There's Smoke., "I got this weird part with no lines. All I do is smoke." Dragging on his trademark Morley both in and outdoors, "Cancer Man" - as Scully and Mulder eventually called him with derision - shadowed their journey, pulling strings and manipulating pawns to both guide and hinder their investigations. The show grew into a cult phenomenon, and fans buzzed about Davis's character - whom CSM worked for and just what was his part in the master plan for the human race through all nine seasons and one feature film, "X-Files: Fight the Future" (1998). His CSM was even name-checked in the Barenaked Ladies' 1998 hit single, "One Week." Perhaps out of guilt for glorifying the habit, Davis publicly accommodated for his character's vice as a spokesperson for the Canadian Cancer Association. He also raised some eyebrows among the more zealous of the "X-Files" fan base by leveraging his celebrity to advocate scientific skepticism, particularly applied towards the paranormal and ufology.
His iconic imprint nevertheless made him a regular denizen of a sci-fi and horror fare. He took guest-roles in a succession genre TV shows, among them "The Outer Limits" (Showtime/Sci Fi, 1995-2002),"Andromeda" (Sci Fi, 2000-05), "Smallville" (The WB/The CW, 2001-2011), "Stargate SG-1" (Showtime/Sci Fi, 1997-2007), "Caprica" (Syfy, 2010) and "Fear Itself" (NBC, 2008-09), and supporting parts, typically in officious authority-figure guises, in B-horror fare such as "The Messengers" (2007), "The Thaw" (2009), "The Shortcut" (2009) and even Z-grade "Syfy Originals" such as "Dark Storm" (2006) and "Behemoth" (2011). He popped up in less nerve-tingly projects, as per a recurring support role on the CTV sitcom "Robson Arms" (2005-08) and in featured parts in quirky Canadian-flavored indie outings "Numb" (2007) and "Amazon Falls" (2010) as well as the Anne Hathaway-starring mystery "Passengers" (2008). In the early 2000s, Davis branched out, penning and directing a series of short films as well as episodes of the Vancouver-set CBC daytime soap "49th & Main" (2006), and he returned to theatrical work in 2011, helming two productions for The United Players of Vancouver. Also in 2011, Davis married Emmanuelle Herpin, an official with the municipal government of the French city of Hyères.
By Matthew Grimm
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made his acting debut at a summer stock theater run by his cousins
Joined London's National Theatre
Became an artistic director at the National Theatre School of Canada
Had a role in the TV movie "The Cuckoo Bird"
Appeared in "Look Who's Talking"
Had featured role in the ABC miniseries "Stephen King's IT"
Played the recurring role of the Cigarette Smoking Man on Chris Carter's "The X-Files"
Reprised role in the feature film "The X-Files: Fight the Future"
Guest-starred as Mayor Tate on two episodes of "Smallville" (WB)
Cast on an episode of Stephen King's "Kingdom Hospital" (ABC)
Appeared on two episodes of "Stargate SG-1"
Starred in the suspense thriller "The Messengers," directed by the Pang brothers
Had a recurring role as an older version of Alec Sadler on "Continuum"
Made multiple appearances on "R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour"
Reprised role of the Cigarette Smoking Man for the 10th and 11th seasons of "The X-Files"
Played Judge Gordon Hoffman in Drew Goddard's '60s-set thriller "Bad Times at the El Royale"