In case you missed the news a few weeks ago, The Nanny is available for streaming on HBO Max. The 1990s sitcom follows Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) as she takes care of the children of handsome Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy). Some of the best moments of the series are the witty and sharp one-liners from Niles the Butler, played by Daniel Davis for all six seasons. His target was usually Mr. Sheffield’s business partner, CC Babcock (Lauren Lane).
Davis (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dispatches from Elsewhere, Elementary) spoke with me recently about his time on The Nanny, his theater career, and recent projects. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Let’s start with two icebreakers. If there’s another pandemic lockdown, which Broadway musical soundtrack is a must-have for your playlist?
Anything that Stephen Sondheim wrote. I’m a big fan of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. Those are probably my two favorites. One of the things that I like about Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music is that they’re based on really good books. They would stand alone as plays without the music.
Would Niles vote yea or nay on the Roomba, those robot vacuum cleaners?
He would do the dance rumba. I don’t know if he would get a Roomba to sweep his floor. It would be too much of an interference in his domain.
What do you think about the international appeal of The Nanny, more specifically of a character like Niles? My friends told me they watched it when they were growing up in places like Jordan, South Africa, and the Philippines. It’s been all over.
It still is. I’m now doing this thing called Cameo. I get requests from people all over the world. It stuns me that it’s still so popular and has meant so much to people everywhere. I think the appeal for the character of Niles has always been that he says what other people are thinking and are afraid to say. He’s fearless in that regard and just says whatever is in his mind, especially to Miss Babcock.
I get a lot of requests from people on Cameo to talk about my relationship to Miss Babcock on the show. It’s interesting because sometimes people write me and their request is like, “Please say something rude to my girlfriend. Treat my girlfriend the way you would Miss Babcock. Please say something rude to my wife.”
I don’t say rude things to people I don’t know. [laughs] I’m afraid somebody will punch me in the nose if I run into them on the street. I’m very gentle with my fans.
Was there a gag you weren’t expecting in the scripts that you absolutely loved doing?
I would go back to when they gave me the Tom Cruise moment from Risky Business where I’m home alone. I slid onto the stage and did “Old Time Rock & Roll.” That came as a big surprise to me. Miss Babcock comes in at the tail end of it and I’m saying, “You realize of course now I’m going to have to kill you.”
It was one of those moments as an actor you just live for! The other scene that I loved was when I came into the study and the lights were low. Niles snuck up behind Miss Babcock and said, “Cluck like a chicken.” She played that so brilliantly. It was very hard for me to keep a straight face through that moment. They surprised me a lot on the show, but those probably are the two things that stand out in my memory.
What did you envision for the end of the series with Niles and CC?
I didn’t envision Miss Babcock and Niles ever getting together as a couple. That came as a huge surprise to me and I think to Lauren Lane as well. It was an odd twist that seemed to me like the writers were trying to pitch ideas about how to bring the series to an end. They began this flirtation between the two of us. I think Lauren went to the producers at some point and said, “I’m the brunt of all of his jokes, all the time. Can you not give me some snappy comeback to him every once in a while?”[In that way,] she wasn’t always being picked on. The writers thought that’s a good idea. I suddenly realized that Miss Babcock was starting to give as good as she got. It became a sort of natural flirtation between us. I didn’t think it would go as far as it did. I’ve always been interested in the fans’ reaction to it, more than ours. We went along with it because it was our job to go with it. How did you react to it? Did you buy it?
I thought they were more like frenemies. Maybe they might end up having a fling, but they wouldn’t get together. Maybe Niles would get the upper hand in the end.
I think I would agree with you. I think we would have had an affair and a flirtation but it didn’t end with us going off to be married necessarily. That’s what they seemed to suggest at the end of the series, that they were going to be a couple.
Switching gears to theater, April 23 was William Shakespeare’s 457th birthday. Which of his plays did you prefer doing the most?
I’ve been very lucky in my career. When I was training to be an actor, I did have classical training. It was all that I really ever aspired to do: to be in a classical repertory company. The first 20-plus years of my career, I focused entirely on the regional theater scene around the U.S. and also in Canada, where they were doing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw. It was my ambition as a young actor to play the great parts in the great plays. I’ve been fortunate to play Hamlet four times in four regional productions.
I’ve been in three productions of Lear. I was in one at Stratford Ontario, the Shakespeare festival there, playing Edmund. Then I played the Fool. Finally, I played Lear himself. I think in terms of the stature and the greatness of the roles, Hamlet and Lear are probably tied in my memory as the two greatest experiences of my acting career.
I was lucky to play Hamlet at three different stages of my career: the first two productions when I was in my mid-20s, the next one when I was close to 30, and the last one when I was close to 40. There was a marked difference in my approach because of more life experience as I did those Hamlet productions. I’d like to do Lear again because I did it 13 years ago. I’d like to do it one more time while I still have the strength to pick up Cordelia at the end.
What’s the most unique theater space you’ve performed in?
The Classic Stage Company in Lower Manhattan is a very small space. There’s three sides: an audience on stage right, stage left, and in the middle. Then there’s a back wall at the back. You have audience that you always feel like they’re only seeing your back. It’s very tricky to work on a three-quarter round stage, or a thrust stage like they have at Stratford Ontario, where there’s audience all around you. Good directors try to block a play in that situation where the actor always has his back to an aisle, so that they’re always having a profile view of you on a couple of sides. It’s tricky to act because you sometimes want to stand right in an actor’s face and talk to them directly, but then you’re always blocking somebody. I don’t dislike it. I find the three-quarter space is the biggest challenge to work in.
When you’ve encountered good directors, which characteristics are most helpful to you?
I think my favorite kind of director is a director who will literally work off of what the actors are doing and let them move around in the rehearsal space or the stage, letting the energy and the thoughts they’re having propel them around. A director can make a play stage worthy like two days before you open it, in terms of blocking and choreography. Sometimes directors micromanage actors in plays. Those are the directors I least enjoy working with.
I like for the director to trust me and the other actors to find their way into the play and into the characters. If they have suggestions and an idea you haven’t thought of, they present that to you in a way that’s not “Do it this way,” but [as] someone who gives you an adjustment in the way you’re thinking. I had a great mentor at [the American Conservatory Theater] those six years I spent there, who was very good at this sort of thing. If he wanted you to do something differently from what you were doing, he would say, “Let this thought go into your head when you’re doing this scene and see where that thought takes you, instead of the thought that you’re having.”
It was a tricky and wonderful gentle manipulation of what you were doing to get you to try something new. The actor himself would usually go, “Oh, you know what, that’s much better!” I’m always happy when someone has a better idea.
What was the hardest accent you ever had to do?
It was the South African accent, an Afrikaans, in a play I did called Pravda by David Hare and Howard Brenton. It’s only had one American production, which was [ours] at the Guthrie Theater. It was written at a time when it was the beginning of the London tabloid press being out of control, which it totally is now. Pravda is the Russian word for “truth.” This was a play about a guy kind of like a Rupert Murdoch character, who bought a newspaper and ran it into the ground, destroying all the lives of everybody involved with it. It was a character Anthony Hopkins originated in London. I had the good fortune to originate it here.
You recently won two awards for Roses Are Blind: Best Supporting Actor in a Thriller Short at the Pure Magic Film Festival and Best Actor at the Vesuvius International Monthly Film Festival. The script is co-written by Wendy J. White and director Gui Agustini. Do you find it harder to do a short film versus a long film or TV show?
Since The Nanny went off, I had gotten used to doing small, one-scene parts on some TV shows that I’d like to watch. You’ll do one or two scenes. It fits into a larger picture. Gui said if the short version gets picked up and if we go to a full film of it, [my] character will have more to do in a future film. The scene happens so early between Christina [Jolie Breza] and I. When she comes to visit the psychic, my character, it’s almost like an exposition scene that will start the ball rolling for her character.
I think film is always interesting to do because it is so contained. You have to try and get as much into a scene as you can without overloading it. Just give the information that’s in the scene and play it simply. Roses was a great exercise for me, because I had to keep it really quiet and really simple. I enjoyed it for that reason. I have friends who have been doing film for 30 and 40 years. They still tell me they don’t know what they’re doing. The camera is such a tricky thing. To learn about it is a lifetime struggle. If I had more practice, I think I might get better at it.