When we last saw the Cigarette Smoking Man, in “The X-Files” series finale in 2002, he was living as a guru in an old Anasazi settlement in New Mexico. Or at least he was, until a couple of black helicopters blew it and him to smithereens, seemingly ending his run as the story’s nefarious conspirator and prime concealer of whatever truths may, in fact, be out there.
“I died at the end of Season 9, so what could they do?” William B. Davis, the actor who plays him, said recently. “I didn’t have a whole lot of hope” of returning.
But there he was in the final moments of Sunday’s premiere of the new “X-Files” miniseries, comfortably ensconced in an undisclosed location, smoking through his tracheotomy hole. He looked battered, but remarkably well for a man whose face viewers saw incinerated by a missile 14 years ago. He will appear in two of the remaining five new episodes, and any insights about what he’s been up to, or how he is still with us, will have to wait until then. “There are some relationships that have developed that viewers might find surprising” is all Davis will say.
A Toronto native, Davis hardly seemed destined to become a sci-fi supervillain on TV. A classically trained stage actor who has worked with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Albert Finney, he was initially hired onto “The X-Files” mostly to smoke Morley cigarettes (actually herbal smokes) menacingly in the background. But his performance and fan interest spurred the producers to expand the role into one that is now regularly listed among television’s most memorable bad guys. Over the years the Smoking Man, as he is popularly known – like the devil, he goes by many names – ruthlessly managed the show’s main alien conspiracy, sacrificing his wife to extraterrestrial experiments, shooting his own son and repeatedly thwarting Agent Mulder, the show’s hero, who, in a Vaderesque twist, was later revealed to be the Smoking Man’s biological son.
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Post “X-Files,” Davis starred in series like “Continuum” and taught at the William Davis Center for Actors’ Study in Vancouver, British Columbia, which he founded in the 1980s. (It is now part of the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts.) He also wrote a memoir, “Where There’s Smoke … : Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” named for a popular episode of “The X-Files.”
He figured the Smoking Man was gone for good after he was left out of 2008’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” the second film in the franchise. So he was thrilled to be invited back, though less so about the four hours of makeup it now takes to put the character together. “I’m still hoping the magic of science will get rid of the tracheotomy,” he said.
He called recently to muse anew about the enduring appeal of “The X-Files” and his character. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You haven’t been the Smoking Man since 2002. Is it like riding a bicycle, or did you have to readjust to it?
A: It’s been many years, but it seems to fit me like a glove, to be honest. I don’t have any difficulty dropping back into it.
Q: Is that at all troubling, considering he’s a supervillain?
A: And I’m really a nice person! I don’t know why it fits me so well. 1 / 8Laughs 3 / 8 Maybe it allows me to do things I’ve always wanted to do, but never could. I used to have a lot of fun doing college tours, where I would make the case that they misunderstood the show. They think Mulder’s the hero, but they’ve got it wrong: I’m the hero. Mulder’s the guy who’s going to mess everything up.
Q: At the premiere screening at New York Comic Con, perhaps the loudest cheers came when the Smoking Man appeared. Why do you think he’s resonated so much with fans?
A: That’s nice to hear. Obviously villains are fascinating to the public. They suggest a power and a strength and a danger, and in this case the danger is unclear. We don’t quite know what power I have. And underneath it, there’s a human being that has suffered enormously, but I don’t know whether the audience picks up on that or whether they just don’t care. It’s surprising how many younger people I meet at conventions – a whole kind of echo boom of “X-Files” fans has grown up. I don’t know how large it is, but it’s certainly committed and active.
Q: You trained as a stage actor. How does it feel to be best known as a bad guy on a science fiction TV show?
A: I certainly never would’ve guessed that when I was a young theater director and my main ambitions were to run a major Shakespearean festival. But it’s done great things for me, not only for its visibility but also just for the screen time it gave me – the amount of practice helped me to become a much better actor. There is a tendency for people to see me as that kind of role, but personally I’m not like that at all, so it’s not that difficult to see me as something else. I just played a kindly grandfather in a Hallmark Channel show called “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” for example.
Q: Which Smoking Man-focused “X-Files” episodes were your favorites?
A: I always liked “Talitha Cumi,” which gave me a whole bunch of things to do, from philosophical debates to suggestions about relationships with Mulder’s mother, et cetera. Of course, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” The episode, which finds him manipulating key world events and killing leaders like John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was intended to be a tall tale within the narrative, rather than fact. It was a very impressive episode, though it was kind of hard to marry this short story with the character who was driving this conspiracy. But fans don’t seem to mind.
Q: Why do you think “The X-Files” has continued to resonate?
A: Obviously, the relationship between Mulder and Scully, the scary stories, they were just good TV. I think there was something in the zeitgeist of the ‘90s, we were moving away from what we thought was hard truth into the world of digitization, the postmodern world of ‘Your truth is your truth; my truth is my truth.’ There’s no hard reality, and so a show about what’s real and what’s not real somehow captured the imagination. Times have changed, and how it resonates now, I don’t know. In the ‘90s it became, as we know, a world event. Will it live at that level now? I doubt it. But it could certainly live as entertaining television.
Q: Your character’s biggest challenge now might be finding a place that will actually let him smoke.
A: (Laughs) Could be. I imagine he'll still smoke wherever he has to.