Davidson, Tommy 1963(?)–
Tommy Davidson 1963(?)–
Tommy Davidson first became a household name during his time on the irreverent Fox Television show In Living Color, which ran from 1990 until 1993. While Davidson performed in a wide range of skits, his specialty was wicked impersonations of famous African American personalities, including MichaelJackson, M.C. Hammer, Spike Lee, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Stevie Wonder.
After the show went off the air, Davidson searched for a suitable venue to showcase his talents. He appeared on several television specials and in Hollywood comedies, including Booty Call (1997) and Woo (1998). While these films received mixed reviews, critics often pointed out that the scripts were at fault, rather than the performances. The Atlanta Constitution’s Sonia Murray gave a typical assessment: in reviewing Booty Call, she described Davidson as “likable and obviously talented,“but noted that “it’s not enough to salvage this disastrous date movie.”
Davidson was born in Mississippi in the early 1960s (exact date unknown; in 1991 he was quoted in Essence as saying his age was “twentysome-thing”). In 1965, when he was 18 months old, he was adopted by Barbara Davidson, a white civil rights worker. At the time, he was sick and his biological mother was in danger, and therefore unable to provide the care he needed. The details of the situation are vague, but Barbara Davidson became the only mother he ever knew.
Davidson was raised with two white siblings: brother Michael and sister Beryle, who was Davidson’s age. Although his adoptive mother raised her family in an integrated neighborhood in Washington D.C., she could not protect Davidson from racism. “There would be situations that would pop up where I’d be out with black people, and they would see my sister, and they would look at me different,“he told DeNeen Brown of the Washington Post.“And there would be situations where I would be around whites, and I could feel the racism in the air; walking to a restaurant or to a party, I could see their expressions change.”
Davidson’s talent and drive to perform were evident from an early age. “I always felt he had it in him,”
At a Glance…
Born Tommy Davidson, early 1960s, in Mississippi; adopted by Barbara Davidson, 1965; one brother, Michael (deceased), one sister, Beryle. Education: High school diploma, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, 1982.
Career: Comedian, actor, singer. Television appearances include In Living Color, 1990-93; “Tommy Davidson: Takin’ It to DC,’ 1990; ‘Tommy Davidson: Min’ in Philiy,1991; “Tommy Davidson: On the Strength in New York City,” 1996; Between Brothers, 1997; The Magic Hour, 1998. Film appearances include Strictly Business, 1991; Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, 1994; Booty Call, 1997; Woo, 1998; Plump Fiction, 1998.
Barbara Davidson was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. When he was seven, he and a group of friends performed the song “Rockin’ Robin“at a recreational center. “They were supposed to share the mike. Tommy wouldn’t give it up,” Barbara Davidson recalled in the Washington Post.“I would think a little kid would get scared. But the more they yelled, the better he got.”
Davidson graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1982. “I was a smart student, but I was not a good student,“Davidson told the Washington Post.“I didn’t have a whole lot of discipline inside. I really had a hard time retaining all the information.” He attended the University of the District of Columbia briefly, but did not stay to pursue a degree.
Shortly afterward, Davidson got his start in comedy when he performed at a strip club in Washington, D.C. Despite the tough crowd, and the fact that he had not prepared any material in advance, he received an enthusiastic response. “I just winged it and got through, and it actually sounded good,“Davidson told Jim Sullivan of the Boston Globe.“And I said, ‘Wow, maybe this is what I should be doing.’” His booking at the club was extended to a month, and his brother became his manager.
Davidson next began doing stand-up comedy at parties and in talent showcases. In 1987, he performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he won its famed amateur competition—and then won it again and again. The same year, he decided to move to Los Angeles, where he spent three years performing in comedy clubs, paying the bills by working as a garnish chef. “I was getting close to being an artist at it,“he told Deborah Gregory of Essence, “but at least I know how to make a plate look pretty if I have a lady friend over for dinner.”
Finally, Davidson got a chance to perform at the Comedy Store, one of the top clubs in Los Angeles. There he was spotted by Robert Townsend, who invited him to warm up the audience for an HBO special. “That was a big break. That was the first night I got the attention of people in the industry,” Davidson told Brown. Within a few months, he had an agent, and had graduated from the small club circuit to opening for major stars like Patti LaBelle, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, AUarreau, and Kenny G.
In 1990, Davidson made his debut on the Fox Television comedy show In Living Color, described by Jim Sullivan of the Boston Globe as “the first variety-comedy show to place the emphasis on humor by and about people of color.” While Davidson performed in a wide range of skits, his impersonations brought him the most acclaim. For the next three years, he was a regular performer, and by 1993 had begun to write material for the show.
Also in 1990, Davidson appeared in a TV special, “Tommy Davidson: Takin’ It to D.C,“a broadcast of a live stand-up performance. The following year, Rolling Stone magazine named Davidson one of the “Rising Stars of Comedy.” Also in 1991, he appeared in another television special, “Tommy Davidson: Illin’ in Philly,” and starred in the film Strictly Business, opposite Halle Berry.
After In Living Color was cancelled in 1993, Davidson continued to work in television, while searching for film projects, and occasionally doing stand-up. “Stand-up is always my saving grace. No matter what is going on, I can rely on it,” Davidson told Brown.
In 1994, Davidson was a guest host for the Later show. The following year, he performed in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, alongside Jim Carrey, one of his co-stars from In Living Color. In 1997, Davidson co-starred in the short-lived Fox comedy series Between Brothers.
Also in 1997, Davidson appeared in the film Booty Call, a comedy which received mixed reviews. Stephen Hold-en in the New York Times found the film lowbrow but amusing: “The contemporary sex farce…has the attention span of a hyperactive child, but its bawdy sexual humor rarely flags. “John Anderson of the Los Angeles Times was more critical, describing the lead actors as “four very talented people trapped in the script from hell.”
In 1998, Davidson co-starred, opposite Jada Pinkett Smith, in the romantic comedy Woo.“Tim (the character Davidson plays) is looking for someone he can care for, have a good time with and ultimately fall in love with, but he ends up with a girl that turns his world upside down,“he was quoted as saying in Jet.“Once Woo disappears, he realizes that she adds the perfect spice to his dull life.” Woo, like Booty Call, had a less than enthusiastic reception: New York Times’ Holden called it “incoherent,“while Jane Horwitz of the Washington Post observed, “this isn’t much of a movie.” Also in 1998, Davidson performed in the film Plump Fiction, a spoof of the acclaimed Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction.
In July of that year, Davidson was added as a sidekick to Magic Johnson on the late-night television show The Magic Hour. According to Greg Emmanuel, writing in TV Guide, “Davidson’s presence is expected to infuse some life into the flagging television program.” Despite Davidson’s efforts, the show floundered, and was abruptly cancelled the following month.
Davidson continues to perform stand-up comedy at venues throughout the country, though he rarely performs in his hometown of Los Angeles. “Mostly when I’m home I’m acting, trying to get work,“he said in a personal interview. “I do love stand-up. I’ll never stop doing it. But right now I’m pretty much concentrating on doing movies.”
Davidson describes his stand-up performances as “vibrant“and “energetic.” “Usually my show is different every night, because I just do whatever comes into my mind,“he said in a personal interview. “I do impressions, talk about my life, growing up. I talk about topical issues, what’s going down right now. I do music too. I do singing impressions.”
Davidson often explores racial material in his comedy; according to Caren Weiner, writing in Entertainment Weekly, “his racially aware punchlines usually hit their mark.“Davidson credits his interracial upbringing with helping him look beyond negative stereotypes. “When I hear blacks talking about white people, saying, ‘White people are this and white people are that,’ I say to myself, ‘That is not true,’” he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.“And when I hear white people saying, ‘Black people are this or that,’ I say, ‘I know that is not true because I’m black.’ That’s what makes me me. It’s a very cool thing.”
While critics have been less receptive to Davidson’s movies, his stand-up routines usually receive raves. The Chicago Tribune’s Audarshia Townsend, wrote about the 1998 “Kings of Comedy Tour, ““The former co-star of In Living Color was a ball of energy as he rolled out nutty spins on everything, from psychic hotlines to honky-tonk music’Onstage is really where he takes character development to the next level, in the tradition of Richard Pryor and Jim Carrey.”
While Davidson may be hilarious on stage, “in real life he’s driven, deadpan, brooding—anything but funny,“Deborah Gregory wrote in Essence. Eventually, Davidson hopes to move beyond comedy into more serious roles. “Comedy is just one of the things I do,” he told Gregory. “What I really want is to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor and as a singer.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 26, 1997, p.DIO; May 25, 1997, p. K2.
Boston Globe, November 3, 1991, p. 84.
Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1998, sec. 5, p. 2.
Essence, November 1991, p. 35.
Jet, March 18, 1998, p. 14; May 25, 1998, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1997, p. F10;August 7, 1998, p. D2.
New York Times, February 26, 1997, p. C16; May 8, 1998, p. E12.
TV Guide, August 15, 1998, p. 5.
Washington Post, February 18, 1996, p. G1; May 8, 1998, p. 63.
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