Brad Davis: A Look Back

Today, Brad Davis should be turning 68 years old.

Instead, the intense, brooding actor was cut down in his prime, committing suicide via OD while suffering from AIDS.

Physically and sexually abused by his parents at home in Florida, Davis won a talent contest at 16 and moved to NYC, where he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, appeared in off-Broadway plays and landed his first professional TV role, on the soap How to Survive a Marriage (1974).

Working out early in his career

Davis by the great Kenn Duncan

His next big break on TV was a role in three episodes of Roots (1977), which became a cultural sensation.

Davis in Roots (Image via ABC)

Filmed after (but shown before) Roots, Sybil — a made-for-TV miniseries about multiple-personality disorder that was instrumental in showcasing Sally Field's (b. 1946) versatility as an actress — gave Davis a meaty role as the main character's love interest.

A gripping (literally) scene from Midnight Express (Image via Columbia)

On a roll, Davis experienced his greatest success in Midnight Express, for which he received a Golden Globe (as New Star of the Year) and for which he was nominated for two BAFTAs. The film chronicled the plight of an American student imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling hash. The film was a smash hit.

Following the film A Small Circle of Friends (1980) and more TV work, Davis had a plum role in Chariots of Fire (1981), which became a surprise Oscar winner.

Sizzling in Querelle

After this, he took on his gutsiest role, as the titular sailor in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's (1945-1982) adaptation of Jean Genet's (1910-1986) Querelle in 1982. Fassbinder died of a drug overdose shortly before the film's release.

Detail from the Querelle poster

Querelle, with its garish colors, odd narrative style, phallic symbolism and gay sex, was a sensation in France but extremely polarizing among critics.

Scan from a magazine shows Andy Warhol (1928-1987) visiting the Querelle set

Davis went on to appear in another dozen or so feature and TV films, but never came close to matching his early success.

A Disoriented Brad Plugging Querelle in 1983

Diagnosed HIV positive, in 1985, Davis the same year starred off-Broadway in Larry Kramer's trailblazing play on AIDS, The Normal Heart.

Davis in The Normal Heart in 1985

Thought to be bisexual (though his wife denied he slept with men), he guarded the secret of his HIV status fiercely, opting to take his own life in 1991.

A rare early autograph

He was survived by his partner, casting director Susan Bluestein, and their daughter Alexandra, now a trans man named Alex.

5 Responses

  1. I enjoyed Brad Davis’ work in Midnight Express and Querelle, among others. It’s a great shame he couldn’t escape his demons.

    • I was shown the film, Midnight Express, some days ago, by a former room mate who loves to emcee’ movies. This time, I really payed attention, both to the lead actor and the story. What struck me was, how handsome Brad Davis was, and his resemblance to my closest friend, Scott, in so many ways. One thing both men shared was they were severely abused. It sounds like Mr. Davis never got justice where those” parents” were concerned. They belonged in prison. PTSD also sounds like the driving force behind his drug and alcohol use,and sex addiction, all which took such a toll. Possibly ADHD too. Ditto for Scott, the parents had no consequences either. I’m so sorry that Mr. Davis has such stress to deal with and he kept working out of fear of poverty. My friend died under strange circumstances, he had alcohol in his system that was at high levels, we were both homeless, I got injured badly enough to stay at the above’s for a week before returning to camp. Instead of staying with his terminally ill brother and reconciling while staying with him, I found him laying on a yoga mat, a few days dead in 114 degree heat(July 2018). Point being, if you know someone suffering as these poor men did, try to get rescue for them before it’s too late. Seeing Mr. Davis, hearing what he went through, tore the thin scab off. The police were no help, indifferent. Honor Mr. Davis by fighting for the abused you become aware of.

  2. I was so smitten with him after seeing him in Sybil. He is one of the most beautiful men to have graced the screen.

  3. Brad Davis was one of my early boyhood crushes – I saw Querelle when I was 18 and thought he was (gay) sex personified. His death was both tragic and sad.

  4. Mr. Davis has to be one of most gorgeous guys I’ve ever seen in my life. The first time I ever seen him was in the miniseries, “Roots” when I was in 5th grade in 1988. He was a wonderful actor, but fit every proclivity that I find attractive in men; he was short, had a hairy chest & legs, had a wonderful spirit & spunk to him (possibly ADHD), & had the all-around American boy-next-door vibe going on. I love shorter men, & hairy men….so I had an immediate attraction to him. When he’s on the screen, I can barely take my eyes off him. It’s absolutely atrocious that both his mother & father sexually abused him when he was young. No wonder he reached for the booze & drugs later in life. In a way, they murdered their own son. I’m glad he was able become sober, & that he had his wife there for support until the end. 41 is such a young age to die. He seemingly was just getting started in life. I hope he’s resting at peace. For the short time he was around, he sure did make an impact, leaving his stamp on television & film. I mean, “Roots”, for crying out loud. His legacy would stand alone just from that miniseries, but he also had some wonderful film, & theatre credits, as well. My God, what an amazingly handsome guy.
    Much love to everyone,
    Christopher Sorick
    Omaha, Nebraska

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