TV or Not TV: John Rhys-Davies
April 19, 1995
Gannett News Service
By Mike Hughes

There are times when an actor senses that perfect fit. The guy in the script is just like him. It's like holding a mirror.

Then there was the first time John Rhys-Davies read "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with its supporting character.

"He was described as 5-foot-2, a skinny Egyptian," Rhys-Davies rumbles. "That didn't sound much like me."

Rhys-Davies is a Welshman, large in size, voice and spirit. Orson Welles and Luciano Pavarotti might call him overwhelming.

Still, he got that "Raiders" role. That helps set up a doubleheader on Wednesday:

  • 8:30 p.m.: "Indiana Jones: Temple of the Hidden Eye," on CBS. Sure, this is a half-hour promo for a new Disneyland ride. At least, it's hosted by Rhys-Davies and Karen Allen, co-stars of "Raiders," which launched the Indy trilogy.
  • 9 p.m.: "Sliders," the amiable Fox fantasy series. Tonight, our heroes - Rhys-Davies, Jerry O'Connell, Sabrina Lloyd, Cleavant Derricks - are in an alternate-universe San Francisco, with "the summer of love" going strong.

    "Sliders" is a low-key pleasure. "It's all in good fun," Rhys-Davies says.

    Still, "Raiders" was something more. After years when Americans were tangled in Vietnam and Watergate and more, it took a lighter view.

    "There's an innocence to it," Rhys-Davies says. "The bad guys are really bad; that's refreshing, in an era of cynicism."

    By modern standards, "Raiders" seemed like a can't-miss proposition.

    A story by George Lucas ("Star Wars") became a script by Lawrence Kasdan ("Body Heat"). Steven Spielberg ("Jurassic Park") directed a cast led by Harrison Ford, the top box-office star in Hollywood history.

    Most of that fame would come later, however. When "Raiders" began, in 1981, the key people were in a lull.

    "Spielberg was coming from `1941,' which was actually a very good movie, but people didn't see it that way," Rhys-Davies says. "A lot of people were ready to call him a flash-in-the-pan."

    Lucas had pulled out an old daydream, complete with Nazis and an ancient treasure. He even named the character after his boyhood dog, Indiana.

    And Kasdan had kept the words minimal. "We improvised a lot," Rhys-Davies says.

    At first, Spielberg had planned to do the entire movie with unknowns. He cast Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones ... then learned Selleck was committed to a TV series called "Magnum, P.I."

    So Ford, one of the "Star Wars" stars, got the nod. "It was really Harrison's first big-budget film on his own," Rhys-Davies says.

    The co-stars were even more obscure. For Rhys-Davies, the "Shogun" miniseries was vital.

    "I loved doing 'Shogun' in Japan," Rhys-Davies says. "I think I made some cultural insights."

    In that film, he had played Rodriguez, the wise soul who guides the hero through the new world.

    That's similar to the role in "Raiders."

    So Rhys-Davies - not 5-foot-2, not Egyptian, NOT skinny - got the job.

    He also made the third film and now introduces the TV special. Rhys-Davies continues his piece of the billion-dollar "Raiders" world.

    1995, Gannett News Service, a division of Gannett Satelitte Information Network, Inc. g41995

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